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Real World Nano: Nanotechnology for Human Enhancement: What Does the Public Think?

authored by Clark Miller, Arizona State University

In 2002, two scientific leaders at the US National Science Foundation, Mihail Roco and William Bainbridge, edited a report entitled Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance. The report highlights nanotechnology for its ability to drive a convergence of technologies from multiple domains, including neuroscience, biotechnology, and computing, for the purposes of human enhancement. That is, for the purposes of giving human beings new cognitive and physical abilities that go beyond what nature has endowed us with.

The possibility of technologically enhancing humans may seem far-fetched, but it is already here. The use of steroids and other enhancement technologies is rife in sports, where competitors are looking for just that extra bit of strength or lung capacity to make them winners. Some drugs, like Ritalin, will also give cognitive benefits to healthy people in addition to those who are ill. Ritalin is normally used to treat attention deficit disorder, but it can also be used “off-label” (i.e., not as prescribed) by perfectly healthy people to aid their concentration. Indeed, surveys of college students suggest that many are taking Ritalin and Adderall to help improve their ability to study for and take tests.

The pursuit of science to enhance human performance raises profound questions for society. Yet, according to a recent study we conducted at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU, knowledge about nanotechnology and human enhancement is extremely low. This suggests the topic might be a good one for science museums to tackle. The full results of our survey will be published soon, but if any of you would like to find out more about the findings or are thinking about developing an exhibit or program around human enhancement, I’d be glad to talk further.

Perhaps the most important finding from the study is that the US public is, overall, quite skeptical regarding the prospect of human enhancement. This might be expected of sports, given the negative press that steroid use has gotten in recent years, but survey respondents also strongly objected to the use of enhancement technologies that would help in getting a job, taking a college entrance exam, or running for public office.

Respondents were broadly split on the question of whether the risks of human enhancement would outweigh the benefits, and, perhaps more importantly, lacked confidence in either government or business to protect people from any risks that might emerge. Scientists and environmental organizations, on the other hand, generated greater confidence.

Finally, it is worth noting the presence of a marked gender difference in opinions about human enhancement. Broadly speaking, women were more skeptical than men of human enhancement technologies. Women were considerably less likely to expect the benefits of human enhancement to outweigh the risks, less likely to support specific human enhancement applications (such as battlefield implants or brain-to-computer connections), and less likely to consider human enhancement morally acceptable.