6 May 2009

Khushf, The Ethics of NBIC Convergence

by Corry Shores
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George Khushf

The Ethics of NBIC Convergence

I Convergence as Technological Evolution

The National Science foundation held a meeting to discus the convergence of nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, biomedicine, and cognitive science. Together they promise incredible new possibilities for human life. The key organizers were Mihael Roco and William Sims Bainbridge. Many events have followed. And they involved the highest and most prestigious government and private scientific organizations.

The new technologies are exciting. Soon our brains will be directly linked to computers. Our bodies will be kept in top shape, protected from aging and disease. And finally, "the promise of interstellar travel can finally be realized." We are on the verge of a golden age.

Nanotechnologies allow us "understand and control matter at the level where its macro-level properties emerge." In the same way there are hierarchical levels of emergent organizations in nature, so too could there be in the fields of scientific endeavors. If we converge the organization of nature with the organization of science, we could accelerate both science and technology.

Many subsequent NBIC meetings around the world have discussed even newer technological possibilities.

II. Convergence as a Social Technology
for Realizing the Ideas of a Knowledge-Based Economy

The EU became critical of the US and Canadian NBIC conferences. European convergentists do not settle for just the single aim of "enhancement of human performance." They also do not want to enhance human "hardware." We should not engineer the mind and body. Rather, we should develop engineering for the mind and body. The US approach involves a wide variety of opinions, including the wild speculations of futurists. The Europeans were more philosophical and less scientific. They also emphasize social and political oversight. And they worry about military applications for these technologies considered by the North Americans. Specifically, they were critical of the idea of "Soldier Nanotechnology." Americans are working on an 'exoskeleton' that would provide a protective shield for the soldier's body while enhancing muscular strength. Europeans were more interested in humanitarian and social uses, such as brain controlled limb prosthetics.

III. NBIC Convergence as a Science-Based Worldview.

Bainbridge cautions against being too cautious with these technologies. (see this entry for the basics of his argument, which is repeated here in this article).

IV. Extending the Scientific Process of Demystification
to the Convergence Myths

Alfred Nordmann wants to eliminate myths about convergence.

He notes that "the American “credo of NBIC-convergence” is “we need technological innovation to realize human potential.” "(qtd) This involves a "thin and ahistorical" perspective. Here, nature is an engineer, and nanotechnologies are extensions of evolution. According to this view, older ethical ideas are regressive.

The European approach takes a thick and substantial conception of nature. It is not a nanoengineer. It creates our biosphere. We need social innovations if we want to maximize technological potential.

Nordmann thinks we should not get too involved in the myths regarding NBIC techs, and we must develop ethical standards to guide our cautious proceeding.

V. Critical Reflection on the Dreams of Reason and Science

We see that Bainbridge and Nordmann pose opposing views. Nonetheless they share much in common. They both believe in the power of science. And neither turns to older ethical systems to guide our scientific advance.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy is more sceptical. He is not optimistic that converging technologies will work out in the end. In our future, we might loose responsible human agency. We should consider normative reasoning and critical reflections on technology. The dreams of convergentists goes back to Kant and Rousseau. Humanity is seen as a "ceaseless striving for perfection, a capacity to break free from the constraints of nature: 'man's nature is to have no nature.'" (qtd) We see the extreme form in Sartrean existentialism, 'man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.' (qtd) Now we have the current version of this philosophy in convergentism. Man is not to be born. He is to be made. Dupuy thinks convergistism will lead to catastrophe and the loss of the human meaning we derive from our limitations.

VI. The Human/Machine Interface and Human Embodiment:
Humans as Natural Born Cyborgs.

We might be disturbed by certain NDIC proposals. For example, all our brains could be hooked up to a central computer. Convergentists often envision the human as cyborg, part human, part machine.

Also, the new powers these technologies endow could be abused and create social and political inequality. This is why the EU convergentist group rejects human hardware improvements in favor of focusing on social technologies.

Andy Clark challenges this view. He sees brain-machine interfaces as being continuous with the whole history of human development. We are not locked into our bodies and brains. Our hardware can be changed for the better.

In fact, thinks Clark, humans are 'natural-born cyborgs.' The blind person integrates the cane to his body-schema. He takes-on a mechanical tool as an extension of his body. Also, we might change the wiring of our brain-body connections so that we can use our minds to manipulate sensory input. Soon the subject will blur into his technological enhancements. And new cyborg technologies will help us determine what aids human flourishing. So it will make us more attentive to important ethical issues.

[The text continues. It is available here.]

Khushf, George. "The Ethics of NBIC Convergence." in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Volume 32, Issue 3 May 2007 , pages 185 - 196.
Available at:

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