Guest Editorial Cerqui
Nanotechnology has the wind in its sails worldwide, and Switzerland can hold its head high. Our industry and the various training courses we offer (a masters degree in nano- and microtechnology provided by the University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland, for instance) are just a few of the many manifestations of this new craze. Other evidence is the active involvement of Swiss partners in nanotechnology research networks financed by the European Commission. In a country where meticulous small-scale workmanship existed long before the nanotechnology trend – especially in watchmaking – the field of microtechnology was a precursor to the pursuit of the ever-smaller. So in this country the science of nanotechnology is simply regarded as an obvious, albeit significant, step on the path towards miniaturisation, and hence economic prosperity. The only risks that are ever mentioned in even the most critical discussions are those related to physiological problems. It is a fact that nanoscale particles are able to cross biological barriers, such as the blood-brain barrier for example, with as yet unforeseeable consequences for the human body. However, the ethical and social issues surpass by far any health-related matters.To truly understand these issues, it is necessary to go back in time and plunge into the cultural context that witnessed the emergence of this type of technology. From an anthropological point of view, nanotechnologies are the logical consequence of a society which views the human organism as a machine that is now running smoothly. By way of illustration, the notion that mechanical prostheses can be used as successful substitutes for organs or defective limbs has already been widely accepted.In the realm of nanotechnology, the interchangeability between the living and the nonliving is taken to its extreme. Indeed, nanotechnologies are not defined by the objects to which they refer but rather by the scale on which they operate. Consequently, they can be applied to every type of technology – from information technology to biotechnology alike. In this respect, nanotechnology is not just another kind of technology but well and truly a tool able to merge objects that were considered to be either purely part of information technology or of biotechnology. In other words, nanotechnology is able to merge the nonliving with the living.
Indeed, on the nano scale, an atom is an atom, be it part of a human being or a machine. Understanding matter and its constituents on such a minute scale will inevitably lead to a full command of them which, in the long run, will have unavoidable consequences not only on individuals but also on society as a whole – not to mention humanity taken as a species, because this kind of technology is capable of modifying humans at a very subtle level.Even if the chances of tampering with humans still seem remote, they are to be taken seriously, and a sensible use of nanotechnology has to be outlined. We must always bear in mind that the combined choices we make today will lead to the human being of tomorrow.