Melding of nano, bio, info and cogno opens new legal horizons

NEW YORK, March 3, 2004 — Is society ready for NBIC? As nano, bio, info and cognitive technology increasingly converge, proponents of NBIC (the somewhat clunky acronym for this multitech intersection), are calling for the legal, ethical and regulatory implications to be considered from the very beginning.

The architect of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Mike Roco, co-editor of a soon-to-be updated report on NBIC convergence and human performance, said at a recent conference that “society needs to be prepared for the major changes to come.” Convergent technologies such as augmented vision or hearing, pervasive sensor networks and genetic manipulation will challenge the meaning of human nature and privacy, as well as many aspects of trade and international law.

To address these concerns, a New York-based lawyer, Sonia Miller, announced at the conference the launch of the Converging Technologies Bar Association (CTBA). The organization, which Roco and Philip Bond, Commerce Department undersecretary for technology, have pledged to support, is open to nonlawyers, a novel policy for a bar association.

Miller is just beginning to seek funding for the CTBA, but said the organization’s goal is to anticipate the issues arising from the melding of nano, bio, info and cogno. One near-term project is developing educational materials for judges.

Bond said that a body like the CTBA was needed “sooner, rather than later” to smooth the commercializing of next-generation technologies. Legal disputes and uncertainties, he said, are roadblocks to new industries needed to fuel the economy.

By combining control of bits, atoms, neurons and genes together, scientists believe people can learn faster, remember more, or even forget or erase traumatic experiences. Wirelessly networked bioMEMS sensor systems could closely monitor your body, health and external environment.

If such physical wonders and attendant concerns sound far off, or way out, consider some current research projects that exemplify NBIC convergence:

  • A team at New York University School of Medicine has succeeded in threading nanowire electrodes into a brain via a catheter, guiding the tiny filaments up through arteries and into microscopic capillaries in different parts of the brain. Such a technique offers better control than current practice of installing electrodes in the brains of patient’s with Parkinson’s disease. Moreover, the nanowire electrodes could be used to both stimulate the brain therapeutically and map the brain’s complex electrical patterns. “This is a man/machine interface, seriously,” said Rodolfo Llinas, the leader of the NYU project.
  • Lars Montelius, a physics professor from Lund University in Sweden, discussed how improvements in growing nerves on nanostructured surfaces, coupled with increased understanding of how to interconnect nerves with artificial limbs could lead to prosthetic hands or legs that respond directly to a person’s thought. Indeed, researchers at Duke University recently showed how a monkey’s brainwaves could be processed to control a remote-controlled arm.

NBIC advocates argue that training convergence on human skills would benefit society economically by improving the mental and physical efficiency of individual workers as well as the effectiveness of how groups and organizations interacted.

Mental illnesses, for example, comprise five of the top 10 causes of work disability, according to Zack Lynch, executive director of the Neurosociety Institute. He expects advances in biochips and brain imaging to lead to “neuroceuticals,” nonaddictive therapies for improving human productivity and creativity by reducing stress, heightening our senses and sharpening our intellects.

Such prognostications are currently more speculation than science. Indeed, during a panel on legal and ethical issues, Roco jumped to his feet to distance the NBIC mission from any connection to the “transhumanist” philosophy that supports overcoming biological limitations through technology. While some of the vision for NBIC may bleed over into a fringe interested in “posthuman” civilization, talk of cyborgs and mutants is presumably not good for winning support and funding for sober science.

In fact, Roco emphasized that upgrading human beings and culture over the next two decades through interdisciplinary science must be done in a way “that respects human dignity.” How that idea gets parsed as the debate moves ahead remains an open question.

One recommendation from George Khushf, a philosophy professor and bioethicist at the University of South Carolina, is to build ethical review and oversight into nanotech research and industry. Last year, Kushf and colleagues won a $1.35 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the societal impact of nanotech and related trends such as NBIC convergence.

With some advances of NBIC only a few years away, Khushf said, society needs to begin debating the implications now. But to broadly integrate ethical review into nanotech research, Kushf said that scientists may have to approach what they do in fundamentally new ways.


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