Volume 2, Issue 3 
3rd Quarter, 2007

The Geoethics of Self-Replicating Biomedical Nanotechnology for Cryonic Revival

Martine Rothblatt, Ph.D.

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The intelligence needed to make a nanobot useful is also becoming available in ever-smaller packages, consistent with the rate of device shrinkage in general.    Kurzweil has also shown that trends going back decades lead inexorably to a near-term future in which nanobot-size devices can incorporate the intelligence of a supercomputer.  It takes but a minute portion of such intelligence to remain in wireless network communications at all times, both with other medical nanobots and with ex vivo controllers.

The 1960s movie Fantastic Voyage involved a nanobot-size submarine floating around in the human body searching for disease.  The intrepid bionauts [1] wasted almost all of their time floating from place to place.  Much more realistic is a scenario in which medical nanobots rapidly self-replicate and take up positions throughout the body, wirelessly informing each other of medical problems to be fixed, or simply fixing them and passing the information on.

2. Why the Principles of Geoethics Apply

Geoethics is the expansion of bioethics to potentially, global-impact situations.  While bioethics concerns itself with the rights and wrongs of medical attention to particular patients, geoethics is focused on the rights and wrongs of medical attention to the planet.

There are three fundamental principles of geoethics, each of which is a macroscopic expansion of its bioethical cognate. These are shown in the following table.




Intend to help the patient

Beneficence; Respect Autonomy


Treat similar patients similarly




Peer Review


The first principle, called Consent, is that no procedure should occur unless its purpose is to benefit the affected party.  Since there may very well be differences of opinion as to whether or not a procedure is of benefit, the geoethical Consent Principle requires affirmative consent from whoever is to be affected by a medical procedure.  If someone consents to something, by definition they believe that thing is of benefit to them.  It should be noted in this regard that even consent to suicide may be evidence of benefit since such an individual no longer holds any value for their life, or values death even higher.

Bioethics often confuses or blurs this concept with the different terms “non-malfeasance” and “beneficence.”  In fact, there is no real difference as to whether one “first, does no harm,” or “intends to do good.”   What really underlies both terms is respect for the autonomy of the patient.  If patient autonomy is disrespected, then they may be used as research subjects regardless of benefit.  This situation is what may be described as “Nazi medicine.”  On the other hand, if patient autonomy is respected, then the physician cannot help but “intend to do good.”  Consequently, non-malfeasance and beneficence are simply two faces of respecting autonomy.  The modern way to evidence autonomy is via the process of informed consent.

The Consent Principle applies to self-replicating nanobots because they constitute a form of artificial life that impacts upon the earth and its biological subsystems.  Consequently, the deployment of self-replicating nanobots must be geoethically consented to by the earth’s representatives, which are governments or government-designated competency organizations, such as the World Health Organization.

The second principle of geoethics is the Equipoise Principle. This principle is an outgrowth of the bioethical principle of justice, an obligation to treat everyone fairly.  In the case of geoethics, “everyone” is not a set of patients in the hospital waiting room, but millions of people throughout the earth.  These millions are at risk of technological harm, for as Ulrich Beck [2] has shown such risk is the inevitable “pollution” of technology.  The only way to treat such populations fairly is to give them a stake in the benefits of a technology to counter-balance the risks to which they have consented. Both John Rawls [3] and Jurgen Habermas [4] have derived differential improvement in the well-being of those least well off (e.g., most susceptible to the technological pollution) as a universal benchmark of justice.   Consequently, a geoethical concomitant of self-replicating medical nanobots for cryonic revival is the provision of related benefits to those who are most at risk from nanobot harm.

The third principle of geoethics is the Assurance Principle.  This principle is related to the bioethical concept of peer review.  Every ethical medical procedure must either follow medical consensus, or be subject to a peer review process such as an Institutional Review Board or at least an informal consultation among experts.  For a geoethical green light there must similarly be an independent body to ensure that possibly world-impacting medical procedures are carried out consistently with the principles of Consent and Equipoise.

Absent the Assurance Principle it is entirely possible that well-meaning medical nanotechnologists could “cut corners” on the terms of Consent or Equipoise that they agreed to in order to have the right to carry out their cryonic revival procedures.  There is nothing evil here – just human nature wanting to help the people in biostasis return to life, or to achieve scientific fame.  Nevertheless, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’  When the risks are as great as the “grey goo” [5] scenarios of self-replicating nanotechnology run amok, it is imperative that there be at all times a wholly independent watchdog entity to keep the medical nanotechnologists true to the terms of their authorization.

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1. Bionaut – a human inhabitant of the Biosphere - a sealed, small scale replica of the Earth environment.
http://www.doney.net/aroundaz/biosphere2.htm  August 17, 2007 2:35PM EST

2. Dr. Ulrich Beck - (born May 15, 1944) is a German sociologist who holds a professorship at Munich University and at the London School of Economics. Beck currently studies modernization, ecological problems, individualization, and globalization.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulrich_Beck  August 17, 2007 2:38PM EST

3. John Rawls - (February 21, 1921 – November 24, 2002) was an American philosopher, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University and author of A Theory of Justice (1971), Political Liberalism, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, and The Law of Peoples.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rawls  August 17, 2007 2:43PM EST

4. Jurgen Habermas - (born June 18, 1929) is a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and American pragmatism.

5. Grey goo - refers to a hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario involving molecular nanotechnology in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all living matter on Earth while building more of themselves (a scenario known as ecophagy).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_goo  August 17, 2007 3:11PM EST



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