The debate about converging technologies

(Nanowerk Spotlight) The Office of Technology Assessment at the German Parliament (TAB) has released a massive 266-pages report on Converging Technologies (CT) (the original report is in German: Konvergierende Technologien und Wissenschaften; pdf download, 2MB). The report's author, Christopher Coenen, analyses CT-related political initiatives and activities in the USA, European Union and Germany as well as some other countries.
He outlines options for actions and the possible requirements for research and he ends his report by suggesting options for research funding.
Coenen's summary of his report goes way beyond the standard length of our Nanowerk Spotlight articles, so this is our first multi-part Spotlight, divided into these sections:
Conceptions of Convergence and Their Political Location
Visions and the Potential for Social Conflict
Convergence Processes in Research and Development
Political Initiatives and Activities
Options for Action and the Possible Requirements of Research
– Nanoconvergence and Microsystems Technology
– Multidisciplinary, Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research
– Human Enhancement
– Social Discourse on Science and Technology
Options for Research Funding
The last twenty years have been marked by drastic political events and by spectacular scientific and technical breakthroughs (such as in the life sciences) and innovations (such as in the case of the Internet). Just as noteworthy in hindsight, however, is the fact that these years appear as a period in which far-reaching technology visions once again attracted serious attention in parts of the scientific community, among politicians, and in the public. In the current discussions about these visions, which were sparked in fields such as nanotechnology and brain research, both cautioners and optimists predict fundamental changes in society, civilization, and »human nature«.
The debate about »converging technologies« (CT) has to be seen in this context. It has been driven primarily by research policy actors and by experts from various disciplines, and is part of a more comprehensive political and social discourse on nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communications technology (ICT), brain research, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and the sciences that deal with these topics. »Convergence« is an umbrella term for predictions ranging from an increase in synergetic effects to a merging of these fields, and for demands for government funding of research and development where these fields overlap.
The first CT initiative was started in the United States in 2001 in connection with activities concerning social, legal, and ethical aspects of nanotechnology. The primary participants in this initiative were the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce, and it received the support, for example, of some of those in military research. Some of the features of this initiative, which despite its nonofficial character is often viewed as an official government initiative, triggered some very controversial discussions. The subject was picked up by some of the mass media, nongovernmental organizations (NGO), and private enterprises. For analytical purposes, we can distinguish between:
  • A debate that started in the United States, bundled various social conflicts concerning science and technology, and focused on »human enhancement«, i.e., the artificial improvement of an individual's capacities, and on far-reaching visions of the future of humanity;
  • The discussions about CT research policy in a narrower sense and the related scientific and technological activities. Here too the starting point was in the United States, but the main participants driving this field are now located in Europe.
  • Numerous connections are apparent between the government actions in the United States related to CT and the more recent discussions of far-reaching visions of technology. The debate about convergence is characterized by various peculiarities that deserve our attention since they are part of the social background of the scientific and political activities about converging technologies and sciences. On the one hand, there is the markedly normative and (at least from a European perspective) rather unusual character of the relevant political actions in the United States; on the other is the role these actions played in an ideological conflict in which representatives of an international futuristic milieu, conservative Christians, and other groups collided. The debates about scientific and technological development were characterized by sharp disagreements, polemical exaggerations, and, frequently, seemingly fantastic visions of salvation and horror. An extended analysis and evaluation of this visionary discourse is a precondition for dealing with the issue of convergence in a manner that is politically appropriate.
    The fact that the subject of convergence also attracts attention in other political, scientific, and social contexts is not independent of this visionary discourse but frequently an attempt to disassociate oneself from it. Convergence ideas are becoming more important for research policy in the EU and in various countries. While it is perhaps inevitable that visionary factors should also play a role in these ideas, most of the initiatives distance themselves, however, from some of the visionary ideas that were propagated by the American initiative on CT or in its field of influence. Nevertheless, nothing has been settled yet. Although the debate about convergence in the social sciences and humanities has increasingly been divided along subject lines in the last few years, with CT establishing itself as a subject, the course of activities toward anchoring convergence ideas politically has been uneven. It is at any rate appropriate in the context of possibly developing a German strategy to consider the relevant recent and current political activities at the level of the EU and in other countries.
    Next chapter: Conceptions of Convergence and Their Political Location
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