Caught in the grip of ecological, social, political, and economic risks and conflicts, the world hovers between optimism and pessimism.
The Renaissance, coming a thousand years after the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, reestablished science on a stronger basis than before, and technological advancement has continued on an accelerating path since then. The hallmark of the Renaissance was its holistic quality, as all fields of art, engineering, science, and culture shared the same exciting spirit and many of the same intellectual principles. However, as the centuries passed, the holism of the Renaissance gave way to specialization and intellectual fragmentation. Today, with the scientific work of recent decades showing us at a deeper level the fundamental unity of natural organization, it is time to rekindle the spirit of the Renaissance, returning to the holistic perspective on a higher level, with a new set of principles and theories.
We stand at the threshold of a new renaissance in science and technology, based on a comprehensive understanding of the structure and behavior of matter from the nanoscale up to the most complex system yet discovered, the human brain. Unification of science based on unity in nature and its holistic investigation will lead to scientific and technological convergence and a more efficient societal structure for reaching human goals. Concentrated effort inspires nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and new technologies based in cognitive science. With proper attention to ethical issues and societal needs, the result can be a tremendous improvement in human abilities, societal outcomes, and quality of life.
The phrase convergent technologies refers to the synergistic combination of four major NBIC (nano-bio-info-cogno) provinces of science and technology, each of which is currently progressing at a rapid rate: (a) nanoscience and nanotechnology; (b) biotechnology and biomedicine, including genetic engineering; (c) information technology, including advanced computing and communications; (d) cognitive science, including cognitive neuroscience. NBIC convergence can give us the means to deal successfully with todays and future challenges by substantially enhancing human mental, physical, and social abilities. Better understanding of the human body and development of tools for direct human-machine interaction have opened completely new opportunities.
Convergence of the sciences en technologies can initiate this new renaissance, embodying a holistic view of technology based on transformative tools, the mathematics of complex systems, and unified cause-and-effect understanding of the physical world from the nanoscale to the planetary scale and may transform society, science, economics and human evolution.
The key characteristic of NBIC convergence is the fact that it points to the gradual dissolving of the narrow borders between the physical and the biological sciences. The physical sciences (nanotechnology and information technology) enable progress in the life sciences, such as biotechnology and cognitive sciences. The developments in nanotechnology and information technology implies that complex living systems, such as genes, cells, organs, and brains, might in the future be bio-engineered in much the same way as non-living systems.
The life sciences – insights into biological and cognitive processes – inspire and progress within the physical sciences, such as material sciences and information technology. This ‘living technology’ implies that technologies are acquiring properties we associate with living organisms, such as self-assembly, self-healing, reproduction, and intelligent behavior.
Traditionally, the physical sciences studied non-living systems, while the biological sciences studied living organisms. NBIC convergence implies their convergence. This merger goes both ways, and each way represents a bioengineering megatrend that may be denoted with the catchphrases ‘biology is becoming technology’ and ‘technology is becoming biology’. The convergence can have significant impacts in such areas as: work efficiency, the human body and mind throughout the life cycle, communication and education, mental health, aeronautics and space flight, food and farming, sustainable and intelligent environments, self-presentation and fashion, and transformation of civilization.
Nanotechnology brings together all the techniques at the atomic or molecular level, Biotechnology includes genetic engineering, Computing (here includes in a general way), electronics, telecommunications, robotics or Artificial Intelligence with serious leads that could conduct to new modes of information processing such as the quantum computer; Cognitive sciences which ultimate objective is the total comprehension of the functioning of the human brain. These four lines of research are advancing at a brisk pace and can each bring new perspectives towards a better understanding of life, or a better use of resources.
We take for granted the speed of innovation that has created the global social context around us. But against the backdrop of fast innovations we see today, over the next years we will see an acceleration of innovation, change and disruptions on a scale no civilization has ever seen before.
The increased capacity for fast innovation and invention– from biotech to nanoscience–will emerge faster then in the past. Increased computing power, high-speed networks, interactive broadband, distributed genomic discovery, and Internet 2.0 all are bringing future innovations closer. It is the interplay of key technologies, the synergy of technology trends together that will create the most comprehensive impact on society, individuals and the economy.
The increase in bio-, cogno-, and socio-inspired new types of artefacts, which will be applied in our bodies and brains and/or intimately integrated into our social lives.
Convergence and synergy of NBIC-technologies have the capability to the formation of new trends of the green economy nano-economy, bio-economics, information economy, cognomics (economy using cognitive technologies). Under their influence, a transition to new forms of social development aimed at harmony of the interests of mankind and environmental protection is an absolute possibility. Such a transition will be accompanied by a change in ecological culture, values in society, a new psychology of social development, the emergence of new moral and ethical norms, which is already taking place now. Synergy of NBIC-technologies has a direct or indirect impact on people’s ecological thinking and their readiness to develop environmentally safe products, create demand for it in local and global markets. NBIC-technologies will affect the transformation of people’s thinking, which may entail a change in the content and structure of modern civilization or lead to a transition from a post-industrial to a harmonious with nature society with long-term implications in key areas of human activity:
- Societal productivity, in terms of well-being as well as economic growth
- Security from natural and human-generated disasters
- Individual and group performance and communication
- Life-long learning, graceful aging, and a healthy life
- Coherent technological developments and their integration with human activities
- Human evolution, including individual and cultural evolution
But …. existing inequities can surely be magnified with the introduction of highly effective psycho-pharmaceuticals, genetic modification, super intelligence, brain-computer interfaces, nanotechnology, robotic prosthetics, and the possible development of life expansion. They are all fundamentally inegalitarian, based on a notion of limitlessness rather than a standard level of physical and mental well-being we have come to assume in healthcare. It is not easy to conceive of a way in which these potentialities can be enjoyed by all. We could be left with the scenario of a small elite that has an almost total concentration of wealth with access to the most powerfully transformative technologies in world history and a redundant mass of people, no longer suited to the evolutionary environment in which they find themselves and entirely dependent on the benevolence of that elite.
It is essential to prepare key organizations and societal activities for the changes made possible by converging technologies. Activities that accelerate convergence to improve human performance must be enhanced, including focused research and development, increased technological synergy from the nanoscale, developing of interfaces among sciences and technologies, and a holistic approach to monitor the resultant societal evolution. The aim is to offer individuals and groups an increased range of attractive choices while preserving fundamental values such as privacy, safety, and moral responsibility. Education and training at all levels should use converging science and technology and prepare people to take advantage of them. Experimenting with innovative ideas to motivate multidisciplinary research and development, while finding ways to address ethical, legal, and moral concerns.
We must find ways to address ethical, legal, and moral concerns, throughout the process of research, development, and deployment of convergent technologies. This will require new mechanisms to ensure representation of the public interest in all major NBIC projects, incorporation of ethical and social-scientific education in the training of scientists and engineers and ensuring that policy makers are thoroughly aware of the scientific and engineering implications of the issues they face.