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Reconstructing man? - The power of converging technologies...

At the dawn of the 21 century the convergence of four main technologies and scientific disciplines is raising great expectations and feeding hot ethical debate. Research on nano- and bio-technology, information and cognitive domains have singly a high potential to influence major changes in society and mankind, while combining them represents a still more powerful source for even bigger change.

At the dawn of the 21 century the convergence of research in four main technologies and scientific disciplines is raising great expectations and feeding hot ethical debate. Research on nano- and bio-technology, information and cognitive domains have individually a high potential to influence major changes in society and mankind, while combining them represents a still more powerful source for even bigger change. Clearly, this synergy crosses the boundaries between sciences to produce a new systemic "converging" discipline. Although the main outcome could be a spectacular enhancement of the capability to improve human health, nature and quality of life, the ethical, safety and legal implications of this challenge raise a serious question on the conditions of its moral legitimacy.In fact, although the new technologies produced could mitigate several neurodegenerative diseases, it could also help to control emotions, personal behavior and general state of conscience. Accordingly, new projects in converging technologies are now being funded by the European Commission to address several remedies for human health: as they could affect also the control of sensations, perceptions and state of mind, they will be developed under strict ethical control of objectives, methods and outcomes. --- Mind-repairing for better thoughts --- Exploring the fundamental interactions between nanomaterials and neurons challenges medical research to develop novel brain-machine interfaces to repair damages and stimulate learning and memory. The NEURONANO project aims at developing innovative neuronal nano-engineered biochips to help repair or replace the altered or damaged functions of both spinal cord and brain networks. Clearly, a major impact on health is expected: the employment of carbon nanotubes as substrates for neuronal growth and implant could contribute to the implementation of cerebral implants for treating various neurological and neurodegenerative diseases, such as spinal injury, dystonia, epilepsy, Parkinsons disease or eating disorders. Nano tissue-engineering might replace current treatments, but the associated development of cell-free materials raises several ethical questions currently under debate. In the same line, the project SINGLEMOTORFLIN develops ancillary research on biological and artificial machines and motors. It should help to design artificial interfaces between the biological and non-biological dynamics of neuronal networks and to treat more specifically the neurodegenerative syndromes. --- Grasping the future… --- The highly innovative SMARTHAND project promotes the uptake of converging sciences in the area of rehabilitation. It aims at developing an intelligent artificial hand looking and feeling like a real human limb, relieving phantom pains and helping both functional and psychological rehabilitation of disabled amputees. A tendon driven highly dexterous robotic hand will be developed, supported by an implantable neural interface and artificial skin displaying sensibility, all equipped with an external cognitive training system for tuning the device to the user. The essential novelty comes from exploiting the potentials of nanotechnology to interface preserved sensory-motor mechanisms: this allows to design an intelligent grasping system equipped with an optimal feedback mimicking life-like control. --- Nanobionic sensations --- The project NANOBIOTACT will develop an articulated artificial finger with embedded nano-sensors to sense and interpret touch by mimicking the neural processes that have evolved in people. A cutting-edge technology will thus be created: its broad range of applications include tactile testing of new products, prosthetic limbs with a very vivid sense of touch, robotics with controlled grip and tele-activities, applicable to remote surgery. The design of new products will be revolutionised, by being able to exploit high throughput screening techniques in several sectors, such as sporting, personal care and car industry. But a major impact is expected in the quality of life, enabling the design of more effective treatments for ageing and for patients with impaired neurological functions. --- Lord, let me see! --- Therapeutic neuronal electrical stimulation is already applied to treat some neurodegenerative diseases but its use could have an even higher impact for treating blindness. To do that, it is necessary to develop fully biocompatible and stable devices for retina stimulation. This adventurous challenge is taken by project DREAMS, developing innovative diamond-based nanotransducers to improve the neuroelectronic interface which supports vision. This approach is also expected to pave the way for the development of hybrid neuronanoelectronic architectures for biosensing and biological computing, whose range of applications broadens from drug detection to cancer diagnosis. Needless to say, the major impact of this research is expected to be on neural prosthetics: the technological output of the project could be an innovative treatment of disabilities by implanting multifunctional and intelligent devices for repairing lesions or degeneration of the nervous system. --- Towards a new man? --- This new way of seeing, touching, sensing and moving is leading to a new perspective for man to think or re-think himself and his nature, mirroring the technical and moral limits of his choices. Is this the very frontier of converging technologies? Is this the very frontier of converging technologies? What are the ethical boundaries of reconstructing lost physical or mental functions, as this could lead to engineer a broader improvement of human capabilities, like the biological processes where both conscience or thinking root? Bridging the gaps between engineering and neurosciences and shaping the interactions between life and its inanimate basis: the "converging" approach evokes this ancient philosophical paradox of the dualism between mind and body, putting it into a different perspective. The philosopher Descartes tried to overcome this tearing dichotomy by joining both dimensions in the pineal gland, identified as the seat of the soul and the place where all thoughts are formed. Clearly, the great thinker would have been intrigued by the broadening of the epistemological territory by converging disciplines, focused just where the matter espouses the spirit… Will that be the ultimate challenge?

Keywords

Converging technologies

Countries

Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Spain, Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Slovenia, Slovakia, United Kingdom