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Yes To ‘Fantastic Voyage,’ No To Steve Austin

National surveys find people are more likely to support nanotechnology-based treatments for therapeutic purposes, as opposed to enhancing human abilities.

How comfortable are you with the idea of doctors using nanotechnology in your body? If you are like most people, the answer is “It depends.” A new national survey finds that people are much more likely to support nanotechnology-based “human enhancement” if it is used to help sick or injured people get well – via new cancer treatments, for example. However, the use of “human enhancement” technologies to boost a person’s abilities (e.g., giving them augmented strength or intelligence) does not garner much public support.

The new study reinforces the findings from a 2008 survey that found more or less the same thing. The 2008 survey, which was the first to look at national public opinion on nanotech and human enhancement, found that 88 percent of participants were in favor of research for a video-to-brain link that would amount to artificial eyesight for the blind. However, research into the development of super-soldiers garnered the support of only 30 percent of survey participants.

Why do these public surveys matter? Because public and private interests are pumping billions of dollars into nanotechnology research every year. A 2009 briefing paper from Chatham House on nanomaterials included estimates of the future growth of commercial nanotechnology applications ranging from $1 trillion to over $3 trillion by 2015. And in February, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (which coordinates nanotech research throughout the federal government) issued its supplement to the president’s budget for 2011. The supplement includes approximately $1.8 billion for nanotech research and development.

Nanotechnology holds great promise, but it’s worthwhile to consider what the public wants when considering how to spend research dollars. More Fantastic Voyage, less Steve Austin.

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  1. “Nanotechnology” is a very powerful word. It is a great word to use when writing grant proposals, but some companies avoid using “nanotechnology” to describe their products so as not to alarm the public. A lot of the public just doesn’t view that word as a size descriptor, but imagine armies of tiny robots (with lasers!) going to work.