Every new scientific breakthrough brings with it an effect on society, so nanotechnology’s sociological effects are unavoidable.
Electricity is one of the most recent examples, heralding the development of both television and computers which have changed the entire neurological function of modern generations.
The first and most natural instinct of society is to turn new technology into marketable products. In this sense, nanotechnology’s sociological effects may be primarily economic.
Most new technology finds its outlet in the marketplace under an array of brand names; the invention of computers was quickly followed by the branding and marketing of Microsoft. Sociological history has taught us that mankind’s number one incentive is monetary, and nanotechnology is already following this pattern.
Nanoscientists in America find that, per usual, the main marketplace for cutting-edge technology lies with the government and will either be used for research leading to military concerns, or for direct military applications.
Anytime a new technology becomes a tool of war, society has a big question to ask itself. What are the possible effects of the new technology on the quality, or lack thereof, of human lives?
The adaptation of military technology may rightly be viewed as a barometer for society in general, since the way we behave on the battlefield is often a primal indication of our basic beliefs and attitudes. Society will usually be an echo of or a response to these military behaviors.
When it comes to sociology in particular, concerned parties have pointed out that some types of military nanotechnology may pose health hazards or result in widespread environmental pollution.
Military applications from 2005-2010 and their sociological implications include:
Nanomaterials. Also known as “nanotubes,” these microscopically-developed fibers are being considered for their extreme strength and lightness. They could potentially be used to develop military uniforms and equipment that weigh far less than contemporary standard issue, yet are many times stronger than the same.
Sociological concerns include the current tendency of such materials to shed small amounts of nanofibers. These nanofibers are still being studied, but preliminary research indicates that they are highly capable of entering the body (when used in uniforms) or the environment (when used in equipment) and may tamper with the natural processes of both, causing harm.
Nanoparticle coverings. Certain substances have been engineered on the molecular level to provide a coating for military equipment, including tanks and fighter planes as well as smaller weapons.
This coating allows the equipment to have a harder shell, become smoother or more aerodynamic, and in some cases provides a stealth illusion for purposes of subterfuge. Sociological concerns include the possibility of gradual erosion, which could lead to particle inhalation.
Military staff would therefore be highly exposed to an unknown inhalation risk and this could spread to the general population.
Nanomaterial filters. The military is considering usage of nanomaterials as filters for a variety of liquids. While they have demonstrated the ability to remove impurities from said fluids, sociologists worry that once they become a universal feature of military life the quality of production and the monitoring system may become lax, resulting in small amounts of toxic impurities that could accumulate over time to cause damage to both humans and their environment.
Anticipated military applications from 2010-2025 and their sociological implications include:
Nanoblood. Nano-engineers have successfully replicated blood cells on the molecular level. Also known as respirocytes, they not only function as a normal blood cell but in some cases have also been dramatically enhanced through nanotechnology.
These performance-enhancing blood cells give soldiers unprecedented abilities, but their effects have not been fully studied. Both doctors and sociologists have pointed out that these nano-blood cells have the potential to dangerously overheat the human body and lead to bio-breakdowns. Furthermore, excretion of nanoblood appears to have negative effects on the environment.
Smart weapons. The “self-activating” nature of many nanotechnologies is not only their miraculous power but also their curse. The best-case military scenario for smart weapons is an array of miniaturized robotic weapons and target-seeking ammunition that would lessen the need for direct human involvement in a combat situation.
The worst-case military scenario involves malfunctioning of equipment that could lead to a nightmare scene of unexpected civilian casualties, injury or death incurred amongst military personnel, unintended destruction of valuable infrastructure, and mass pollution of the environment.
Nanoreceptors. Like nanoblood, these small receptors are poised to interfere with human function on the battlefield. They would allow the nervous system to function in overdrive, increasing soldiers’ alertness and reducing their reaction time.
Concerned parties have pointed out that nanoreceptors could easily lead not only to severe addiction, but are extremely likely to cause Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. CFS commonly leads to sudden physical weakness, extensive neural damage, and eventually death.
With all of these considerations in mind, it behooves society to make responsible decisions about which nanotechnologies will be allowed on the battlefield and how they will be employed.
A panel of researchers has investigated the matter and prescribed a number of further studies to ensure that before any of these nanotechnologies are applied in the military, they have been studied. Their recommendations are as follows:
- Investigating the way in which a human body absorbs nanoparticles, including all possible means of entry: eyes, ears, alimentary canal, lungs, and skin.
- How the immune system responds to and handles nanomaterials, including the ability of said nanomaterials to evade the immune system’s detection entirely.
- Potential airborne and waterborne exposure routes of nanomaterials.
- The ability of nanoparticles to infiltrate bacteria and similar protozoa, accumulate in their bodies, and enter the human food chain.
- How nanomaterials enter the human environment and whether or not they have the capacity to shift characteristics when transferred from one medium (say, air) to another medium (water.)
- How humans can effectively identify and then safely dispose of nano-litter.
- Possible usage of nanotechnology to rectify its own damage. In particular, the potential for nanotechnology to provide a comprehensive post-battlefield cleanup by removing not only negative effects caused by nanotechnology, but also chemical, biological, and nuclear wastes.