The Precautionary Principal and the shifting onus of responsibility
The future will be neither as good as some would lead us to believe, or as bad as other would have us think. But it is the onus of responsibility that becomes the industry’s “hot potato”, with innovators squaring off against product safety experts and consumer advocates over who should bear the ultimate cost and responsibility of insuring compliance with the ever-increasing safety standards.
With technology growing in complexity on a daily basis, it is no longer reasonable to live in a “buyer beware” society. The Precautionary Principal, as a foundational underpinning of the sustainability movement, places the burden of protection on shoulders of those creating the products.
As an industry, hi-tech grew from infancy to maturity in record time, forcing social changes to occur at a pace unlike anything the world has ever known. But it is important to understand that the entire hi-tech industry was built around binary thinking – ones and zeros – a base-2 numbering system.
Nanotechnology, on the other hand, works with every element on the periodic table, creating a diversity of options far beyond anything hi-tech could ever consider. With 118 elements on the periodic table, nanotech scientists are essentially working in a base-118 numbering system, exponentially more difficult than hi-tech’s base-2 system.
Working with a base-118 list of material options, nanotechnology will take far longer to grow into a mature industry, be faced with far more problems along the way, and will have a virtually limitless set of possibilities to consider at every junction.
Yes, it is good to think of nanotechnology as the ultimate opportunity. However, it is also important to forge a new understanding about what “responsibility” looks like in this context.
Like a single pixel on a trillion pixel image, we quickly lose our ability to find significance in a single pixel. But it is exactly that, the single pixel, single atom, or single molecule on the masterpiece of life that will determine whether we as a technically sophisticated society will become known more for the net gains or net losses that we hand off, tucked carefully inside the relay baton, being handed off to generations running after us. With our ability to manage, modify, and control single atoms and molecules also comes the responsibility.
Inside these tiny pieces of nature come the world’s most formable, buildable, and shapeable materials. It will allow us to tap into the earth’s greatest sources of energy, health, technology, and business opportunities. Nanotech will extend human capabilities far beyond any limits we’re presently dealing with. However, within of every opportunity is the dangling ring of a hand grenade pin waiting for us to catch our toe on it.
The coming nanotech years will be ushered in with or without our blessing. Pandora’s Box is already open. This fact alone is neither good nor bad. However, the future is ours to shape. We have the power to make it something very, very good, or something else.
Have we earned the right to live in a very good world? Only time will tell.
By Thomas Frey