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Posted: Jul 30, 2008

The debate about converging technologies: Conceptions of Convergence and Their Political Location

Previous chapter: Introduction
If different things converge, they begin to become more similar, to move toward one another, or merge. "Convergence" in these and similar meanings has, just like its opposite, the term »divergence«, been an established expression in different disciplines for a long time.
  While there were discussions about convergence processes, in particular with regard to media and information technologies, just before the new conceptions of convergence arose, the American initiators of the first CT initiatives also drew on other scientific and political sources when they developed their concept. To judge by appearances, the spread of the new concepts of convergence within the realm of science and technology has been constrained in narrow borders. One reason for this may well be the fact that these concepts usually have been inadequately clarified and are too general for anyone to be able to generate concrete questions and project goals with regard to collaboration between specific areas of research and development. Many ongoing political and scientific activities on the subject of CT therefore aim to clarify the concept or to make it more concrete in relation to the relatively clearly delineated areas of research and the potential fields of applications.
Even though numerous fields of research and development in science and technology have been discussed in the CT debate, the focus of the original American initiative on four fields has retained its predominance. These four fields are nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science, which are often referred to collectively by the abbreviation »NBIC«. The term »converging technologies« has become accepted usage instead of »converging sciences and technologies« although even the American initiative on converging technologies emphasized in various points that the processes of convergence also involved nanoscience, bioscience, information science, and, in the case of cognitive science, brain research and neurotechnology. Yet even the four NBIC fields are characterized by a high degree of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration and technological convergence. The focus on NBIC, even where it has been maintained, thus only appears to be relatively concrete.
  The agenda »Converging Technologies for the European Knowledge Society« (CTEKS), published in 2004 and developed the year before by a high-level EU expert group, took a different route. While this agenda also pays strong attention to the NBIC fields, it employs a much more general understanding of the CT concept. This understanding emphasizes the numerous interactions and mutual enrichments that take place between a large number of sciences and technologies (including the humanities and social sciences), without firmly asserting which convergence processes are particularly relevant and while emphasizing the open character of the converging technologies with regard to areas of application.
The subject of convergence was also a topic for national research policies outside the United States, at least to a limited degree. In Germany, the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) identified a connection between the subject of CT and microsystems technology (specifically »Converging Technologies for Smart Systems Integration«), a field of research and development in which different convergence processes are given much attention, especially between the NBIC fields. State funding in Canada and Spain was given to foresight and pilot projects on the subject of convergence. Moreover, there are diverse activities in countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Overall, the political activities on the subject of convergence are still limited largely to foresight and technology assessment, conferences, social scientific and ethical studies on nanotechnology, and individual articles in the different fields of science and technology. The most important exception in this regard is the EU, which included a whole series of funding measures, especially on nanoscience and nanotechnology, in its new Seventh Framework Program under the label "Converging Sciences and Technologies".
Next chapter: Visions and the Potential for Social Conflict
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