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Kern County is in possession of a treasure: the Kegley Institute of Ethics, endowed by the Kegley family, gracefully chaired by Christopher Meyers and hosted within the framework of CSU Bakersfield. The Kegley Institute's Tuesday night guest lecturer, Ainissa Ramirez, Ph.D., spoke on the human element in technology, raising the profile of CSUB's engineering department and praising its new direction. Ramirez, a "science evangelist" and former associate professor of mechanical engineering at Yale University, discussed recent developments in nanotechnology -- technology so minute and weird as to stymie understanding but not the imagination.
The ethical issues surrounding nanotechnology are immense in both number and importance: disease management; living human tissue regeneration, even generation; disability recovery; superstrong and superconducting materials; and more. Nanotechnology refers to research and engineering on the scale of things measured in billionths of a meter (we're talking the scale of single atoms and simple molecules). Ethics enters the picture with the question of what can be done with our current and future engineering capabilities, and as importantly, what should and should not be done. It's the latter questions -- the shoulds and should nots -- where things get murky.
There is no question that nanotechnology can and should be used for lifesaving, preserving, and restorative medical purposes; but to what extent? Do we cure disease to prolong life into painful (and bankrupting) decrepitude? Do we use our cloning and gene-splicing capabilities to create a lab-grown twin?
In the realm of nanotechnology, science fiction ends and real creations begin. The boundaries between the living and nonliving blur. Virtually all the functions of life and living tissue can be created in the petri dish from nonliving ingredients. We're now at the point where artificial genes can be spliced and grafted into strands of DNA to create designer organs and tissues. It is now in the realm of the scientifically possible to put a nanotech camera in a capsule, swallow it, and get a complete real-time readout of the health of the human gut, beginning to end.
Is this wonderful or worrisome? It's both.
We have now in our immediate grasp the hope and curse of science matured now to the point where just about anything imaginable has entered the realm of the possible. Science used to be bounded by the limits of its thinking and technology, and there was only so much that science could do. But now those limits are increasingly disappearing and a new kind of limit must be placed around what's technologically possible. The Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors, and the Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner, were made-for-TV cartoons and everyone understood the science fiction of them. Today those cartoons are a technoreality. Human-strength multipliers are a military, industrial and medical reality. Only Superman had the capacity to see through walls and doors. Just days ago, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber was caught by technology that readily saw through the tarp covering a boat in someone's backyard.
We are reminded locally that meat producers use antibiotics prolifically to increase the flesh yield of their fowl and cattle crop, all the while producing antibiotic-resistant, human-infecting microscopic bugs and beasties. Designer disinfectants and antibiotics have resulted in strains of bacteria that cannot be wiped out. As science progresses, we are surrounded by unintended and unforeseen negative consequences, and by now we should be reminded by painful experience that every step forward should be preceded by a careful analysis of how many ways that next step can go wrong.
Let's hope we've had enough experience by now of things going wrong to be smart enough to get things right. Every opening leads to ever-branching other openings. Likewise, things going wrong opens up ever-branching streams of other things going wrong. Let's soberly consider which openings we pursue and which we don't. And that's in large part an ethics question of shoulds and should nots. Otherwise, shame on us.
Brik McDill, Ph.D., of Tehachapi has spent 40 years in private practice in clinical and forensic psychology. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.