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Posted: Jul 30, 2008

The debate about converging technologies: Convergence processes in research and development

Previous chapter: Conceptions of Convergence and Their Political Location
Until now, research on the subject of convergence has focused on the conceptual ambiguities and the ideological aspects of the debate over converging technologies. Only isolated attempts have been made to examine the different fields of research and development systematically and comprehensively from a convergence perspective. A review of the state of research and of the discussion that deals explicitly with convergence processes and that takes the results of relevant studies on individual areas of the NBIC fields into account produces an initial picture of the relevance of these processes to research and development and to research and innovation policy.
Although scientometric research on this question is still in its infancy, there are signs that the (very limited) spread of the new concepts of convergence is due to political activities and to the nonscientific accompanying research on them. This is the case even though these new concepts relate to a number of scientific concepts. The new concepts are used somewhat more frequently in the fields of the nanosciences, nanotechnology, ICT, and biomedical technology. They and related abbreviations, such as NBIC and CT, are used sporadically at conferences in various scientific communities, in project applications submitted to political institutions, and much less frequently (to judge from their online visibility) in the scientific literature than by ethical advisory groups, in accompanying research, and in other studies in the social sciences and humanities.
Independent of the question as to the relevance of the new concepts of convergence, it is obvious that processes take place over and over again in science and technology in which new areas of research and development arise according to their own laws as a result of new mergers or fusions of different fields or disciplines. Bibliometric analyses have also shown that in the past 10 years there has been a clear increase in the number of publications on research and development in the areas where the NBIC subjects overlap. The upward trend in the use of concepts that increasingly blur the border between technology and nature, between the inanimate and the living that has been spurred by the discussion about nanotechnology can be seen as another indication of the wide acceptance of convergence in the NBIC fields.
Despite all the new labels and the fact that some of the reasons for their genesis and continued development certainly lie outside research (e.g., strategies directed at obtaining financial support and investments), it is impossible to overlook the fact that a number of areas of research and development are mentioned in this context over and over again. Examples of these areas can especially be found in basic research and in early phases of research and development. An increase in convergence in applied research is nonetheless frequently expected or at least described as desirable.  
Relevant areas of research and development in this context are brain-machine interfaces and implants; imaging processes in brain research; the processing and recognition of natural speech; artificial neural networks, pattern recognition and computer vision; bioinformation science, computational biology, noninvasive techniques for diagnosing and monitoring the health status of an individual, invasive biodevices, biometry, biomimetics, virtual reality applications for biological systems, nanobiotechnology and nanomedicine, artificial intelligence, nanoelectronics, nanophotonics, and the fields of simulations and modeling. Particularly strong impacts of the NBIC convergence processes are anticipated for the multiple applications of microsystem technology, the health sector, the military, and the ICT industry.  
From the point of view of bionics (in the sense of biomimetics), the NBIC convergence processes have led to an increase in the use of bionic principles and to a movement beyond them. Learning from nature and from imitating it in order to create artifacts is increasingly turning into a construction of new bridges between the living and the non-living or a modification of natural processes and structures for the purposes of design, which even extend to the vision of technically creating biological entities »from scratch«. This transition follows from the appearance of the »new bionics« in the context of the NBIC convergences and of other developments such as synthetic biology.  
In the field of neurotechnology, some neuroprosthetic aids were introduced some time ago for people with handicaps. They are now being supplemented by new developments, especially to replace sensory ability, and by initial attempts and visions for achieving complex man-machine interfaces, which are so to speak supposed to couple the biological system of the brain directly with IT systems. New brain-machine interfaces, prostheses to compensate for sensory limitations and improve one's motor ability, and also visions about implants that can improve cognitive achievement all belong to the core topics of the CT debate, especially with regard to the topic of human enhancement. Some assume that particularly effective future technologies to improve cognitive capacity might, despite all the risks, make neuroimplants attractive even to people who are not sensorially or psychically handicapped, and in the United States this is even beginning to be considered relevant for innovation policy. From the perspective of NBIC convergence, various neurotechnologies appear to be advanced forms of NBIC convergence in which an integration of nanotechnological and scientific aspects appear to be considered possible. Neurotechnology can therefore be considered a key to understanding the CT debate, especially if it is situated within a broad concept of the cognitive sciences.  
Even though some very ambitious projects in military research, especially in the United States, point toward radical human enhancement by means of using and promoting NBIC convergence, we still have to recall that precisely many of the visions that are most controversial in ethical-social debates, are either still in an very early phase of research and development or appear completely fantastic.  
International comparisons of relative strength in the area of converging technologies encounter special difficulties, not only because of the ambiguities in many conceptions of convergence, but also because of the large differences in research policy and in innovation systems between different nations and different regions of the world. The initial studies of convergence emphasized that the significance of their own results should not be overvalued for a number of reasons, especially with regard to the interpretation of the data and estimates that were based on scientometric analyses, foresight metastudies, and expert interviews. Using the appropriate caution, it is nevertheless possible to draw some conclusions about convergence processes between the four NBIC fields, such as that science in the EU exhibits weakness in the efficacy of it publications (measured by the frequency of their being cited) and in that financial support of research is suboptimally organized. Within the EU, Germany occupies a leading position for most of the NBIC fields of convergence.  
The typical strengths, weaknesses, and challenges of the European research and development and innovation landscapes are also reflected in the situation of converging technologies. These include, for example, high-performance research, problems in the commercialization of scientific and technological innovations, and strong competition from the emerging economic powers, in particular those in Asia. In view of the key role that nanotechnology plays for new convergence processes, it is remarkable that Europe is competitive in the area of public support for research and development, but that European industry's proportion of investments in research and development is relatively small compared to, for example, that of the United States.  
Increased financial support for multidisciplinary institutions and new guidelines and programs for supporting interdisciplinary research and development may be needed in the EU, for which the perspective of convergence might be advantageous. Innovations could probably be achieved in Europe relatively easily in the health sphere, with ICT playing a central role. In this and other areas, Europe could occupy the leading position scientifically in certain specialized fields. In cognitive science, Europe has the advantage over the United States that a multitude of theoretical approaches and specializations exist in Europe, an advantage that it has hardly taken advantage of. Support for this key area of NBIC convergence offers special opportunities. The convergence strategies of other countries, such as Canada, start with any existing advantages and pursue the goal of expanding this strength. The demand is often raised in the CT debate that science orient itself on the specific needs and problem situations of society in order to be able to provide support for dedicated convergence processes.
Next chapter: Political Initiatives and Activities
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