NBIC Convergence

The fields of Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science are coming together into a single field of advancement in much the same way as the television, the Internet, the cell phone and the video game are merging today. The ramifications for humans with the convergence of the NBIC technologies is far greater than the entertainment/communications merger of the TV-phone-computer.

Like the TV-Phone-Computer convergence, advances in one technology are feeding advances in the others. The result is a rapid development cycle that promises huge changes for mankind, technologically and socially. It's no longer a question of if, but when. And not even when, because it's happening now. The question of when happens when the technologies suddenly appear in the commercial, scientific, industrial and commercial markets.

The impending results of the NBIC convergence will bring technologies such as:

  • Super-extended life spans in the hundreds or thousands of years.
  • No birth defects or physical handicaps.
  • Machines with intelligence that exceeds that of humans.
  • Machines that are conscious.
  • Humans that are genetically engineered (transhumanism).
  • Humans that are part machine (cyborgs).
  • Robot companions.
  • Unlimited, cheap and clean energy.
  • Understanding of the universe beyond anything we can now comprehend.
  • Immersive reality environments where reality and virtual worlds are mixed.
Every single one of these eventualities brings with it a sense of wonder, excitement and well-deserved concern. For example, what do we do about over-population when people live forever? How will deaf people feel when their culture is dissolved with technology? How will mankind interact with machines that are orders of magnitude smarter than we are? What rights do we give conscious machines in society? How far do we take genetic engineering before we are no longer human? How non-biological can we become before we are no longer human? Robot companions, much smarter than we are, may become bored with us. A world whose economy is currently energy-based will need to reinvent itself when energy is essentially free. These are just a few of the many thousands of questions that confront us in the not too distant future.

When you see this list of "products" of NBIC convergence you get an unreal, that's really far away and nothing I need concern myself about today, kind of feeling. Some people have a "pet" technology that they follow. Perhaps they know that DNA has been engineered to create piston-like machines. Maybe you are part of the OpenCog group working on a friendly artificial general intelligence. Or, perhaps your child owns an Asimo humanoid robot. But, when you consider the advancements in each of these areas, and how one technology supports great advancements in others, it's easier to see how quickly this entire list and more will be upon us, suddenly.

Here is one example of how something that most of us are aware of will change everything else. We are all fairly familiar with the fact that advances in the amount and quality of computer memory has made our computers extremely powerful. Within a twenty year time frame we have taken the power of computers that once filled entire rooms with water chilling towers on the roof, and fit them into your pocket. That was just over twenty years ago when advances in memory, from 64k to 128k created huge advances in computing power. Personal computers are now equipped with gigabytes of processing memory. Advances in nanotechnology have led to the development of quantum dot memory which will soon allow us to have a terabyte of memory in a single square inch. Imagine a stack of those with thousands of processors, and you have suddenly surpassed today's most powerful supercomputers.

It is believed that with the power of today's supercomputers we can now pass the Turing test where a computer will fool a human into believing that it is human. The test is set for October 2008. Now, imagine five years down the road when the power of that supercomputer feels outdated because we have the same power on high-end business and research computers. Now match that computing power with advances in natural language processing, machine cognition, and machines that were designed to learn, which have been learning all these years, and suddenly you get the picture. What you have is a lot of really smart machines all interconnected and communicating with one another over a network.

The exact timing and path to these eventualities is unclear. But, as British Telecom futurist, Ian Pearson once said, "Blurred vision is a lot better than none at all!" So far, we have only touched upon a couple of the technologies in the convergence. Imagine when humans are genetically enhanced to keep up with the machines or simply connected to the machines. Already we have game headsets that only require thought to interact with the game. We have prostheses that move from nerve-machine interconnections. We have bionic eyes that allow the blind to see. Advances in biotechnolgy will allow us to also heal the body through biological means, such as an increased ability to engineer protiens that manipulate or create new genes. We will most likely re-engineer stem cells to repair or build whatever we like. Researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute have isolated hundreds of genes in mice that maintain cells in their embryonic state allowing them to become any kind of cell in the body.

In the not too distant future we will understand how to integrate genes from other animals into our own genome to overcome human deficiencies. For example, did you realize that humans were part of a very small group of animals that can not create its own Vitamin C? We could adapt the rat's gene and no longer suffer from vitamin C deficiencies.

These things are all upon us, and very few people are talking about the ramifications of the affects each of these will have on mankind. In fact, humans are fairly slow to prepare, even for eventualities. Nearly twenty years ago K. Eric Drexler wrote books about nanotechnology. His books were not so much about how the little machines would work, but more about what nanotechnology would allow us to do, and how we should prepare socially. Better late than never.

If you talk with Aubrey de Grey you may learn how NBIC convergence will allow millenial lifespans for people living today. There are so many questions that arise from this eventuality that it would require an entire book to consider them all. Who will get these medical treatments? Only the rich or everyone? If everyone gets the treatments what do we do about child bearing? How do we prepare financially for a life eternal? It probably won't be by depending on your pension fund. How do we check out when we're finished? If all our health problems are cared for by genetics, stem cells, lab-grown replacement organs and nanobots in the blood stream, how do you leave gracefully? These are important things that we as humans need to consider. We haven't done such a good job in this area. I understand why the Pope recently spoke out against the "immortality pill." Such immortality will pretty much require birth control beyond the rhythm method or abstinence. Marriages, barely able to last the current life span will not really fit the thousand year time frame.

Unlike Eric Drexler's early warning about the social concerns that nanotech would bring, we don't have a lot of time to consider what the convergence of NBIC will bring. The first reaction would be to place a moratorium on development until we have time to consider these difficult questions. That won't work for two reasons. First, we put moratoriums on things and then never talk about them except to continue the moratorium. The second reason is that not every country on the planet will agree to participate in a moratorium, which means that some place on the planet, these technologies will continue to advance and converge. Additionally, even if you were able to create a "global law" it, like every other law, would be violated. More importantly, each of these areas are fundamental to the advancement of the human race and has within its grasp the ability to correct our mistakes of the last millenium. The convergence is not really taking place on a conscious level but more because of a natural dependence each has upon the other. So, you could not expect them to advance in isolation. This is simply an eventuality, and one that will have occurred to the point of being too late to really do anything constructive in the area of planning in the next five to ten years. Even though we can now make small things invisible using nanotubes, even nanotechnology can not make this problem of social planning disappear.