For professor Rosalyn Berne, a journey of a thousand steps began with a single question. One day several years ago, she asked a student in one of her ethics classes at UVA about a book he was carrying. It was The Age of Spiritual Machines, written by Ray Kurzweil and published in 1999.

Berne (Col ’79, Grad ’99), a lover of science fiction, found herself pulled into Kurzweil’s vision of the future—predictions of virtual bodies, self-replicating molecular robots and ingestible microcomputers. Through imagined conversations, Kurzweil also traces the transformation of Molly, a young woman who gradually sheds her biological identity as technology offers more attractive alternatives, such as multiple virtual peronalities and having implants that turbo-boost brain power. Eventually, by 2099, Molly has meshed with a sybaritic cyber-mate of unlimited intelligence and emerging spirituality.

“I thought, ‘This man is creepy,” Berne says of Kurzweil. “The concept of a sentient machine that merges with a human being and takes on a spiritual quality—I don’t think so!”

So began Berne’s journey into nanotechnology, and a thousand steps later she is raising many questions.

Today’s technology propels us into a future of accelerating change. Engineers envision powerful computers smaller than a grain of sand. Scientists ponder the potential for an endless supply of replacement organs and the ability to fight disease on a cellular level. Visionaries see a present already dependent on machines evolving toward a future where we interface with internalized devices.

Against this backdrop, Berne asks: Where are we headed? What are we seeking? Where is the line between man and machine? And, most profoundly, who are we?
“I don’t have any answers; I only have questions,” Berne says.

The questions are more than idle musings. Berne, an associate professor in UVA’s Department of Science, Technology and Society, wants people—whether they’re scientists exploring knowledge for its own sake or consumers coveting the latest gadget—to pause and weigh the implications of their choices. Her primary focus is the ethical and moral concerns surrounding advancements in nanotechnology—the science of the very small. So small it’s measured to the billionth of a meter; so small it deals with the manipulation of individual atoms; so small it envisions man as the architect of matter.

UVA researchers have been among the pioneers probing the nanotechnology frontier. They recently developed nano/micro laser texturing and “nanospikes” on the surfaces of semiconductors and metals that could benefit hip replacements, solar energy and other applications.

The implications of nanotechnology are being hailed as revolutionary.

“Everything being made of atoms, the capability to measure, manipulate, simulate and visualize at the atomic scale potentially touches every material aspect of our interaction with the world around us. That is why we speak of a revolution—like the Industrial Revolution—rather than just another step in technological progress,” says John Marburger III, director of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Berne quotes Marburger in her 2005 book, Nanotalk: Conversations with Scientists and Engineers About Ethics, Meaning and Belief in the Development of Nanotechnology. She also quotes lengthy discussions with 35 scientists and engineers, their conversations ranging from specifics of cancer research to abstracts of right and wrong.

“Is the precise and controlled manipulation of atoms, by humans, a socially good thing?” Berne asks one researcher.

“That’s a huge looming issue,” he responds. “How much are we supposed to meddle with what we are granted at birth? Perhaps we need to take a step back. … Our genetic drive is supposedly to confer any advantage we can put on our children. What about the unintended consequences?”

“Perhaps some of those so-called genetic advantages are actually socially constructed ideas,” Berne continues. “The perfect body that runs really fast is not necessarily going to be the one that survives the longest or with the greatest health.”

The researcher replies, “I asked my students, ‘Within the next century, how many of you believe that there will exist highly augmented humanoid beings, so to speak, that would be … able to kick our ass in so many different ways that we would say that this thing is out-competing us?’ Only two of them raised their hands, but I think that could actually happen in 20 or 30 years.”

Whatever happens, stimulating a dialogue is vital to Berne, and there’s no time to waste.

A recent survey conducted by Zogby International, a polling company, and 463 Communications, a technology consulting firm, showed these trends:

  • 24 percent of Americans say the Internet could serve as a replacement for a significant other;
  • 11 percent say they would be willing to have a device implanted that enables them to use their mind to access the Internet;
  • And nearly 20 percent would be willing to have computer chips implanted in children 13 or younger to track their whereabouts.

Also, in 2005 the value of memory devices exported by two Virginia companies surpassed the value of all tobacco products, representing the first time in the 400-year history of Virginia that a technology product has surpassed agricultural exports, according to a December 2006 White Paper report on nanotechnology in the state prepared by members of the Virginia Joint Commission on Technology and Science.

Microelectronic products, which rely on nanotechnology for fast, small components, now are the leading manufactured export in Virginia. The report estimated that last year about $1 billion in manufactured goods in Virginia would incorporate nanotechnology. By 2014, the global market is predicted to be at $2.6 trillion.

Translate that in terms of jobs, revenue and growth, and the economic imperative becomes clear. Throw in the life-saving potential in medical advances, to name one field, and the engine gains thrust. Add the impetus of staying on the cutting edge of innovation, and the high-stakes race goes full throttle.

Berne doesn’t dismiss potential gains, but she looks at previous races—nuclear technology, for example—and at the pace of change, and asks: To what end are we racing? What are our values along the way? Are we living well while we’re racing?

Her efforts to address those questions in conversations with researchers have won fans.

“She’s really become sort of a leader in the field because of that,” says Jamey Wetmore of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. “She really got on board with things much earlier than a lot of people.”

Joan McGregor, a bioethics professor at Arizona State, says Berne’s work has provided a model for small-group discussions among researchers there.

“I thought it was an innovative approach to how we get scientists to think about the social and ethical implications of what they do,” McGregor says. “Understanding and engaging people brings out their own implicit values that they may not necessarily have ever brought to the surface.”

Other groups, such as the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and the Foresight Nanotech Institute, also raise concerns and suggest guidelines for advancements.

The institute lists six challenges: providing renewable clean energy; supplying clean water globally; improving health and longevity; healing and preserving the environment; making technology information available to all; and enabling space development.

On the other side of the coin of those shining goals are dark fears. Michael Crichton’s recent novel Prey describes swarms of deadly robotic nanoparticles that replicate independently and uncontrollably.

For Berne, though, taking the approach of generating conversations was “just my personality,” she says and laughs.

Raised in both inner-city Philadelphia and Amherst, Mass., she began college at Hampton University (then Institute) before transferring to UVA in the 1970s. She’d never had a full dose of the South before and found the environment unsettling at first. But she stayed, receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in rhetoric and communication studies, then a Ph.D. in religious studies and ethics in 1999.

The mixture of disciplines fuels a unique approach to teaching. The adventurous visions of science fiction and the archetypal tales of mythology are tools not only for probing possibilities for the future, but also for framing discussions of ethical implications. Berne exhorts students to use their “moral imagination” in reading works such as The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson or watching movies such as The Matrix and Gattaca.

Her own moral imagination finds full expression in Waiting in the Silence, her novel set on Nantucket Island 80 years in the future. It tells of a woman who rebels against The System, an institution that controls gestation, childbirth, education and other elements of life. The story (the manuscript is with an agent) bubbled up within Berne unexpectedly and developed a life of its own. Beyond that, it puts into practice her belief that the themes of science fiction and myth represent fundamental connections with our humanity.

“If we can keep our stories and our myths alive, we will retain our humanity through the evolution of our technologies,” she says.

Though she sometimes feels like a pebble in the path of a steamroller, she finds optimism in the value of questions, particularly those raised in her classes.

“I can make it so my students think very carefully and feel something about who they are as human beings and their relationship to other human beings.

“And, really, that’s enough,” she says. “That’s my part.”

Berne-ing Questions

How has technology affected our relationships?

“Technological humans have come to rely on computing and processing techniques that work many times faster than the human being is constitutionally designed to respond,” Berne writes. “As such, new meanings and modes of human-to-human communication have evolved. … Most people who inhabit the earth are now accessible to one another.

“Technological changes have led also to physical alterations, especially to shifts in sensory acumen. Smell, touch, sound and sight senses that were once critical to human communication (and to human survival) are now auxiliary to electronic and other forms of sensing and perceiving.”

Where’s the line between man and machine?

For Berne, the distinction begins with the brain. “But it’s not as simple as the brain. It’s the whole neurological system, the whole system of awareness. The body is very complex; it’s not simply that the self is in the brain,” she says.

“What we’re doing is treating the body like a machine as opposed to treating it as an integrated system that is very much connected to other bodies and other sensing beings on the planet. So I think we’re already beginning to cross over, and the steps will get bigger and bigger as we begin to bring more devices into the body that interact with the neurological system.”

Isn’t it human nature to pursue knowledge?

“That value is not being questioned here. Neither is the worthiness of finding good engineering solutions to material challenges and technical problems,” she writes in Nanotalk. “What is being questioned here is humanity’s emotional, intellectual and spiritual capacity to use it well, in light of the prospects for the increased ability of humans to manipulate and control matter with precision and to specification.”

Fleet or cheat?

Oscar Pistorius, a native of South Africa, was born in 1986 without fibulae in both legs. They were amputated before he was a year old.

Oscar Pistorius in action during the 400-meter race in the 2007 Golden Gala athletics meeting in Rome. Pistorius, who runs on carbon fiber blades attached below his knees, placed second. AP PHOTO/GREGORIO BORGIA

Now, he wears artificial limbs made of carbon fiber to compete with the planet’s fastest athletes. He’s earned nicknames such as “Blade Runner” and “the fastest man on no legs” en route to world records in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races in Paralympic events.

Last March, Pistorius placed second in the 400 among able-bodied runners in the South African national championships with a time of 46.56 seconds (the world record is 43.18). In July, he finished second again in the 400-meter B race at the invitational Golden Gala in Rome.

He’d hoped to run in the Olympics this summer, but the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s governing body, amended its rules to ban such devices as giving an unfair advantage.