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, civilisation, 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 even picked up by some of the mass media, nongovernmental organisations (NGO), and private enterprises. For analytical purposes, we can distinguish between:
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 characterised 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 characterised 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.
If different things converge, they begin to become more similar, to move toward one another, or merge. »Convergence" in these and similar meanings has, just like its opposite, the term »divergence", been an established expression in different disciplines for a long time.
While there were discussions about convergence processes, in particular with regard to media and information technologies, just before the new conceptions of convergence arose, the American initiators of the first CT initiatives also drew on other scientific and political sources when they developed their concept. To judge by appearances, the spread of the new concepts of convergence within the realm of science and technology has been constrained in narrow borders. One reason for this may well be the fact that these concepts usually have been inadequately clarified and are too general for anyone to be able to generate concrete questions and project goals with regard to collaboration between specific areas of research and development. Many ongoing political and scientific activities on the subject of CT therefore aim to clarify the concept or to make it concreter in relation to the relatively clearly delineated areas of research and the potential fields of applications.
Even though numerous fields of research and development in science and technology have been discussed in the CT debate, the focus of the original American initiative on four fields has retained its predominance. These four fields are nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science, which are often referred to collectively by the abbreviation »NBIC". The term »converging technologies" has become accepted usage instead of »converging sciences and technologies" although even the American initiative on converging technologies emphasised in various points that the processes of convergence also involved nanoscience, bioscience, information science, and, in the case of cognitive science, brain research and neurotechnology. Yet even the four NBIC fields are characterised by a high degree of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration and technological convergence. The focus on NBIC, even where it has been maintained, thus only appears to be relatively concrete.
The agenda »Converging Technologies for the European Knowledge Society" (CTEKS), published in 2004 and developed the year before by a high-level EU expert group, took a different route. While this agenda also pays strong attention to the NBIC fields, it employs a much more general understanding of the CT concept. This understanding emphasises the numerous interactions and mutual enrichments that take place between a large number of sciences and technologies (including the humanities and social sciences), without firmly asserting which convergence processes are particularly relevant and while emphasising the open character of the converging technologies with regard to areas of social application.
The subject of convergence was also a topic for national research policies outside the United States, at least to a limited degree. In Germany, the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) identified a connection between the subject of CT and microsystems technology (specifically »Converging Technologies for Smart Systems Integration"), a field of research and development in which different convergence processes are given much attention, especially between the NBIC fields. State funding in Canada and Spain was given to foresight and pilot projects on the subject of convergence. Moreover, there are diverse activities in countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Overall, the political activities on the subject of convergence are still limited largely to foresight and technology assessment, conferences, social scientific and ethical studies on nanotechnology, and individual articles in the different fields of science and technology. The most important exception in this regard is the EU, which included a whole series of funding measures, especially on nanoscience and nanotechnology, in its new Seventh Framework Program under the label »Converging Sciences and Technologies".
It is anticipated that a convergence of the technical sciences on the nanoscale will produce fundamental improvements in the core areas of social applications, but also substantial dangers. Opposing opinions, which are often understood as polarities of »utopian" and »dystopian", characterise some of the discussions about research policy. Although the apocalyptic and the optimistic forms of futurism largely share the same assumptions as to future opportunities for scientific and technical development, the goading between these poles just serves to escalate the conflict.
The CT topic plays a special role in these discussions. A debate about far-reaching visions accompanied the decision, made in 2000, to raise nanotechnology and the nanosciences to a central, transdisciplinary field of research and to provide them government funding. The first CT initiative, which originated in precisely this context, was furthermore dragged into the so-called American culture wars over bioethical issues. This was partly due to the fact that the President's Council on Bioethics, which is generally considered to represent conservative values, criticised it. The focus of this criticism was the close linking of the CT conception of this so-called NBIC initiative with visions of far-reaching human enhancement, i.e., a technological modification of the human body and an ongoing merging of the human mind with machines.
During the same period of time, strong forces within the NBIC initiative attempted to forge an open alliance with the small but internationally organised futuristic movement of the »transhumanists". This movement has recently become a favourite target of attacks by critics, both conservatives and others. The expectations of the transhumanists and some other key figures within the NBIC initiative even include visions of an »enhancement society", the realisation of which could be furthered by measures that include the legalisation of »genetic doping" and previously outlawed drugs, and which culminate in the hope that death will be overcome by means of science and technology. It is especially these particular features of the initiative that lead the CT debate to exhibit such an extremely visionary character and to focus on the topic of human enhancement.
Although most of the social conflicts that are now becoming apparent have been limited to academic discussions, a few of the controversies have nonetheless already attained a certain degree of political relevance. Besides protests (especially in France) and the actions of several NGOs, these include above all the conflicts between religious forces and transhumanist or libertarian activists and academics that take place, primarily in the United States. Apparently the effects of the convergence processes affecting science and technology are focusing our attention on the relationship between nature and technology and between the grown and the artificial. Competing views of human nature and of the human condition play an important role. The goading between the religious and the transhumanist activists, in particular, serves to increase tensions. The range of criticism extends from positions that are ecologically motivated and critical of globalisation, to conflicts over concepts of human nature and the significance of these concepts for the fundamentals of our democracy (such as human rights), to the firmly religious arguments in which posthumanist and other technofuturist concepts are interpreted as an expression of human arrogance and a turning away from god (or as »hubris"). A precondition for the realisation of these posthumanist visions is the technical modification and enhancement of the human body (e.g., through novel implants), by means of which previously fundamental physical and mental limitations (and thus the species Homo sapiens) are to be transcended. Another precondition, besides this transhumanist idea in a narrower sense, is the development of AI that is similar or better than man's in quality and that together with mankind—or even in its stead—will become the driver of evolution. In this context, posthumanism appears to be a recognisable intellectual and sociocultural movement that in one or another form is working to create nonhuman beings that are cognitively superior to humans.
Beyond academic circles and the feature sections of quality media, bioethical topics will most probably continue to attract the attention of the general public. They get the attention of large portions of the public or of certain groups (e.g., the disabled or pregnant) who are affected by scientific and technological developments in a particularly strong manner.
In summary, we can say that criticism of the promoters of convergence visions and diverse »human enhancement" technologies is roughly along two primary lines of attack:
Other political features that are often mentioned are the relevance of the military options for utilising these new technologies and the fact that some strategies are characterised by a fixation on technology and by technological determinism. Moreover, political and historical facets of the convergence issue and posthumanism have attracted critical and even polemical attention in various academic disciplines.
Until now, research on the subject of convergence has focused on the conceptual ambiguities and the ideological aspects of the debate over converging technologies. Only isolated attempts have been made to examine the different fields of research and development systematically and comprehensively from a convergence perspective. A review of the state of research and of the discussion that deals explicitly with convergence processes and that takes the results of relevant studies on individual areas of the NBIC fields into account produces an initial picture of the relevance of these processes to research and development and to research and innovation policy.
Although scientometric research on this question is still in its infancy, there are signs that the (very limited) spread of the new concepts of convergence is due to political activities and to the nonscientific accompanying research on them. This is the case even though these new concepts relate to a number of scientific concepts. The new concepts are used somewhat more frequently in the fields of the nanosciences, nanotechnology, ICT, and biomedical technology. They and related abbreviations, such as NBIC and CT, are used sporadically at conferences in various scientific communities, in project applications submitted to political institutions, and much less frequently (to judge from their online visibility) in the scientific literature than by ethical advisory groups, in accompanying research, and in other studies in the social sciences and humanities.
Independent of the question as to the relevance of the new concepts of convergence, it is obvious that processes take place over and over again in science and technology in which new areas of research and development arise according to their own laws as a result of new mergers or fusions of different fields or disciplines. Bibliometric analyses have also shown that in the past 10 years there has been a clear increase in the number of publications on research and development in the areas where the NBIC subjects overlap. The upward trend in the use of concepts that increasingly blur the border between technology and nature, between the inanimate and the living that has been spurred by the discussion about nanotechnology can be seen as another indication of the wide acceptance of convergence in the NBIC fields.
Despite all the new labels and the fact that some of the reasons for their genesis and continued development certainly lie outside research (e.g., strategies directed at obtaining financial support and investments), it is impossible to overlook the fact that a number of areas of research and development are mentioned in this context over and over again. Examples of these areas can especially be found in basic research and in early phases of research and development. An increase in convergence in applied research is nonetheless frequently expected or at least described as desirable.
Relevant areas of research and development in this context are brain-machine interfaces and implants; imaging processes in brain research; the processing and recognition of natural speech; artificial neural networks, pattern recognition and computer vision; bioinformation science, computational biology, noninvasive techniques for diagnosing and monitoring the health status of an individual, invasive biodevices, biometry, biomimetics, virtual reality applications for biological systems, nanobiotechnology and nanomedicine, artificial intelligence, nanoelectronics, nanophotonics, and the fields of simulations and modeling. Particularly strong impacts of the NBIC convergence processes are anticipated for the multiple applications of microsystem technology, the health sector, the military, and the ICT industry.
From the point of view of bionics (in the sense of biomimetics), the NBIC convergence processes have led to an increase in the use of bionic principles and to a movement beyond them. Learning from nature and from imitating it in order to create artefacts is increasingly turning into a construction of new bridges between the living and the non-living or a modification of natural processes and structures for the purposes of design, which even extend to the vision of technically creating biological entities »from scratch". This transition follows from the appearance of the »new bionics" in the context of the NBIC convergences and of other developments such as synthetic biology.
In the field of neurotechnology, some neuroprosthetic aids were introduced some time ago for people with handicaps. They are now being supplemented by new developments, especially to replace sensory ability, and by initial attempts and visions for achieving complex man-machine interfaces, which are so to speak supposed to couple the biological system of the brain directly with IT systems. New brain-machine interfaces, prostheses to compensate for sensory limitations and improve one's motor ability, and also visions about implants that can improve cognitive achievement all belong to the core topics of the CT debate, especially with regard to the topic of human enhancement. Some assume that particularly effective future technologies to improve cognitive capacity might, despite all the risks, make neuroimplants attractive even to people who are not sensorially or psychically handicapped, and in the United States this is even beginning to be considered relevant for innovation policy. From the perspective of NBIC convergence, various neurotechnologies appear to be advanced forms of NBIC convergence in which an integration of nanotechnological and scientific aspects appear to be considered possible. Neurotechnology can therefore be considered a key to understanding the CT debate, especially if it is situated within a broad concept of the cognitive sciences.
Even though some very ambitious projects in military research, especially in the United States, point toward radical human enhancement by means of using and promoting NBIC convergence, we still have to recall that precisely many of the visions that are most controversial in ethical-social debates, are either still in an very early phase of research and development or appear completely fantastic.
International comparisons of relative strength in the area of converging technologies encounter special difficulties, not only because of the ambiguities in many conceptions of convergence, but also because of the large differences in research policy and in innovation systems between different nations and different regions of the world. The initial studies of convergence emphasised that the significance of their own results should not be overvalued for a number of reasons, especially with regard to the interpretation of the data and estimates that were based on scientometric analyses, foresight metastudies, and expert interviews. Using the appropriate caution, it is nevertheless possible to draw some conclusions about convergence processes between the four NBIC fields, such as that science in the EU exhibits weakness in the efficacy of it publications (measured by the frequency of their being cited) and in that financial support of research is suboptimally organised. Within the EU, Germany occupies a leading position for most of the NBIC fields of convergence.
The typical strengths, weaknesses, and challenges of the European research and development and innovation landscapes are also reflected in the situation of converging technologies. These include, for example, high-performance research, problems in the commercialisation of scientific and technological innovations, and strong competition from the emerging economic powers, in particular those in Asia. In view of the key role that nanotechnology plays for new convergence processes, it is remarkable that Europe is competitive in the area of public support for research and development, but that European industry's proportion of investments in research and development is relatively small compared to, for example, that of the United States.
Increased financial support for multidisciplinary institutions and new guidelines and programs for supporting interdisciplinary research and development may be needed in the EU, for which the perspective of convergence might be advantageous. Innovations could probably be achieved in Europe relatively easily in the health sphere, with ICT playing a central role. In this and other areas, Europe could occupy the leading position scientifically in certain specialised fields. In cognitive science, Europe has the advantage over the United States that a multitude of theoretical approaches and specialisations exist in Europe, an advantage that it has hardly taken advantage of. Support for this key area of NBIC convergence offers special opportunities. The convergence strategies of other countries, such as Canada, start with any existing advantages and pursue the goal of expanding this strength. The demand is often raised in the CT debate that science orient itself on the specific needs and problem situations of society in order to be able to provide support for dedicated convergence processes.
The EU has now become the primary global actor with regard to activities in research policy that are explicitly related to processes of technoscientific convergence. During this expansion, the EU made itself largely independent of the content particularities of the American NBIC initiative, especially with regard to the emphasis on human enhancement. In the EU's Seventh Framework Program, the idea of convergence has developed into a key element in the support of nanoscience and nanotechnology and gained in significance in other areas, especially ICT and emerging technologies of the information society. At the same time, the EU has apparently become the most active party regarding funding of research on convergence that takes place outside the natural sciences, the so-called accompanying research. Germany's mark of distinction among countries is that it was the first country after the United States to create project support specifically for the research and further development of scientific and technological convergence processes. Canada and Spain have, in particular, initiated noteworthy steps to develop national convergence strategies. In India, prominent politicians have been extremely euphoric about the future perspectives of converging technologies, sometimes closely following the visionary program of the American NBIC initiative and the ideas of nanofuturism. As an important topic for the future, NBIC convergence has also found its way into the national strategy documents of South Africa (just as of Germany) on nanotechnology.
With regard to future perspectives, the international development that might be of special interest for German policy is the degree to which the reassessment of the idea of convergence at the level of the EU will result in concrete funding measures and other, conceptual activities. It is also possible that the NBIC initiative or some other new force will once again renew the subject of convergence in the United States beyond the current, very circumscribed activities (e.g., in case there is a change with a new administration that may have to be less cautious regarding the concerns of conservative religious groups regarding far-reaching visions of convergence and human enhancement).
The American NBIC convergence initiative originated in the context of political activities regarding the ethical, social, and legal implications of nanotechnology. This was a field in which the question of how futuristic visions should be handled played a central role from the very beginning. In addition to the focus chosen for the fields of definitions and objects, which have raised some questions especially about the understanding of cognitive science, the political-cultural aspects that have already been mentioned have above all made the NBIC initiative appear strange. It is obvious that the initiative has missed its goal of becoming an official political initiative, similar to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).
The results of the analysis also show that the NBIC initiative had already passed its zenith in 2003 and 2004. Important participating institutions, such as those from military research, had already withdrawn. Changes in staffing at its two primary supporting institutions, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce, led to particularly active members losing influence in this context. The appeal of the initiative to renowned scientists is also apparently less that was originally anticipated. Judging by the most recent publications, papers from the spectrum of organised transhumanism are obviously gaining in significance. Funding for research with an explicit reference to the NBIC or similar convergence concepts, which was rather limited even during the prime period of the NBIC initiative, is only present in a few activities of the National Science Foundation (especially for basic and accompanying research in nanoscience and for scientific cooperation).
In the Seventh Framework Program, the significance of the convergence concept increased at the strategic-programmatic level and in project funding. This is because:
areas, will continue to take place with increasing reference to the concept of convergence. At the level of the EU, especially by those responsible for the nanosciences and nanotechnologies, a special need is felt for the further development of an all-encompassing social and political vision of converging technologies, one which is tied to the core themes of EU policy, such as the knowledge society and quality of life. Building on the previous conceptual activities of the CTEKS expert group and other actors, several recently completed and current projects examine the social, economic, and ethical facets of convergence processes in science and technology. The entire range of views—from those of transhumanists to religious conservatives—can be found in the ethical and political discussion about converging technologies and human enhancement and about accompanying research that is funded, which has also been triggered by activities of the European Commission.
Undecided is whether the convergence concept will be important beyond the area of nanoresearch, foresight, and ICT and whether the international CT debate will lose its previous focus on human enhancement. Also undecided is the future of the NBIC concept, which is also frequently used at the EU level: whether and, if yes, how the cognitive sciences can become a partner among equals with the three other fields is still largely unclear. There is a need for concretisation and in particular for action on the suggestion made in the CTEKS agenda, namely to put the debate and actions regarding CT on a broader footing by systematically including other scientific, scholarly and technological perspectives and social groups.
At a political level but also beyond it, Germany's positions on the subject of convergence and the CT debate are relatively further developed. It is certain that:
These findings, the last of which still has to be empirically verified, show that the topic of convergence has come of age in Germany. It is still questionable, however, whether the CT debate should be taken as the opportunity to politically promote the social dialogue about science and technology (and especially about the topic of human enhancement). Questionable is also whether the new concepts of convergence offer an occasion to critically examine the strategies for research policy and innovation policy. Given the current state of the debate, official German activities would presumably attract a high degree of attention. In making the political determination of whether this is desirable or not, it would be important to consider the social, ethical, and cultural aspects of the subject, not just the issues of research policy in a narrower sense.
So far there have not been any reasons for urgent political action on the subject of converging sciences and technologies. The CT debate could however be viewed as an opportunity for political action, especially at the level of strategic issues in research, educational, and technology policy, in support of accompanying research, and possibly with reference to certain strongly interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary areas of research and development.
In principle, however, the question as to who might possibly profit from the concept of convergence is still waiting to be answered. Each of the so-called converging technologies and sciences already occupies a firm place in German research and in funding programs. Included there are also interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary aspects and technology developments affecting multiple fields. The results of research and analyses about CT initiatives in Europe and elsewhere only suggest that German strategies should periodically be verified by viewing them in the overall context of such international activities. The uniquely ideological and visionary character of the debate on convergence, especially in the United States, should give us pause for careful reflection before proceeding with a realignment of policy on research, education, science, and technology along the lines of CT. In anchoring the concept of CT in a subfield of microsystems technology, German research policy reacted faster and more concretely to the enigmatic CT issue than was the case in any other country.
The following options for policy measures that are directly related to the concept of convergence and the subject of CT must be emphasised:
Convergence as an aspect of the funding measures for nanotechnology and microsystems technology; The convergence perspective as a new approach to promoting multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research and the development of technology that can be used in various fields; Enrichment of the political and social discussion and possibly dedicated funding to converging technologies and sciences for work on advanced and anticipated options for human enhancement; The issue of convergence as the starting point for a broad and critical political and social dialogue on current scientific and technological developments and on their perspectives.
It is important to note for all of these options that the concept of convergence was strongly normatively loaded in a posthumanist, futurist sense, especially in the United States. It is therefore advisable for there to be a critical handling of the visionary aspects of the debate on convergence, including its place in the historical traditions and its ideological aspects, even if, as in the first two options, the focus is on scientific and technical research and development in a narrow sense and without any particular reference to human enhancement.
The first option (i.e., largely restricting the convergence perspective to basic research in the nanosciences and to micro-nano integration that is oriented to system applications) is concerned especially with the continuation and extension of the relevant previous activities of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. It continues to appear sensible to evaluate similar activities outside Germany, particularly at the EU level and in the United States, and to continue networking. It is questionable how the desired stronger inclusion of the cognitive sciences and of neurotechnology can be meaningfully possible if the comprehensive aspects of the CT debate are not taken into account. It would seem desirable first to:
Among the advantages of the approach oriented on micro-nano integration and the development of smart systems are its strong and immediate applied nature, the relatively high degree of concreteness, and the link to an established tradition in research and development. Whether it is advantageous to increase the extent to which cognitive science is included appears uncertain, however. The American NBIC initiative might be an example that urges us to be cautious. At any rate it teaches us that the inclusion of human potential can only lead to the desired push if it is done on the basis of real expertise from cognitive science. Furthermore, precisely for smart systems integration, which was chosen as the focus in Germany, it is sensible for the results of research in the social sciences and humanities to carry more weight, as should their approaches.
Some of the same challenges are encountered in the second policy option, particularly with regard to coordinating existing research funding programs that are strongly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary with a new convergence initiative. Here it also appears advisable for activities (a) for evaluating already completed or existing programs and (b) for promoting multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary work and transdisciplinary technology development from the perspective of convergence to be intensified, including at the EU level. Preparation of a more extensive CT initiative should, similar to strategies in Spain and Canada, include taking stock of the German R&D landscape, also by innovation-oriented inclusion of the social sciences and humanities in convergence processes in the natural sciences and technology (i.e., beyond the boundaries of traditional accompanying research on ethical, legal, and social aspects).
One crucial prerequisite for sensible use of the convergence concept would probably be a further development which goes beyond the approaches found in the United States and some other CT initiatives that have to date often been superficial and rather rhetorical. One option is a convergence concept that is discipline- and technology-neutral, such as was in principle suggested at the EU level in the CTEKS Agenda. Such a concept would have the advantage that certain R&D areas would not be the focus from the outset and other possibly highly innovative and socioeconomically more relevant areas would not be neglected. Increased attempts should be made to create convergence hierarchies, whereby for instance »core sciences" such as chemistry and physics, broad R&D fields (e.g., biotechnology) and established new and emerging R&D areas that are strongly inter- and transdisciplinary should be distinguished and only thereafter would the manifold convergences be systematically analysed.
Such an analysis could both serve as a guide for a reorganisation of the fields of support for research and offer an opportunity to distinguish between different types of convergence. Distinctions could be drawn between weak convergence, in which the results of research and development from other fields would only have the character of supporting results, convergence via inspiration, in the sense of conceptual or theoretical enrichment, and those strong forms of convergence in which new areas of research and development form with their own trajectories and in which knowledge or skills from multiple fields contribute directly to innovations. A guide could be funding for convergence that is problem oriented, objective, and pragmatic in which
Here it would be possible to pick up from activities in the EU and of other actors regarding new and emerging areas of research and development, even though some of those activities have to be seen critically. Increased efforts at informing and including the public and science in its entire range (including disciplines outside the natural sciences) appear to be appropriate.
In the third option, which was also referred to in a completed project on brain research conducted by the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Parliament, the focus would lie on the so-called human-enhancement technologies (HET). The task would be to systematically identify their risks and potential, including according to higher level issues related to our images of man and of society. Precisely this is an area where an early social dialogue appears desirable. So far such a dialogue has been isolated and very infrequently has taken the convergence perspective into consideration.
In particular with a view to the EU level and to current activities of the German government, it would be inappropriate to limit the concept of convergence to technologies for enhancing human performance and for improving properties of humans. Since the technologies that come into question (e.g., in the area of neuroelectric interfaces) exhibit a relatively high degree of convergence, it is conceivable that the topic could be embedded in CT steps. Thus, human enhancement could be considered as an aspect of CT development. In this case, one field of systematic study should be which medically therapeutic potential these technologies have and which consequences there would be if HET were treated as a growth area in regard to non-therapeutic luxury applications, lifestyle applications, and mass applications.
Furthermore, it appears appropriate to differentiate more strongly between the different forms of HET. On the one hand, the more conventional pharmaceutical and surgical enhancements should be distinguished from the more radical possibilities in a direction that are on the horizon or emerging or present only in visions. On the other hand, certain aspects offer themselves as focal topics, in particular HET to compensate for disabilities and in prospective military uses, including the ongoing activities in the area of research for military and security purposes (especially in the United States). These two possible areas of focus happen to not only be the fields in which most of the concrete research and funding action is located, but also those where the most urgent ethical and social questions arise. It would be possible to distinguish conceptionally between a tool or aid (e.g., night-vision goggles) on the one hand and devices firmly attached to the body or implanted on the other, between long-term or permanent improvements in performance and temporary increased performance (e.g., using drugs). Human enhancement in the strictest sense would then only mean long-term effective or permanent modifications aimed at improving human performance which are brought about by interventions in the human body made possible by science and technology.
The fourth option is concerned with the stimulation, enrichment, and extension of the social discourse about science and technology as a whole. It introduces the convergence perspective as a structuring element.
In addition to the ideas developed at the EU level to stimulate the systematic extension of the discussion of convergence (e.g., the suggestions in the CTEKS agenda), various other instruments and concepts from technology assessment could be deployed. The nature of the instrument »vision assessment" is rather to provide support for action and orientation. It is designed to promote primarily our political and social self-understanding, but also the political management of visions. There are various procedures, methods, and concepts – some of them long since tried and tested – of technology assessment and foresight that are available for the political-scientific organisation and stimulation of the social discourse on science and technology. It would be possible to link up with pertinent projects of the German government, at EU level, and in other contexts. It would also seem desirable to intensify consideration of areas in the social sciences and humanities that are most often neglected in discussions about research policy and the debate about science policy. And finally it would be a good idea to consider political debate and research on ethical aspects of the various converging technologies and sciences, which have increased markedly in significance in recent years not only in the context of political institutions but also in a progressive differentiation (in addition to bioethics and information ethics, there is now neuroethics and nanoethics).
Particularly with this option – but also with the third one – the German Parliament could without a doubt play an important (and thereby presumably also an internationally relatively strongly regarded) role. The great diversity of thematic aspects and ideological conflicts which is inherent in the CT debate seems to make a cautious approach advisable. The results of current research on topics related to convergence and related themes such as human enhancement and synthetic biology should be taken into consideration. It seems advisable to interlock such activities with those of other European parliaments and to intensify the inclusion of political advisory institutions (including the Ethics Committees). Of particular significance here is probably the continued stimulation of transatlantic exchange and the inclusion of non-Western actors in the convergence debate, which to date has been dominated by the United States and Europe, particularly on the topic of human enhancement where at least some visions touch the foundations of human existence and society.
The knowledge thus gained for orientation would not only contribute to answering the question of whether a new convergence paradigm would have a solid scientific technological basis. It might possibly also support the political operationalisation of new CT concepts and the design and innovation-orientated furtherance of convergence processes.