Nanotech class warfare

Faster, stronger, better... if you can afford it

Published September 13, 2006 11:13PM (EDT)

You don't mess around lightly with the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC). Among its many triumphs, the tiny 30-year-old nonprofit (formerly known as Rural Advancement Foundation International) coined the terms "biopiracy" and "Terminator seed." Just for that alone, co-founder Pat Mooney must be a mighty unpopular guy in the worlds of commercial biotechnology and Big Pharma. Conversely, in the so-called "Global South" he and his colleagues get pretty good reviews.

ETC defines its mission, in part, as supporting "socially responsible developments of technologies useful to the poor and marginalized." Thus its brand new report: "Nanotech Rx: Medical Applications of Nano-scale Technologies: What Impact on Marginalized Communities?" (Thanks to CPTech's IP-Health mailing list for the link.)

Kudos to the ETC Group for being right out there on the molecular-level bleeding edge where science meets social policy. It's a fascinating and well-written report. But it might as well have been subtitled: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Because the underlying, and impossible-to-argue-with message, is that the lion's share of the benefits of medical nanotechnology advances will go to the wealthiest elements of the developed world. And as the report stresses again and again "the global health crisis doesn't stem from a lack of science innovation or medical technologies; the root problem is poverty and inequality." Guaranteeing access to clean water, alone, argues ETC, would make more of a difference to people's health than a raft of cancer-killing nanobots or artifical brain neurons aimed at curing Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

(The ETC Group report does acknowledge, in passing, that nanotechnological filters might play a useful role in creating sources of clean water, but said it would address non-medical applications of nanotechnology in a separate report.)

So nanotechnology, in the ETC report, is really a stand-in for all profit-driven scientific research. And the real issue is not whether incredible advances are imminent (they undoubtedly are) but whether they will make any significant difference to the billions of people who won't be able to afford what Merck or Roche have to offer. But what takes the report a step further than your run-of-the-mill critique of profit-driven science is its consideration of the implications of medical nanotech for healthy people.

"Technological convergence will make it theoretically possible to augment the structure, function and capabilities of human bodies and brains. The vision is not simply of disability eliminated and illness cured, but of stronger, faster bodies that out-perform the healthiest and most athletic bodies of today, with brains re-vamped to retain more information and to communicate directly with computers, artificial limbs or with other brains. An example is an artificial neuron implant, already approved by the FDA for clinical use, which replaces neurons that have been damaged by Parkinson's disease. The device allows software upgrades to be downloaded directly from an ex vivo computer to the implant in the body. For now, these devices are reserved for those suffering from disease; in the near future, it will be harder to tell what is a disease and what is merely less-than-optimum health, to distinguish between therapy and enhancement."

For science fiction fans, this is old news. And indeed, there is little in the ETC report that has not been thoroughly gnawed upon for decades by scores of SF writers. An "ability-gap" between the enhanced humans of the developed world and the malnourished, unenhanced humans of the South? Homo sapiens 2.0.? Been there, done that. Why, just this week, I've been riveted by a new novel from the exciting new talent Chris Moriarty, ("Spin Control" -- a sequel to the terrific "Spin State") that grapples with the consequences of human redesign with extraordinarily satisfying cyberpunk panache. Class warfare? We ain't seen nothing yet.

One has only to consider professional cyclists dosing themselves with EPO or baseball players pumping themselves up with steroids to understand that those who can afford "improvements" will undoubtedly indulge in them. The truly horrific possibilities emerge when one matches up the potential of brain enhancements with the competitive pressures of capitalism. What happens when the first high tech startup in India starts juicing its programmers' minds to get the edge on the rest? The controversy over outsourcing will seem like a playground squabble.

What the ETC Group's report makes clear, in detail, is that this is not a problem for the distant future to worry about. Drugs currently on the market or in development will be increasingly adopted by the healthy. The pace of scientific advancement is accelerating. As a society we're going to have to figure out how to deal with the questions raised in the report, and we're going to be forced to decide where we draw our lines, sooner, rather than later.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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