Review - Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance
A. Seipel, G. Dvorsky and G. P. It is interesting to note that, besides more “conservative” subthemes, this recent NSF/DOC report also analyzes “wilder” ideas such as nanotechnology based implants as replacement for human organs, nanoscale robots for medical intervention, brain to brain and brain to machine interfaces.
A. Seipel, G. Dvorsky and G. P., July 23, 2002
At the request of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Commerce (DOC) organized a workshop on December 3-4, 2001. A pre-publication online version of a report incorporating the views expressed at the workshop by leading experts from government, academia, and the private sector, is available at: http://wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies/.
The title of the report is "Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance - Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science". These four enabling technologies taken together as a whole are indicated with the acronym NBIC. Quoting from the Executive Summary:
"In the early decades of the twenty-first century, concentrated efforts can unify science based on unity in nature, therefore advancing the combination of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and new human technologies based in cognitive science. With proper attention to ethical issues and societal needs, converging technologies could determine a tremendous improvement in human abilities, societal outcomes, the nation's productivity, and the quality of life. This is a broad, cross cutting, emerging and timely opportunity of interest to individuals, society and humanity in the long term.
The phrase "convergent technologies" refer 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.
... At this unique moment in the history of technical achievement, improvement of human performance through integration of technologies becomes possible.... This report addresses key issues: What are the implications of unifying science and converging technologies. What should be done to achieve the best results over the next 10 to 20 years? What visionary ideas can guide research to accomplish broad benefits for humanity? What are the most pressing research and education issues? How can we develop a transforming national strategy to enhance individual capabilities and overall societal outcomes?... 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 an holistic approach to monitor the resultant societal evolution."
Besides the analysis of the overall potential of the converging NBIC technologies, the major themes explored in the 405 pages of the report are: expanding human cognition and communication; improving human health and physical capabilities; enhancing group and societal outcomes; national security; unifying science and education. It is interesting to note that, besides more "conservative" subthemes, the report also analyzes "wilder" ideas such as nanotechnology based implants as replacement for human organs, nanoscale robots for medical intervention, brain to brain and brain to machine interfaces. This is one more indication that advanced ideas, which in the past were taken seriously only on transhumanist discussion forums, are finally finding their way to the mainstream technology development and policy making world. Indeed, transhumanist ideas are part of the national research and development priority area on converging technologies focused on enhancing human performance, recommended by the report.
We recommend downloading and reading the full document (6 Mbytes). As an appetizer, we wish to report our first impressions of selected chapters, sections, and individual articles. Please bear in mind that while this review is only meant to underline some specific points including the more "subversive" ideas, there is much more in the report. In particular, there are very interesting analyses of the impact of NBIC on short-term developments in e.g. healthcare, education, business, finance and war.
In the article "Vision for the Converging Technologies" Newt Gingrich proposes to reinvent government for the "Age of Transition" that we have just entered, where the combined effect of converging NBIC technologies accelerates. Gingrich believes in explaining new options to the voters in the clearest possible language: "They may not understand plasma physics or the highest levels of the human genome project. But they can surely understand the alternative between having Alzheimer and not having it". Explaining his vision for the Age of Transition, he proposes riding the NBIC wave instead of trying to delay it, and acknowledges that current public policies and initiatives are moving much slower than technological change.
NASA has taken an interest in NIBC technologies as explained in "Zone of Convergence between Bio/Info/Nano technologies". One of the drivers is the need to constantly monitor the health of astronauts: "Nanotechnology will enable new types of human health monitoring systems and healthcare delivery systems. Nanoscale, bio-compatible sensors can be distributed throughout the body... be queried by external monitoring systems or be self-stimulated to send a signal, most likely through a chemical messenger. NASA is currently working with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to conduct research along these specific lines". Perhaps the space program will once again facilitate, through the gradual achievement of measurable objectives in the context of the human exploration and development of outer space, very important advances in healthcare on Earth.
The summary of the work done under theme "Expanding Human Cognition and Communication" proposes launching a "Human Cognome Project". The name of the project is similar to that of the Human Genome Project but its objectives are much more ambitious, e.g. "a complete mapping of the connections in the human brain" and require enabling steps in all four NBIC disciplines. Many experts in the panel were "impressed by the long-term potential for uploading aspects of individual personality to computers and robots". One could predict that the aims of such a study would include "enhance (ing) individuals' mental and interaction abilities". A bit less predictable, but still present in the introductory statement, was the idea of using the new convergence of technology for "strengthening human character and personality". The latter may be straying a wee bit too far into the subjective.
The section introduction lists five areas as targets for technology convergence:
1) The Human Cognome Project - perhaps
the most ambitious undertaking of the five -, which plans for a complete mapping
of the connections in the human brain, combined with research on culture and
2) Personal Sensory Device Interfaces - referring to technological appendages that will facilitate cross modal information exchange (i.e. seeing what you hear, etc), external memory, and some other less-clear goals.
3) Enriched Community - making our "artificial servants of the future" sensitive to the human condition. Resulting technology will "expand the social competence of individuals and increase the practical effectiveness of groups, social networks and organizations".
4) Learning How to Learn - including the potential for VR simulations to serve as educational tools, and the potential of multi-user video games to act as learning motivators.
5) Enhanced Tools for Creativity - stepping up to the "increasingly difficult challenge" of engineering design on the macro and micro levels.
A series of statements by Conference participants followed the introduction. Many of the ideas talked about are familiar to transhumanists - for example, the accelerating evolution of information processing, military applications of nanotechnology, human-computer interface, etc. A few of the ideas were a bit less familiar - for example, the anticipated rise of visual-verbal art as a contemporary form, and software that automatically creates text from diagrams. Some statements prompt more thought than others - for example, the statement about making technology that will display (capitalize on?) emotion. The end goal, the author states, is to use sociable technology to enhance human emotional and cognitive performance. The effectiveness of such a technique is never debated.
In fact, that is one of the things that this report lacks - debate over whether or not some of these ideas should be attempted. Also missing was any mention of restrictions on the new technology. All in all, the report gives the impression that everyone involved in this conference was especially optimistic, especially about his or her own area of expertise. Only one of the last statements hinted at anything negative - in this case, the backlash we are starting to face with the increasing use of technology, such as companies being forced to declare `email free' days at work to combat wasted time and encourage face-to-face interaction.
In "NBICS Convergence to Improve Human Performance: Opportunities and Challenges", were the fifth dimension "Socio" is added to NBIC, Jim Spohrer gives a list of forthcoming advances classified as (a) outside the body and environmental; (b) outside the body and personal; (c) inside the body and temporary; (d) inside the body and permanent. In his words, "some extremely speculative visions of the future will be discussed to help stretch our imagination before coming back to earth". Indeed he goes on to discuss utility fogs, learning or knowledge pills, new sensory organs, and genetic modifications before concluding with a sobering discussion of near-term opportunities for e-business infrastructure, where he believes the first steps toward NBIC convergence are being taken.
In "The Consquences of Fully Understanding the Brain", Warren Robinett gives a very readable account of new capabilities and opportunities that may become available once we reach "a detaied functional understanding of how the components work at every level, from whole brain down to ion channels in cell walls". Beginning with developments that can already be achieved by a detailed understanding of the brain's input subsystem: virtual presence; better senses; better memory; better imagination, he goes on to discuss "the really crazy ones"; mind upload, instant learning, hive minds, and speed-of-light travel where the traveler is encoded as electromagnetic radiation. It is very refreshing to see these ideas soberly discussed out of the familiar settings of a good SF novel.
Predicting future technologies is much easier than predicting its effects on society. It is for this very reason that many skeptics sneer at the suggestion that the future can be accurately predicted. Undaunted by this difficulty, the report included a section on the possible social aspects of technological change in the 21st century, entitled "Enhancing Group and Societal Outcomes". Ultimately, however, the report fails to predict any significant structural changes to political or economic structures, except to note that communication and co-operation will be vastly improved. I find this to be a gross understatement. However, some redemption is made in the discussion of memetics as a potential science with real societal applications.
A panel of experts who participated in the September 2000 workshop, Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, supplemented this section.
The focus of "Enhancing Group and Societal Outcomes" was on "NBIC innovations whose benefits would chiefly be beyond the individual level, for groups, the economy, or society as a whole." This foresight activity presupposed that technological enhancements would exist at the individual level, while attempting to predict their emergent effects on society. Moreover, the report goes on to describe likely innovations that fall outside the individual realm - those technologies specifically designed to contribute to societies and groups (e.g. The Communicator). In general, the report concludes that these advances will result in improvements to communications and co-operation.
The report looked at how technologies will mould the social realm, and how the social realm will guide the direction of technological developments: "sober, technically competent research on the interactions between nanotechnology and society will help mute speculative hype and dispel some of the unfounded fears that sometimes accompany dramatic advances in scientific understanding".
The report displayed a regional and nationalistic bias by noting that increased American productivity and NBIC technologies will "maintain U.S. world leadership, solve the Social Security shortfall, and eventually eliminate poverty in the nation, reduce our reliance on foreign oil, and ensure the stability of our economy" These statements do not necessarily concur with the transhumanist position which seeks to ensure that the entire human condition is attended to in the 21st century. However, an argument can be made that as the de facto world leader today, the benefits of American-lead technology will eventually find their way to the other nations of the world. Additionally, the section fell short of predicting any significant or radical changes to the political structure in the United States or elsewhere.
One of the most intriguing recommendations to come out of the report was the suggestion that a "mobile system designed to enhance group communication and overcome barriers that currently prevent people from cooperating effectively" be developed. This system, coined The Communicator, would "revolutionize people's capability to work together regardless of location or context." Such a multifaceted system could be used in business, government, social interactions, the battlefield, and in the classroom. The communicator would breakdown traditional barriers such as distance, language, physical disabilities, and disparity in knowledge possessed by group members.
Another interesting proposition to come out of the report was the idea that memetic studies could be the next big scientific discipline: "The meme has been characterized.as a concept that could revolutionize the social sciences as the discovery of DNA and the genetic code did for biology." The report even gave the example that "religious ideologies appear to have chaperone roles that may help keep individuals focused on important daily activities rather than getting caught up in unsolvable dilemmas and becoming unable to act." This is still fairly controversial material, yet the authors of the report felt that there may be something to it. Even more unexpected was the suggestion that there are cultural pathologies (social viruses), such as crime, terrorism, and even hostile rival social systems such as radical Islam. The report proposes that "it may never be possible to eradicate them entirely, but with new scientific methods, we should be able to prevent them from driving our civilization to extinction." In other words, the report makes the suggestion that memetic engineering may be used to counter cultural pathologies.
This section contained the following statements to demonstrate how personal enhancements will benefit society and groups as a whole: "Cognition, Social Interaction, Communication, and Convergent Technologies"; "Engineering the Science of Cognition to Enhance Human Performance"; "Engineering of Mind to Enhance Human Productivity"; "Making Sense of the World: Convergent Technologies for Environmental Science" - This article demonstrated that there is still a lot to be learned about our environment, and that further research will assist us in finding ways to extract resources without damaging it. Moreover, we will have an enhanced understanding of our ecosystem. The following Visionary Projects were outlined: "The Communicator: Enhancement of Group Communication, Efficiency, and Creativity"; "Enhanced Knowledge-Based Human Organization and Social Change"; "A Vision for the Aircraft of the 21st Century" - in our opinion faster airplanes will be really nice things to have but we we doubt whether they will really enhance the human condition; "Memetics: A Potential New Science" - fairly radical stuff - the application of biological-like sciences to not only understand society and culture, but to fix the broken and dangerous parts - not unlike an organism. In this case, treating society.
In "Brain-Machine Interface" under the heading "National Security", Robert Asher informs that "DARPA has a Brain-Machine Interface Program about to start. This program has as its goals to control complex entities by sending control actions witout the delay for muscle activation. The major application for this program is control of aircraft". Of course if a reliable brain-machine interface technology is achieved by military R&D, nothing can prevent it from reaching the commercial marketplace later. Since defence is one of the few areas where short-term commercial return is not the major driver for R&D, perhaps DARPA and other military programs may play a key role for the development of emerging NBIC technologies as it was the case for communication technologies and the Internet.
As outlined above the publication of this report means that transhumanist memes, or at least a subset thereof, are slowly but steadily penetrating the zeitgeist and becoming mainstream. This would not have happened, or at least not so fast, without the dedicated work of visionary thinkers and activists of the transhumanist movement, thus the interest that the "establishment" is taking has to be considered as an important milestone. To help taking this emerging process further, we believe that the transhumanist movement should develop enhanced interfaces with the technology development and policy making world.
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