Theme Summary

Panel: J.S. Albus, W.S. Bainbrídge, J. Banfield, M. Dastoor, C.A. Murray, K. Carley, M. HHirshbein, T. Masciangioli, T. Miller, R. Norwood, R. Price, P. Rubin, J. Sargent, G. Strong, W.A. Wallace

The third multidisciplinary theme is concerned with NBIC innovations whose benefits would chiefly be beyond the individual level, for groups, the economy, culture, or society as a whole. It naturally builds on the human cognition and physical capabilities themes and provides a background for the national security and scientific unification panels. In particular, it is focused on a nexus issue that relates logically to most technological applications discussed in this report and that connects all four NBIC scientific and technological realms — that is, how to enhance human communication and cooperation.

The starting point for enhancing group and societal outcomes was the workshop Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, convened by the National Science Foundation September 28-29, 2000. Members of the 2001 workshop were all given copies of the earlier workshop report (Roco and Bainbridge 2001), and they considered how to build on the earlier nanotechnology foundation to develop a broader vision giving equal weight to biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science, with a focus on enhancing human performance.

The report of the 2000 workshop stressed that the study of the societal implications of nanotechnology must be an integral part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, and the same is true for future NBIC efforts. The term societal implications refers not merely to the impact of technology on society, but also to the myriad ways in which social groups, networks, markets, and institutions may shape development of the technology. Also, as the report recognized, "...sober, technically competent research on the interactions between nanotechnology and society will help mute speculative hype and dispel some of the unfounded fears that sometimes accompany dramatic advances in scientific understanding" (Roco and Bainbridge 2001, v). Similarly, involvement of the social and behavioral sciences in the convergence of NBIC disciplines will help maximize the gains that can be achieved in human performance.

Participants first considered a wide range of likely group and societal benefits of NBIC convergence, then developed the specific vision that they judge has the greatest potential and requires the most concentrated scientific effort to achieve.

There are many potential society-wide benefits of NBIC. Working together, the NBIC sciences and technologies can increase American productivity sufficiently to maintain U.S. world leadership, solve the Social Security shortfall, and eventually eliminate poverty in the nation. NBIC can significantly help us proactively deal with the environment, create new energy sources that will reduce our reliance on foreign oil, and ensure the sustainability of our economy. Multidisciplinary research could develop a secure national integrated data system for health data that relies on nano-bio interfaces to obtain, update, and monitor personal data. Combined with new treatments and preventive measures based on NBIC convergence, such a system will extend life and improve its quality. NBIC industries of the future will employ distributed manufacturing, remote design, and production management for individualized products; cognitive control through simulated human intelligence; and a host of other techniques that will promote progress. In addition, converging technologies promise advances in simultaneous group interaction by using cognitive engineering and other new strategies.

In the vast array of very significant potential benefits of NBIC, one stands out that would catalyze all the others and that would require a special, focused effort to achieve success in the 10-20-year time frame. The panel strongly asserted that work should begin now to create The Communicator, a mobile system designed to enhance group communication and overcome barriers that currently prevent people from cooperating effectively. A concentrated effort involving nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science could develop in one or two decades a mature system to revolutionize people's capability to work together regardless of location or context.

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