Atomically Precise Manufacturing and Responsible Innovation: A Value Sensitive Design Approach to Explorative Nanophilosophy

Atomically Precise Manufacturing and Responsible Innovation: A Value Sensitive Design Approach to Explorative Nanophilosophy

Steven Umbrello (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Torino, Italy)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/IJT.2019070101
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Although continued investments in nanotechnology are made, atomically precise manufacturing (APM) to date is still regarded as speculative technology. APM, also known as molecular manufacturing, is a token example of a converging technology, has great potential to impact and be affected by other emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and ICT. The development of APM thus can have drastic global impacts depending on how it is designed and used. This article argues that the ethical issues that arise from APM - as both a standalone technology or as a converging one - affects the roles of stakeholders in such a way as to warrant an alternate means furthering responsible innovation in APM research. This article introduces a value-based design methodology called value sensitive design (VSD) that may serve as a suitable framework to adequately cater to the values of stakeholders. Ultimately, it is concluded that VSD is a strong candidate framework for addressing the moral concerns of stakeholders during the preliminary stages of technological development.
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1. Introduction

This paper provides a theoretical and conceptual evaluation of the merits of a potentially applicable design framework known as Value Sensitive Design (VSD) for the responsible innovation of a speculative future technology called atomically precise manufacturing (APM). VSD is a philosophically predicated methodology to technological design that aims to account for human values early on, and throughout the design process of technologies. Likewise, APM is the assembly of materials whereby objects are built atom-by-atom. APM is controversial, with some experts doubting its feasibility (R. Baum, 2003; Jones, 2005b, 2005a; Zare, 2004) and others worrying about harmful consequences if APM is achieved (Auffan et al., 2009; Baumberg et al., 2007; Joy, 2000; Phoenix & Drexler, 2004; Snir, 2008). However, the best-case scenarios are dramatic, featuring benefits predicted to be on par with the industrial and computer revolutions (Drexler, 2013b; Freitas, 1999).

APM is one form of nanotechnology. Indeed, the term “nanotechnology” was coined by Norio Taniguchi in 1974 and developed in greater depth in K. Eric Drexler’s 1986 APM book Engines of Creation. (The APM concept dates to Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”) Today, most nanotechnology research and development (R&D) is not APM, but instead is technology involving simpler nanometer-scale processes; this is sometimes referred to as ‘normal nanotechnology’ (O’Mathuna, 2009). Many nanotechnology researchers likewise doubt the feasibility of APM and instead favor research on more directly promising nanotechnology directions (e.g., Baum, 2003; Nordmann, 2007, 2014; Nordmann and Rip, 2009; Grunwald, 2010; Roache, 2008; Ferrari, Coenen, and Grunwald, 2012; Michelfelder, 2011; King, Whitaker, and Jones, 2011; Racine et al., 2014). Despite these doubts, current investments and national interests towards the development of APM (Jones, 2014; Lewis, 2016) warrant investigations into how we can ensure the concept, and its convergences with other technologies, is as beneficial to humanity as possible by intervening at the design stages and incorporating the relevant values necessary to achieve a desired end.

Additionally, the research has expressed criticism regarding the value and resources exhausted towards ethical speculation on advanced nanotechnology in favour of more immediate nanotechnology concerns (i.e., Nordmann, 2007; Grunwald, 2010). Three potential responses can be levied to these concerns. Firstly, arguments can be made that rudimentary forms of APM are existent such as biomolecules and ribosomes and they provide a solid foundation for more advanced APM forms (Freitas & Merkle, 2004). Secondly, persuasive arguments have been proposed by Roache (2008) arguing for the merits of speculative ethics for future technologies given their governability being more manageable in the early stages rather than ex-post-facto regulatory measures (see also Collingridge, 1980 for arguments why anticipatory analysis of technology is critical). Similarly, although speculative future technologies pose many uncertainties, attention is warranted when the potential impact of those uncertainties prove conceptually large enough (Ćirković, 2012). To this end, I argue that continued ethical speculation on nanotechnology is of value, particularly in analyses that provide novel and potentially fruitful design pathways towards desirable futures.1

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