Timely and Broad Opportunity

The sciences have reached a watershed at which they must combine in order to advance most rapidly. The new renaissance must be based on a holistic view of science and technology that envisions new technical possibilities and focuses on people. The unification of science and technology can yield results over the next two decades on the basis of four key principles: material unity at the nanoscale, NBIC transforming tools, hierarchical systems, and improvement of human performance, as described below:

a) Convergence of diverse technologies is based on material unity at the nanoscale and on technology integration from that scale. Science can now understand the ways in which atoms combine to form complex molecules, and how these in turn aggregate according to common fundamental principles to form both organic and inorganic structures. Technology can harness natural processes to engineer new materials, biological products, and machines from the nanoscale up to the scale of meters. The same principles will allow us to understand and, when desirable, to control the behavior both of complex microsystems, such as neurons and computer components, and macrosystems, such as human metabolism and transportation vehicles.

b) Revolutionary advances at the interfaces between previously separate fields of science and technology are ready to create key NBIC transforming tools (nano-, bio, info-, and cognitive based technologies), including scientific instruments, analytical methodologies, and radically new materials systems. The innovative momentum in these interdisciplinary areas must not be lost but harnessed to accelerate unification of the disciplines. Progress can become self-catalyzing if we press forward aggressively; but if we hesitate, the barriers to progress may crystallize and become harder to surmount.

c) Developments in systems approaches, mathematics, and computation in conjunction with work in NBIC areas allow us for the first time to understand the natural world and cognition in terms of complex, hierarchical systems. Applied both to particular research problems and to the overall organization of the research enterprise, this complex systems approach provides holistic awareness of opportunities for integration, in order to obtain maximum synergy along the main directions of progress.

d) At this unique moment in the history of technical achievement, improvement of human performance becomes possible. Caught in the grip of social, political, and economic conflicts, the world hovers between optimism and pessimism. NBIC convergence can give us the means to deal successfully with these challenges by substantially enhancing human mental, physical, and social abilities. Better understanding of the human body and development of tools for direct human-machine interaction have opened completely new opportunities. Efforts must center on individual and collective human advancement, in terms of an enlightened conception of human benefit that embraces change while preserving fundamental values.

The history of science across the vast sweep of human history undermines any complacency that progress will somehow happen automatically, without the necessity for vigorous action. Most societies at most points in their history were uninterested in science, and they advanced technologically only very slowly, if at all. On rare occasions, such as the pyramid-building age in Ancient Egypt or the roughly contemporaneous emergence of intensive agriculture and trade in Babylon, the speed of progress seemed to accelerate, although at a much slower rate than that experienced by Europe and North America over the past five centuries. For modern civilization, the most relevant and instructive precursor remains the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. Building on the scientific accomplishments of the Babylonians and Egyptians, the Greeks accomplished much in mathematics, astronomy, biology, and other sciences. Their technological achievements probably peaked in the Hellenistic Age as city-states gave way to larger political units, culminating in Roman dominance of the entire Mediterranean area. By the end of the second century, if not long before, scientific and technological progress had slowed with the fall of Rome. Historians debate the degree to which technology advanced during the following Dark Ages and Medieval Period, but clearly, a mighty civilization had fallen into bloody chaos and widespread ignorance.

The Renaissance, coming a thousand years after the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, reestablished science on a stronger basis than before, and technological advancement has continued on an accelerating path since then. The hallmark of the Renaissance was its holistic quality, as all fields of art, engineering, science, and culture shared the same exciting spirit and many of the same intellectual principles. A creative individual, schooled in multiple arts, might be a painter one day, an engineer the next, and a writer the day after that. However, as the centuries passed, the holism of the Renaissance gave way to specialization and intellectual fragmentation. Today, with the scientific work of recent decades showing us at a deeper level the fundamental unity of natural organization, it is time to rekindle the spirit of the Renaissance, returning to the holistic perspective on a higher level, with a new set of principles and theories. This report underlines several broad, long-term implications of converging technologies in key areas of human activity:

• Societal productivity, in terms of well-being as well as economic growth

• Security from natural and human-generated disasters

• Individual and group performance and communication

• Life-long learning, graceful aging, and a healthy life

• Coherent technological developments and their integration with human activities

• Human evolution, including individual and cultural evolution

Fundamental scientific discovery needs at least ten years to be implemented in new technologies, industries, and ways of life. Thus, if we want the great benefits of NBIC convergence within our own lifetimes, now is the right time to begin. The impact of advancing technology on the present quality of life (United Nations Development Program 2001) will be accelerated by NBIC, and new possibilities for human performance will be unleashed.

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