"Nanotechnology: Considering the Complex Ethical, Legal, and Societal Issues with the Parameters of Human Performance", by Linda MacDonald and Jeanann S. Boyce and published in Nanoethics 2: 265-275 (2008) (available at http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/print/2945) is one of the more thought provoking articles that look at the potential impacts of nanotechnology on law and society. It is certainly an ambitious article:
". . . we examine both the positive and negative aspects of the ethical, legal, and societal implications of using nanotechnology for human enhancement"
Human enhancement, for these authors, covers a very broad spectrum, from possible use in the treatment of cancer to "restoring lost functions of limbs, senses and brain function". (Unfortunately, at least for me, that part brings to mind two images, the nanites that appeared in a few late series episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and the nanoprobes used by the Borg on Star Trek: TNG.
In a suprisingly short section discussing the negative aspects of nanotechnology in general and nanomedicine in particular, the authors do little more than list what they refer to as the perils ranging from "neurnaowarfare" to economic upheaval.
The authors note that other articles have called for baning nanotechnology research and development, but note that this is unlikely to happen for two reasons:
1) "There is far too much money at stake." As someone once noted, money changes everything. Assuming that the economy and Wall Street return to normal, the stocks of nanotech and nanomanufacturing companies might attract the attention and dollars of investors.
2) "Such a ban would push research underground where it could not be regulated".
While noting that "much of the focus in the legal area . . . has been on intellectual property, the preservation of property rights, patent law", the authors turn to a discussion of an extreme possibility – using nano medicine to "enhance" the human body, putting forth the proposition that someone could reach a point where they are no longer totally human. While this might make for an interesting topic in a philosophy seminar or a good science fiction story (you wonder what Philip K. Dick could have done with that idea) it doesnot get a real development in this article.
The authors do make recommendations on how the law should deal with nanotechnology, ranging from a "continuing dialogue" between "lawmakers, scientists, ethicists, economists" to the creation of specialized science courts.
While, as I said earlier, this is a thought provoking article, it suffers from being too short. A longer article or monograph might have allowed for a fuller discussion of the ideas the authors raise. Still, it is worth a read.