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Ethics of Human Interaction with Robotic, Bionic, and AI Systems
Concepts and Policies

workshop supported by the ETHICBOTS European Project
International Workshop - Naples , 17-18 October, 2006
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NanoBots, the next frontier of Computer Ethics

Norberto Patrignani (CeTIF, Universita' Cattolica di Milano; CPSR, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility)

This paper aims at opening a discussion about the ethical dilemmas that arise from the development of technologies at nano-scale: the questions and critical issues related with autonomous artificial agents at nanometric scale ("nanobots").

The research labs working on nanotechnologies, in general, are receiving growing amounts of funding and the promise is to return to the society many interesting results and useful improvements in several fields: from new materials development, to efficient use of energy, etc. Here we want to concentrate our attention on one particular area of research focussed on the so called "nanobots".

Probably one of the most precise definition of "nanobots" could be extracted from Mavrodis and Dubey [1]: "… Bio-Nanobot … perhaps the ultimate future of nanotechnology, … fully functioning autonomous robot helping to destroy a faulty red blood cell. Though it may seem a fantasy now, all of the steps we take are steps closer to the goal. The long term goal of this project is to develop novel and revolutionary bio-molecular machine components that can be assembled and form multi-degree of freedom nano-devices that will be able to apply forces and manipulate objects in the nano-world, transfer information from the nano to the macro world and also be able to travel in the nano-environment. These machines are expected to be highly efficient, economical in mass production, work under little supervision and be controllable. The vision is that such ultra-miniature robotic systems and nano-mechanical devices will be the bio-molecular electro-mechanical hardware of future manufacturing, biomedical and planetary applications…".

Another field of nanotechnology applications where vast amount of resources are being invested in these years is the military: looking at the maximum level of autonomy of weapons (Level 4: Autonomous Weapons with Sensors), we find weapons operating autonomously under structured control, in conjunction with artificial vision or sensor systems that respond to environmental stimuli. Based on C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) Information Structure, these nanotechnological weapons probably represents one of the most serious ethical dilemmas in the history of technological development. Someone define those "agents" as "… software entities, autonomous, goal directed, migratory, able to create other entities, provides a service or function on behalf of its owner,…" [2]. These autonomous agents operating at nanoscale, when coupled with MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS), are very close to the "smart dust" concept introduced by Pister in 2001 [3] that has received a great interest from the military, since they can remotely track enemy movements, trigger weapons activation, etc.

From our point of view the key point in introducing (and questioning) the concept of "nanobots" is when nanotechnologies are strictly interlaced with some level of autonomy: this is the threshold where ethical dilemmas arise.

The above (still?) hypothetical scenarios of nanobots applications in medicine and war are the main reason for including these advanced technologies in the "Computer Ethics" field of applied ethics for further analysis.

When we talk about Computer Ethics we refer to an area at the intersection between Computer Science and Philosophy: applied ethics to Information Technology.

This debate about the social impact of computing started from the beginning, at the founders fathers' era, when Norbert Wiener invited to think about the social consequences of the new science of computing, whilst John Von Neumann, at the opposite side, was convinced that as scientist he should not be involved at all about the social impact of technology [4] [5] [6].

But we had to wait until 1978 before a formal definition of "Computer Ethics" by Walter Maner: the area of research facing ethical problems created or modified by computers [7]. The fundamental tests of this new discipline were published in 1985 by James Moor and Deborah Johnson [8] [9]. In the same years the association of computer science researchers Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) was founded in Palo Alto and, finally, in 1991 the subject "Computer Ethics" was officially introduced in the Computer Science curricula in USA universities [10]. But what are the main areas of concern related to Computer Ethics?


We can list all the main critical issues emerged in the last years (see fig.1): e-democracy, accessibility, workplace, content and education, copyrights, hackers, privacy, computer crimes and virus, computer (un)reliability, artificial intelligence, war, ecology and recycling…

Then, for each of them, we can look at the different levels of impact: planet, biosphere, people, infosphere, cyberspace, ideas (noo-sphere) [11].

Back to nanobots, probably the paper that issued one of the first public warnings and received great attention was written by one of the most recognized scientist in Information Technology: Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems. In his now famous article "Why the future doesn't need us" he wrote: "… The 21st-century technologies - genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) - are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them" [12].

Just to avoid the "luddites" accuse, we propose further investigations and in particular: what are the main areas of concern related to nanobots requiring more deep research and public debate before their deployment?

We can select from the entire list of Computer Ethics issues:

  • privacy (there is something around you collecting information about you),
  • computer crimes (how could we keep under control these technologies in order to avoid their misuse?),
  • computer (un)reliability (how could we test and verify the complex software involved in nanobots?)
  • artificial intelligence (what, if any, are the proper applications where the decisions could be delegated to the software that is controlling nanomachines?)
  • war (what are the implications of delegating life/death decisions to invisible artificial agents?)
  • ecology and recycling [13] [14] (are we opening yet another Pandora jar?).

All these investigations will require time and transparent decision processes that should involve open and public discussions, that's why here we propose to apply the Precautionary Principle: "…Where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically" [15].


[1] Mavroidis, C., Dubey, A., 2003, " From Pulses to Motors ", Nature Materials, September 2(9):573-574

[2] " Protecting the Homeland ", Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force, Defensive Information Systems (unclassified), Vol.II, March 2001,

[3] Warneke Brett, Last Matt, Liebowitz Brian, and Pister Kristofer S.J., " Smart Dust: Communicating with a Cubic-Millimeter ", Computer, vol. 34, pp. 44-51, 2001

[4] Wiener, Norbert (1950/1954), " The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society ", Houghton Mifflin, 1950. (Second Edition Revised, Doubleday Anchor, 1954)

[5] John Von Neumann, from Blair C., " Passing of a Great Mind ", Life, February 25 1957

[6] Heims, S.J., " John Von Neumann and Norbert Wiener, from mathematics to the technologies of life and death ", MIT Press, Cambridge , MA , 1980

[7] Maner, Walter (1980), Starter Kit in Computer Ethics, Helvetia Press (published in cooperation with the National Information and Resource Center for Teaching Philosophy). Originally self-published by Maner in 1978

[8] Moor, James H. (1985), " What Is Computer Ethics? ", in Bynum, Terrell Ward, ed. (1985), Computers and Ethics, Blackwell, pp. 266-75. Published as the October 1985 issue of Metaphilosophy

[9] Johnson, Deborah G. (1985), " Computer Ethics ", Prentice-Hall; 3 rd ed. 2001

[10] " Computing Curricula 1991, Social, Ethical and Professional Issues ", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 34, N.6, June 1991

[11] Patrignani, Norberto (2005), " Quali frontiere possibili per un'Etica Informatica? ", ilSole24Ore, Terzo Settore, N.7/8, Milano, Luglio/Agosto 2005

[12] Joy Bill, " Why the future doesn't need us ", Wired, April 2004

[13] " Nanotechnologies: a preliminary risk analysis ", on the basis of a workshop organized in Brussels (March 2004) by the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General of EU Commission

[14] " Down on the Farm: The Impact of Nano-scale Technologies on Food and Agriculture ", ETC Group, November 2004

[15] Wingspread Conference, Racine , Wisconsin , 23-25 January 1998.

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