Behind the buzz and beyond the hype:
Our Nanowerk-exclusive feature articles
Posted: Aug 25, 2008
Europe and the U.S. take different approaches to Converging Technologies
(Nanowerk Spotlight) The two differing approaches that the European Union and the U.S. take in tackling converging technologies is exemplary for the philosophical difference in how these two geographies approach the development of new technologies. Policies in the U.S., especially during the past eight years, have been, well, shaped is not the right word here, let's say drifting, towards a purely market-driven approach to technology development: the government's job was to provide sufficient basic R&D funding, keep a minimum of consumer safety levels, but otherwise not to get into the way of industrial activities. In addition, a major driver and funding agent for emerging technologies has been the military (for instance, over 30% of all federal investment dollars the U.S. spends on nanotechnology come from the U.S. Department of Defense - "Military nanotechnology - how worried should we be?").
In contrast, the European approach places the emphasis on the agenda-setting process itself. Rather than letting the market call all the shots, the European approach favors a guided development where societal, safety and environmental aspects are incorporated into the decision-making process. It envisions that various European converging technologies research programs will be formulated, each addressing a different problem and each bringing together different technologies and technology-enabling sciences. The European concept of "CTEKS: Converging Technologies for the European Knowledge Society" (pdf download, 876 KB) adopts a demand-driven approach in which converging technologies respond to societal needs and demands. While the U.S.-pushed NBIC (nano, bio, info, cogno) approach focuses strongly on enhancement of the individual human being, the European approach urged to take the precautionary principle into account and made it "a priority to clarify the civil and societal benefits of this research to give them a new legitimacy and to put them firmly in a context of positive social dynamics."
U.S. proposed agendas for convergence that include "Converging technologies for improving human performance" or "Converging technologies for battlefield domination" were rejected by the European expert group that helped define the European approach as troubling and potentially destabilizing.
The main task of the EU-funded project CONTECS was to develop ideas for a comprehensive and integrated European agenda with regard to converging technologies. The project delivered its final report – An analysis of critical issues and a suggestion for a future research agenda – in May of this year. This Nanowerk Spotlight summarizes the main points of this report and all quotes and most references are taken from it.
The term 'Converging Technologies' (CT) is commonly used to describe the development of technologies drawing on a combination of research findings from different disciplines; a trend that could even lead to new disciplines or sub-disciplines. One concept of CT that gained a lot of prominence was the so-called NBIC quartet. First advanced by Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge in 2001 ("Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance"; pdf download, 5.9 MB), the authors claim that convergence is taking place as a synergistic combination of four major 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; and (d) cognitive science, including cognitive neuroscience.
The Roco initiative put emphasis on the aspect of improving human performance and, in particular, on the issue of human enhancement, i.e. the technological augmentation of human capabilities and modification of human corporeality and intellect. Despite reservations about the strong military focus of the NBIC initiative, other aspects of the concept resonated strongly in other parts of the world, including Europe where the European Commission in December 2003 set up a High-Level Expert Group: "Foresighting the New Technology Wave" (see: "Mission & Objective of High-Level Expert Group"; pdf download, 32 KB).
A number of European scientists and politicians believe that actual and potential relevance of technoscientific processes of convergence is still obfuscated by conceptual problems and by the impacts of a highly visionary and, in large parts, ideologically motivated discourse. They feel that there is a great need for a more refined concept of convergence and a more nuanced and precise assessment of ongoing and emerging developments in science and technology. They argue that, while the NBIC quartet might still be a useful starting point for the analysis of convergence, more differentiated conceptualizations are needed which also take into account various modes of convergence and interdisciplinary.
A major theme in both the U.S. and European approaches is cooperation between the disciplines: the European approach makes a special issue of interdisciplinary cooperation and its specific conditions and problems, whereas the U.S. approach argues for a new unity of science underpinned by reductionism enabled by the possibility of tracking virtually everything down to the nano-level.
"In contrast to the U.S. approach which exhibits a strong technodeterminist approach (see for example the analysis in "Specifying the type of interdisciplinarity in the NSF’s NBIC scenario"), the European approach to converging technologies starts with social and environmental goals. In its CTEKS report, the European High Level Expert Group encourages research on topics that are highly valued, thus hoping to initiate technology developments in the desired areas. A number of areas are identified where progress through convergence is considered to be desirable, for example:
Health, including "lab-on-a-chip" technologies for fast screening and early diagnosis of diseases, intelligent prostheses interacting with brain signals from patients and transmitting sensory information.
Education with applications like invisible knowledge space, learning objects and smart surroundings.
ICT Infrastructure with environmental monitoring through ambient sensing devices to alert agencies of pollutants and inform individuals about the distribution of allergens, integration of information about food products.
Energy with new energy carriers and forms of storage, new energy sources emulating nature, exploring renewable energy sources, photovoltaic, hydrogen, geothermal and solar energy.
In its main part, the CONTECS 421-page final report outlines six major aspects of the overlap between Converging Technologies and Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH). Within each of this six areas, several research questions and challenges for the SSH are formulated. These research questions constitute items proposed for a future research agenda for the SSH in Europe and should contribute to a European approach to CT. The six fields are (the following is directly taken from the report):
1) The origins of the convergence debate and an analysis of real-world impacts of CT visions
This section examines to what extent the concept of convergence has found its way into agendas for research and development policies worldwide, and also attempts a realistic assessment of the U.S. NBIC initiative and its impact.
It emerges that the NBIC initiative, far from being a major official research policy initiative of the U.S., had its main function to argue for further financial support for nanotechnologies and that it contains "visions" rather than genuine roadmaps for a development of converging technologies or a "new renaissance of science".
Assessments of the state of development of technological areas where convergence is likely to take place, showed that experts regarded progress in brain enhancement and physical enhancement as furthest removed in terms of realization from the visions for the areas. In some cases, researchers are paying lip-service to the visions to secure funding, but there are also indications that researchers in certain areas of the cognitive sciences regard personal enhancement as a realistic and worthwhile goal to guide their research.
2) The special role of Cognitive Science
The Cognitive Sciences were viewed by CONTECS as the key element towards the realization of CT in sense of the NBIC initiative. Expectations in this direction have been fueled by enormous progress in the neurosciences, due not least to new instruments available to observe, control and possibly manipulate processes within the human brain at the level of neurons.
Today, very little of Cognitive Science concerns itself with phenomena happening at the nanoscale. Molecular neuroscience, which is active in this field, lies on the outer fringes of Cognitive Science. Although it is recognized that information transmission happens at a molecular level in the brain, few cognitive scientists will find the fact relevant to their work. Effort should be devoted to investigating what our lives are expected to look like when what is in gestation in CT now reaches maturity.
3) The question whether interdisciplinarity is the common denominator of the CT development
Both the NBIC and the CTEKS concepts devote much attention to issues of cooperation between scientific disciplines to realize applications of CT. While the NBIC initiative argues for underpinning cooperation through a base of common knowledge at the nano-level, the CTEKS concept argues for strong interdisciplinary cooperation including both hard sciences and social sciences.
The problems and issues here are mainly not unique to CT and have been investigated before. A specific problem within CT is the low degree of interdisciplinary integration. Although this is true for interdisciplinarity in general, there is more research needed focusing on knowledge overlap at the local level. With the absence of a common basis for interdisciplinary research, it is necessary to study the "epistemic cultures" of the disciplines involved, in order to identify possible obstacles for cooperation caused by different styles of scientific reasoning. As elsewhere, institutional barriers should be analyzed and applied to the needs of concrete CT research.
4) Ethical questions and critical issues from a technology assessment view
Much of the current ethical discourse is focused on impacts of technologies and applications that are still very remote in time if they can indeed ever be realized. CT are frequently used to discuss more general questions arising in connection with applications of technology, particularly those for human enhancement.
Given the visions existing for the development of CT and likely applications in controversial areas, there is a need for a timely societal debate which could be facilitated by citizen involvement. Further needs related to CT exist in the areas of education, legal regulation and risk governance. There is finally a need to examine in which areas of regulation international agreements are required and in which areas national regulation is appropriate.
5) The assumption that natural science will take over traditional SSH domains which may further the spreading of deterministic models of man
Attempts to "naturalize" the social sciences have a long and controversial tradition. While the social sciences and humanities frequently apply methods from mathematics and hard sciences, this does not bring with it a transformation of the SSH into hard science. While previous attempts to formalize the SSH have met with limited (though real) success, the rise of research into complex systems is bound to extend the reach of formal approaches.
However, the crucial development is brought about by the development of empirical approaches from cognitive science, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, which carry a promise or a threat of reductionism. In conjunction with enhanced formal tools, these disciplines offer new opportunities for proponents of a radical form of naturalization, which is regarded as threatening by both the SSH and the affected citizen.
The question thus raised is how far naturalization should go or be allowed to go. It might reach, according to the present tacit consensus, lower (animal) faculties as well as the most general and formal conditions of higher faculties, leaving out some "core content" which is the province of SSH. It is worthwhile researching what new possibilities for formalization and empirical naturalization of the SSH exist and what this implies for the central traditions and disciplines of the SSH.
6) The role of enhancement and of other narratives of convergence in the genesis and shaping of the CT debate
Ontological politics are the processes, practices, discussions, struggles and contentions whereby the existence and character of entities are defined, constructed and brought into being. Ontological politics help define the focus and targets for CT. The contributions to the genesis and shaping of the discourse on CT of various actors are therefore analyzed with regard to specific positions within the relevant discursive and institutional fields. From this perspective, the discussions on CT and what counts in them as expert or "authoritative" knowledge are examined. CONTECS distinguished two approaches to the analysis of ontological politics.
First was a description of the parallel constitution of the debate on CT and on nanotechnology-related far-ranging visions and of intensified discussions of "human enhancement" enriched with an analysis of the historical roots of transhumanism.
Second was an analysis of the ways in which ontologies are enacted, kept alive and performed in contemporary discussions about CT. By exposing, analyzing and demystifying ontological politics, especially those associated with the posthumanist and, more general, the technofuturist background of the most heatedly discussed visions, the SSH may be able to draw more attention to issues that are largely neglected in the debates on CT.
In the report's conclusion, the authors argue that "a strong engagement of a broad variety of SSH in the debate, analysis and shaping of actual processes of technoscientific convergence can decisively contribute to overcoming a one-dimensional, sociologically and philosophically naïve conception of these processes and to embedding the dynamic developments in the NBIC fields into the European Knowledge Society."