NBIC convergence and the radical extension of life

What are NBIC?

NBIC is the acronym for Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Sciences. It is currently the most popular term for emerging and converging technologies. It was introduced into public discourse by the publication of the report “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science”, a 482-page document edited by Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge from National Science Foundation in 2002[1].

According to this report, Nanotechnology brings together all the techniques at the atomic or molecular level, Biotechnology includes genetic engineering, Computing (here includes in a general way), electronics, telecommunications, robotics or Artificial Intelligence with serious leads that could conduct to new modes of information processing such as the quantum computer; finally, the Cognitive sciences which ultimate objective is the total comprehension of the functioning of the human brain, and for which the decoding of the human genome should play a major role. These four lines of research are advancing at a brisk pace and can each bring new perspectives towards a better understanding of life, or a better use of resources.

As the upper diagram shows, “the report underlines several broad, long-term implications of converging technologies in key areas of human activity, including working, learning, aging, group interaction, and human evolution” (p.x). The confluence of technologies offers, according to the report, the promise of improving human lives in many ways, and the realignment of traditional disciplinary boundaries that will be needed to realize this potential. New and more direct pathways towards human goals are envisioned in working habits, in economic activity, and in the humanities. This implies, according to the authors, that if the convergence of these technologies is considered a priority in research and development, all this is possible in the next 10 or 20 years for the greater benefit of Humanity. A "golden age" or even a "turning point in human history" is therefore more than ever within our grasp.

NBIC and digital transhumanism

NBIC technologies are of interest to transhumanists for their potential to valorize humans, as well as for other possibilities they open up, such as the radical extension of life.

By definition, as proposed by the Singularity Symposium: "Transhumanism is the belief that technology can enable us to improve, increase and surpass the limits of our biology. Specifically, transhumanists like Max More, Natasha Vita-More and Ray Kurzweil believe that by merging man and machine through biotechnology, molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, science will give birth to humans with cognitive abilities augmented, who will be physically stronger, emotionally stronger and have an infinite life expectancy. This path will lead to intelligent post-human beings far superior to man, almost an incarnation of God. “[2]

Transhumanism became popular in the 1990s with the emergence of the concept of "NBIC convergence". The idea of ​​some researchers is to synergize NBIC in order to increase the power of research and allow for spectacular progress. For the transhumanists, thanks to the NBIC technologies, the man is destined to improve himself continuously, getting modifiable every day by himself.

Today, Google has become a leading architect of the NBIC revolution and actively supports transhumanism, including sponsoring of the “Singularity University” which trains NBIC specialists. At the head of this establishment, the famous Ray Kurzweil, chief engineer of Google[3].

What impact and what perspectives?

Since the 2000s, optimistic views have been made on the convergence of NBIC, as well as how this convergence could be used to improve human performance. These ideas have been carefully developed and presented in several 'NBIC workshops' in the United States.

In France, Laurent Alexandre, a former doctor, converted as a new technologies expert, has emerged as one of the most visionary analysts of technological revolutions. His thesis "The death of death", published in 2011, and his book "The war of intelligences" (2017) evoke the advances and the ethical and social consequences of the convergence of NBIC which creates a set of powerful tools improving significantly human performance and transforming deeply society, science, the economy and human evolution in general.

For Alexandre, as the NBIC convergence becomes better understood, the possibility that we can improve human performance in the three areas of therapy, augmentation, and designed evolution will become anticipated and even expected. In addition, the NBIC convergence represents entirely new challenges for scientists, policymakers and business leaders who, for the first time, will have new and powerful new tools for shaping markets, societies and lifestyles. The emergence of the NBIC convergence will challenge us with new ways to balance risk and return, threat and opportunity, social responsibility and competitive advantage at the dawn of the 21st century.

In addition, NBIC technologies also present significant risks, including bio-engineering pandemics, the misuse of molecular nanotechnology, unfriendly artificial intelligence, a singularity with negative consequences and other existential risks.

Major scientific figures are already raising a sound of alarm at the dangers of both NBICs and artificial intelligence that may exceed our ability as "normal" humans to contain them! This happened notably after the publication in 2014 of the test on superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, the Swedish philosopher known for his approach to the anthropic principle and his research on computer simulations. Many personalities like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates take regular participation in the debate to alert public opinion on the risks of uncontrollable super intelligence. With big names in artificial intelligence and machine learning like Yoshua Bengio, Yann LeCun, Geoffrey Hinton, Stuart Russell, Peter Norvig, Steve Wozniak and Noam Chomsky, they were among the 8000 signatories of an open letter in 2017 addressed to researchers in robotics and artificial intelligence and published on the website of the Future of Life Institute. Their goal is to recall the benefits and pitfalls of artificial intelligence. On July 15, 2017, to the governors of the American states, Elon Musk reiterated his warnings against what he calls "the greatest danger to human civilization" and called for a regulation before it was too much late.


[2] What is Transhumanism? Singualrity Symposium, 2012. http://www.singularitysymposium.com/transhumanism.html