NBICS Nano BioInfo CognoSocio Convergence to Improve Human Performance Opportunities and Challenges

Jim Spohrer, IBM, CTO Venture Capital Relations, [email protected]

This paper is an exploration of new opportunities and challenges for improving human performance from the perspective of rapid technological change and convergence. In the past two million years, human performance has primarily been improved in two ways: evolution (physical-cognitive-social changes to people) and technology (human-made artifacts and other changes to the environment). For example, approximately one hundred thousand generations ago, physical-cognitive-social evolution resulted in widespread spoken language communication between our ancestors. About five hundred generations ago, early evidence of written language existed. Then the pace of technological progress picked up: four hundred generations ago, libraries existed; forty generations ago, universities appeared; and twenty-four generations ago, printing of language began to spread. Again, the pace of technological advancements picked up: sixteen generations ago, accurate clocks appeared that were suitable for accurate global navigation; five generations ago, telephones were in use; four, radios; three, television; two, computers; and one generation ago, the Internet.

In the next century (or in about five more generations), breakthroughs in nanotechnology (blurring the boundaries between natural and human-made molecular systems), information sciences (leading to more autonomous, intelligent machines), biosciences or life sciences (extending human life with genomics and proteomics), cognitive and neural sciences (creating artificial neural nets and decoding the human cognome), and social sciences (understanding "memes" and harnessing collective IQ) are poised to further pick up the pace of technological progress and perhaps change our species again in as profound a way as the first spoken language learning did some one hundred thousand generations ago. NBICS (nano-bio-info-cogno-socio) technology convergence has the potential to be the driver of great change for humankind. Whether or not this is in fact desirable, reasoned speculation as to how this may come to pass and the threats posed by allowing it to come to pass are increasingly available from futurists. Currently, this technology road of human performance augmentations is at the stage of macroscopic external human-computer interfaces tied into large social networking systems that exist today. Recently, there are the tantalizing first experiments of microscopic internal interfaces to assist the elderly or others with special needs; and then there is the further speculative road, with potentially insurmountable obstacles by today's standards, that leads to the interfaces of the future.

After setting the stage with longer-term visions and imaginings, this paper will focus on the nearer term opportunities and challenges afforded by NBICS research and development (R&D) over the next half of a generation or so. In conclusion, while futurists may be overestimating the desirability and feasibility of how quickly we can achieve many of their visions, we are probably collectively underestimating the impact of many of the smaller technological steps along the way.

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