CORDIS - EU research results

CONverging TECnologies and their impact on Social Sciences and Humanities

Final Report Summary - CONTECS (CONverging TECnologies and their impact on Social Sciences and Humanities)

The project CONTECS was a Specific Support Action (SSA) funded by the European Commission to assist itself in setting up a research agenda in connection with converging technologies. Items on this agenda can either be related to research on the process of convergence itself or to research supporting technological convergence.

In the current decade, a new concept of 'converging technologies' (CT) has become a buzzword in research and technology policy expert circles. This concept differs from older notions of CT which are used, for example, in the computer and media industries. At the core of the new concept are relations, synergies or fusions between broad fields of research and development, such as nanoscience and -technology, biotechnology and the life sciences, information and communication technologies, cognitive science and neurotechnologies. Robotics, artificial intelligence and other fields of research and development (R&D) are also taken into account in the discussions. The debate on converging technologies has therefore been characterised as a 'forum for exploring the future impact of all science and engineering' (George Khushf at a CONTECS workshop).

The starting point of the discussions about the CT was a 2001 research and technology policy initiative in the United States which has often (and, in a way, incorrectly) been regarded as a major official United States initiative. This so-called NBIC (nano, bio, info, cogno) 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 set up a high-level expert group: 'Foresighting the new technology wave'. The major findings of this expert group reflected the intention to develop a different approach to technological convergence to that pursued by the United States initiative. While the latter focuses strongly on enhancement of the individual human being, the European concept of 'CT for the European Knowledge Society' (CTEKS) adopts a demand-driven approach in which CT respond to societal needs and demands.

A major theme in both the United States 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 United States approach argues for a new unity of science underpinned by reductionism enabled by the possibility of tracking virtually everything down to the nano-level. While the research policy activities on convergence, which until recently have largely been confined to foresight projects, reflect the international diversity of agendas, the debate on CT, even in the European Union, still exhibits a clear focus, namely technologies that can be used for 'human enhancement', for a massive modification of human bodies in terms of a possible 'reconstruction of man', or even for the creation of 'post-human' beings. These wide-ranging visions which have not only accompanied, but, in a way, determined the discourse on CT have already sparked debates in research fields such as the ethics of technology, technology assessment, utopian studies, theology, and in diverse subfields of science and technology studies (STS). There is therefore a growing body of scholarly literature on the CT topic, although the CT concept is not yet very apparent in the pertinent natural sciences and engineering fields.

We have argued that ontological politics are key to understanding the origins, direction and fate of converging technologies. The upshot of ontological politics is no less than the very nature and range of the entities which are thought to fall under the purview of CT. These include determinations of matters such as the character of humans in a post-human world, the sources of relevant expertise, appropriate interdisciplinary collaborations, likely applications and developments, and determinations of ethical implications and societal impacts, to name but a few.

First, we examined the historical and institutional origins of CT, focussing in particular on the genesis and currency of visions of trans-humanism. These visions serve as powerful instruments in the ontological politics of convergence. Indeed, it is important to note that these visions - 'utopian' as well as 'dystopian' ones - often function as central elements of worldviews with deep roots in the Western history of ideas and a political significance which exceeds research and technology policy in a narrow sense. One important consequence is that decisions about which social sciences and humanities approaches are appropriate to understanding CT, are themselves shaped by the ontological politics in play. Thus, for example, the political construction of 'nano-convergence' in the United States provides evidence of the decisive role that major funding institutions play in setting the agenda and even in determining the goals and major contents of ELSI-related activities. The contribution of individuals within these institutions has been so substantial and determinant that overall the ELSI-related activities appear to largely reflect their personal ideological inclinations.

EU activities on CT have not been marked by the same marginalisation of academic and other non-governmental contributors as was largely the case in the United States (cf. TAB 2008). The strongly ELSI-oriented concept of CTEKS, developed by external experts (HLEG 2004), was subsequently seen as the official EU approach to the topic and inspired a range of other research activities. However, several experts on the European Commission staff have played or still play very active roles in shaping the EU discourse on convergence, some of them with ideas which are largely unconnected to the CTEKS ideas and goals.

The European debate on converging and emerging technologies is characterised by a greater degree of diversity of actors and views than does the political debate in the United States. An important role is played by the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (e.g. EGE 2005). Thematically persistent EU-funded research activities and discussions range from state-of-the-art reports by leading trans-humanists (Bostrom & Sandberg, 2006) through explorations of the wider philosophical aspects of cognitive enhancement (Lüttenberg, 2006), analyses of the role of social sciences and humanities in and with regard to processes of techno-scientific convergence and foresight studies and debates on CT (e.g. STOA 2006), to investigations concerning the actual relevance and potentials of convergence with regard to its socio-economic impacts and R&D in the NBIC fields (e.g. Van Lieshout et al., 2006), or the ethics of emerging fields of S&T.

Much of this discourse is informed by the work of the expert group (HLEG, 2004) that developed the first European CT concept and thereby adheres to their critical stance towards an 'engineering of the mind' and the post-humanist overtones of the United States NBIC initiative. However, not only are trans-humanist perspectives and actors integrated in the discourse, but highly visionary or radical aspects of HET and convergence are thematicised by policy actors (e.g. Bonazzi, 2007).

Second, we have shown that by using methods of textual analysis we can understand some of the ways in which ontological politics are enacted in contemporary discussions and debates. These discussions do not explicitly feature visions of CT; they are not intended as contributions to policy debates about CT. Instead, they articulate questions and concerns about what, after all, CT might be, who is doing what kinds of work under the CT rubric, whether this entails substantial realignments of disciplinary practices, to which organisations or agencies one is accountable, and so on.

These more down to earth, everyday discussions and exchanges are nonetheless vital to the evolution of a discourse on CT. These are the practices and processes whereby participants offer and tell stories about CT could be. They are the means by which academics, scientists, policy makers and others learn how to speak about CT. In exchanging and communicating views, they contribute to emerging narratives about what, for example, are the promises and pitfalls of trans-humanism. By engaging in these discussions, they come to enact and perform the essential ingredients of what CT actually comprise. One result of all this, as we hinted earlier, is the emergence of what Foucauldians might call the CT subject position. The CT discourse makes available appropriate ways of thinking and being a CT subject.