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Allhoff gets NSF grant to study ethics of nanotechnology

Nov. 19, 2006

KALAMAZOO--Western Michigan University's Dr. Fritz Allhoff, assistant professor of philosophy, is part of a collaborative research effort awarded $250,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation to examine ethical issues related to using nanotechnology to improve the capabilities of the human body.

Allhoff is leading WMU's part of the research project, which will delve into the ethical issues of using nanotechnology for human enhancement. Dr. James Moor, professor of philosophy and former chair of the philosophy department at Dartmouth College, is directing efforts there.

The project will focus on the ethical, social and related philosophical issues that arise in the application of nanotechnology to boost the abilities of humans. Nanotechnology is not the only technology that can be used for human enhancement, but it is an important one. Nanotechnologically augmented vision, for example, is already under development and could amplify the natural vision of soldiers so that they could see more than they naturally would, perhaps finding tunnels hidden from natural sight.

"Nanotechnology is predicted to be the next, big technological revolution," Allhoff says. "You can do a lot of things with it, and some people think you're going to be able to apply it to human enhancement in a lot of interesting ways."

Both Allhoff and Moor are members of The Nanoethics Group, a nonpartisan coalition of professional ethicists who study the ethical ramifications of nanotechnology. Dr. Patrick Lin,

director of The Nanoethics Group, will join the research team as a post-doctoral associate at Dartmouth. In addition, Australian philosopher Dr. John Weckert, an adjunct professor at WMU, and scientists from Dartmouth's Center for Nanomaterials Research will play key roles. The NSF funding was awarded in two grants, $135,000 to WMU and $115,000 to Dartmouth.

For thousands of years, humans have enhanced their capacities by using tools, but technology today can be used to enhance humans themselves, either on or in their bodies. This is evident not only in the use of drugs to enhance athletes, but also in innovations that make people more productive workers, more durable soldiers, more creative artists and more attractive people. Many more such enhancements seem just over the scientific horizon, particularly given predicted advances in nanotechnology, but the ethics of human enhancements are still murky at best.

"There could be negative consequences of using this technology," Allhoff says. "We could have people being subjected to human enhancement against their will or forced to be part of a social improvement program. A lot of people think these enhancements will be good, but some might be risky. We might not know how the human body will react."

The project will take three years to complete. It began in September and will run through Aug. 31, 2009. It will include a series of closed workshops featuring experts from around the world on the development and use of nanotechnology for human enhancement. One of the workshops will be held at WMU in spring 2009.

When the research is completed, project participants will write a report that will be given to the NSF. They are to issue their recommendations through an NSF-sponsored report in summer 2009.

"The ethics of human enhancement technologies is widely held to be the single most important debate in science and society and will define the 21st century," Lin says. "Today, human enhancement may mean steroids or Viagra or cosmetic surgeries. But with the accelerating pace of technology, some of the more fantastic scenarios may arrive sooner than people think--such as advanced cybernetic body parts and computers imbedded in our brains--which magnify the ethical issues involved. So our NSF research grant will be pivotal in sorting out the issues and advancing this complex debate."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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