Written by Ira van Keulen and Rinie van Est.
This essay has been previously published by the Hans van Mierlo Foundation, a scientific think tank related to the Dutch democratic liberal party (D66) and nextnature.net.
During the last few decades, the human being has become an increasingly acceptable object of study and technological intervention. We are an engineering project ourselves. An important engine behind this development is the combination of nano-, bio-, information, and cognitive technology. This so-called NBIC convergence is creating a new wave of applications, consisting in large part of intimate technologies capable of monitoring, analyzing, and influencing our bodies and behavior. In essence the NBIC convergence means a steadily more profound interaction between the natural sciences (nano and info) and the life sciences (bio and cogno). This interaction leads to two megatrends: “Biology becomes technology” and “technology becomes biology”.
In the natural sciences, a revolution has occurred in the area of materials. If in the seventies we could research and manufacture materials on a micro scale, we have now learned to do it on a nano scale. A DNA strand, for example, is almost two nanometers (or two millionths of a millimeter) thick. Nanotechnology laid the groundwork for the computer revolution. In turn, those computers make it possible to make better materials and machines. That way nanotechnology and information technology spur each other on. Digitization makes it possible to gather large amounts of data about the material, biological and social world, in order to analyze and apply it. Consider the self-driving car that makes use of digital maps and adds new information to those maps with every meter traveled. In this way a cybernetic loop arises between the physical and digital world.
The above developments in the natural sciences stimulate the life sciences, such as genetics, medicine and neuroscience. Modern equipment, from DNA chips to MRI scans, offers countless opportunities to investigate and intervene in body and brain. This leads to the statement that “biology is increasingly becoming technology”. That means that living organisms, like the human body, are seen more and more as measurable, analyzable, and manufacturable. Germline technology is a typical example of this trend. In the summer of 2017, an American research team succeeded for the first time in using CRISPR-Cas9 technology to repair a hereditary disorder in the DNA of a (viable) human embryo.
At their turn insights from the life sciences inspire the design of new types of devices: think of DNA computers and self-repairing materials. Simulation of the workings of the brain in hardware and software is for instance an important goal of the largescale European Human Brain Project, into which the European Commission has been investing a billion euros for ten years. This leads to the statement that “technology is increasingly becoming biology”. Engineers increasingly attempt to build qualities typical of living creatures, such as self-healing, reproduction, and intelligence, into technology. Examples of this second trend are artificial intelligence and android social robots.
The trends “biology becomes technology” and “technology becomes biology”, when applied to the human being, ensure that human and technology are increasingly merging with each other. The Rathenau Insituut therefore speaks of an intimate technological revolution.