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Biomedicine in museums

Cyberconference on emerging/converging technologies, 7-21 May

Steve Fuller at the University of Warwick (and sometime visitor to Copenhagen) is inviting everyone to participate in a cyberconference on the ‘emerging/converging technologies’ research agenda, i.e., the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science into a common interdisciplinary framework for the alleged betterment of the human condition.

The cyberconference — which is sponsored by the EU’s 6th FRP ( ‘Knowledge Politics and New Converging Technologies’ — will start on Monday, May 7. It is organized around a number of opening statements (see below), and a week later, Steve will intervene for ‘real time’ discussion, before the conference resumes for another week’s discussions.

The opening statements are:

ECONOMIC IMPACT: The converging technologies agenda will more than pay for itself within a generation, as only marginal improvements in the performance of human beings would be needed to trigger a quantum leap in the global capacity for wealth production. This might include cutting the number of lost workdays from sickness or adding another year or two to effective job performance.

REGULATORY LIMITS: The role of national governments and international agencies in the converging technologies agenda should be mainly to ‘regulate’ research but not to dictate its exact terms or to dominate the resources necessary for its pursuit. The actual pace and direction of research should be left to specialists in the relevant sciences and technologies.

CARROTS AND STICKS: When it comes to converging technologies, ‘regulation’ should be interpreted broadly to include both the anticipation of potential harms and inequities and the provision of tax relief and legal protection designed to encourage the development of the relevant innovations. Since these innovations have the potential to re-define the human condition in fundamental ways, any proposed regulation should include a stick as well as a carrot.

HISTORICAL PRECEDENTS: An apt historical analogue for the magnitude of the impact that nanotechnology is likely to have on both the conduct of research and the economy is information technology, where in over a single generation computers came to be a universal mediator of knowledge and wealth production production. Allowing for the relevant developments, nanotechnology should occupy a role in 2050 similar to that information technology in 2000.

THE FUTURE OF WELFARE: Transhumanist visionaries like Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy have shown a remarkable lack of social science imagination in their heightened sense of security threats from recent and anticipated developments in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. They forget that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. If anything, rather than unleashing another Cold War, the converging technologies agenda is likely to foster the merger of national defence and medical care in a general ‘welfare science’.

IMPLICATIONS FOR EVOLUTION: As the enhancement of human capabilities and performance becomes integrated into everyday life, the weight of our evolutionary past will weigh more lightly. Indeed, once an entire generation has grown up used to prosthetic limbs, silicon chip implants and nanobotic medicine, talk of the genetic legacy of our hunter-gatherer ancestors will sound quaint, if not reactionary, much like reverential talk of ‘tradition’ sometimes sounds today. Darwin will finally go the way of his 19th century comrades Marx and Freud.

CHANGE IN VALUES: Short of total annihilation of Homo sapiens, it really doesn’t matter if the converging technologies agenda ends up having substantial negative consequences. By the time those consequences will have been realized, society’s value system will have adapted to them. They will then appear as a fair price to pay for the benefits made possible by the relevant advances. After all, the doomsayers 100 years ago turned out to be correct when they predicted that the proliferation of cars and planes would pollute the environment, but should we have listened to them then?

PROACTIONARY PRINCIPLE?: Some supporters of the converging technologies agenda have called for a proactionary principle to mitigate, if not replace, the precautionary principle that is nowadays often invoked to regulate research and development. The proactionary principle would have the need to do good overall outweigh the prospect of whatever particular harms might result. Among the policies licensed by this principle include limited liability laws for the application of new technologies and the liberalisation of conditions under which people might offer themselves for innovative treatments.

You can attend the conference here. To emphasize the global character of the event, the conference will allow many more languages than English, including at least French, German, Spanish, Polish, Hebrew, Portuguese and Chinese (but not Danish or Swedish?), and for this purpose Steve and the other organisers are looking for people willing to act as translators (contact or

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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