The opportunities and challenges of converging technologies
As individual disciplines in their own right, information and communication technologies (ICT), biotechnologies and, increasingly, nanotechnologies, are transforming the way that many people live, presenting both opportunities and threats to society.
But if these various technologies have created opportunities and controversy in isolation, the increasing convergence of these disciplines in the future is expected to lead to new technological advances that will pose major challenges not only for researchers, but also for policy makers and society as a whole.
Recognising the potential significance of converging technologies, the European Commission established a working group in 2004 to consider the potential and risks. Their final objective was to produce a report that provides advice to the Commission and Member States on the opportunities and challenges presented by the convergence of key enabling technologies. A summary of the report and its recommendations was presented to MEPs at a workshop in Brussels on 18 October.
The definition of converging technologies (CTs) settled on by the expert group was of 'enabling technologies and knowledge systems that enable each other in the pursuit of a common goal'. The first question raised by such a definition, therefore, is: exactly what common goal are these enabling technologies converging towards? 'CTs always involve an element of agenda-setting,' states the expert group's report. 'Because of this, converging technologies are particularly open to the deliberate inclusion of public and policy concerns. Deliberate agenda-setting for CTs can therefore be used to advance strategic objectives such as the Lisbon Agenda.'
As the group was charged with analysing the issue in a specifically European context, it thus developed an expanded vision of convergence, captured in the concept of 'converging technologies for the European knowledge society' (CTEKS). This places the emphasis on the agenda-setting process itself, according to the report, and envisions various European CT programmes, each addressing a different problem by bringing together different technologies and technology-enabling sciences.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the levels of public concern that surround some of the individual disciplines central to the concept of converging technologies, the report notes that: 'Tremendous transformative potential comes with tremendous anxieties. These anxieties need to be taken into account. When they are, converging technologies can develop in a supportive climate. To the extent that public concerns are included in the process, researchers and investors can proceed without fear of finding their work over-regulated or rejected.'
The report identifies four likely characteristics of CT applications that each present both opportunities and threats to society. The embeddedness of CTs - forming an invisible technical infrastructure for human action - will mean that the better they work, the less we will notice them. 'Once all of us are living continuously in the pervasively artificial environment of ambient computing, smart materials and ubiquitous sensing, society will be confronted with far more frequent and deep transformations of people's and groups' self-understanding,' argues the report.
Furthermore, as CT applications advance, their reach could become practically unlimited, with communications, social interactions, and even emotional states all being engineered. The prospect is both productive and dangerous at the same time, according to the expert group, and complacency in the face of -fix-all technologies could be dangerous in the extreme.
While some proponents of CT advocate engineering 'of' the mind and body, through electronic implants and physical modifications to enhance our human capacities, the expert group proposes a focus on engineering 'for' the mind and body. However, it adds: 'Either way, humans may end up surrendering more and more of their freedom and responsibility to a mechanical world that acts for them.'
Finally, CTs can be geared to address very specific tasks, but a reliance on highly specific solutions can also have an unsettling effect. 'Even when they work as reliably and successfully as one could wish, CTs may have a socially destabilising effect as economic efficiency produces greater unemployment, as targeted medical treatments increase longevity, as CTs exacerbate the divide between the rich and the poor, between technologically advanced and traditional cultures.'
The report concludes by offering 16 recommendations to policy makers at European and national level. Among them is the need to integrate a CT dimension in both the Sixth and Seventh Framework Programmes (FP6 and FP7). Elie Faroult, one of the Commission's Scientific Officers who worked closely with the expert group, told the workshop of MEPs that a first specific call has been launched on converging technologies under the nanotechnology priority of FP6, with the first projects expected to start in early 2006. He added that under the new and emerging science and technology (NEST) and information society technologies (IST) programmes of FP6, CT projects have already been financed, and the first result are expected soon.
The Commission and Member States are also called upon to support the creation of a CT research community, a priority which Mr Faroult said the Commission shares. The report also underlines the need to support the contribution of social sciences and the humanities to CTs, especially that of evolutionary anthropology, the economics of technological development, foresight methodologies and philosophy.
Under considerations of ethics and social empowerment, the report calls for a strict division to be maintained between military ambitions for CTs and their development in Europe. The mandate for the ethical review of European research projects should also be extended to include the ethical and social dimensions of CTs, it argues. Finally, the group argues that CT modules should be introduced in secondary and higher education, an objective with which Mr Faroult agreed, but for which there is currently a lack of clear ideas for how to achieve.
It was noted by another contributor to the workshop that debates on technology are never easy, as society creates new technologies only for them to transform society in unforeseen ways. But according to Jan Staman, Director of the Rathenau Institute in the Netherlands, considering CT as simply another form of technological advance would be to profoundly underestimate its potential - an argument that was echoed by other experts. 'Converging technologies is the new kind of research,' he concluded. 'Where we now say 'converging technologies' in the future we will just say 'technological research'.'
To download a copy of the report (in PDF format), please visit:
Data Source Provider: CORDIS News attendance at a workshop on converging technologies
Document Reference: Based on CORDIS News attendance at a workshop on converging technologies
Programme or Service Acronym: FP6-INTEGRATING, FP6-NMP, FP6-INTEGRATING, FP6-IST, FP6-LIFESCIHEALTH, FP7
Subject Index :Biotechnology; Coordination, Cooperation; Economic Aspects; Forecasting; Information Processing, Information Systems; Life Sciences; Scientific Research; Social Aspects; Other Technology; Telecommunications
CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities.