Experts from fields ranging from regenerative medicine and brain research to synthetic biology and artificial intelligence met in November 2010 at the “Making perfect life: Bio-engineering in the 21st century” conference to discuss the way new technology is challenging society.


By Rinie van Est
Coordinator, Rathenau Institute
Member of the ISSP working group on Living Technology


On Wednesday 10 November 2010, STOA and the Rathenau Institute held the conference Making perfect life: Bio-engineering in the 21st century at the European Parliament in Brussels. As project leader I was privileged to present the results of the second phase of the Making Perfect Life project. The project entails a broad inventory of the state of the art in four bio-engineering fields – engineering of living artefacts (synthetic biology), the body, the brain, and intelligent artefacts (e.g., physical and virtual robots) – and the social issues involved. The second phase of the project has amongst other things shown that the bio-debate is rapidly expanding. During the 1990s the bio-debate was driven by developments in biotechnology, like GM food and cloning, which now and then led to fierce public controversies. Nowadays, however, bio-engineering can no longer be equated with biotechnology. Bio-engineering in the 21st century is driven by NBIC convergence, the ever-growing interaction between nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive sciences.

Maybe NBIC convergence’s most essential feature is that it blurs the boundaries between the life sciences and physical sciences, which have traditionally studied non-living material. This intensive mutual interaction drives two bio-engineering megatrends: “biology becoming technology” and “technology becoming biology.” The first trend leads to new interventions in micro-organisms, animal and human bodies (e.g., gene and stem cell therapy), and brains (e.g., deep brain stimulation). The second trend is about developing so-called living technology, or bio-, cogno-, and socio-inspired artefacts, like machines that can detect and portray simulated emotions. Our message was that these two bio-engineering trends challenge current regulatory frameworks designed to safeguard human dignity, safety, privacy, and bodily integrity. Moreover, the so-called new technology wave is also raising new types of ethical issues, like new ways of (mis)using animals, the simulation of friendship, remote warfare, and the question of how to control the engineering of emergence.

The discussion that followed was both inspiring and mind-boggling. Most experts in attendance at the conference, from fields ranging from regenerative medicine and brain research to synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, underlined the importance of the above two trends.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and STOA Panel Members Malcolm Harbour and Vittorio Prodi were clearly impressed by the multitude of ways the new technology wave is challenging society. At the end of the conference Prodi concluded: “We are living in an era of change where we really need to think ahead in order to protect human dignity.” The crucial question of course is how to think ahead, and act ahead to anticipate regulatory changes.

We are living in an era of change where we really need to think ahead in order to protect human dignity.

Vittorio Prodi, MEP

Philosopher Roger Strand made an uncomfortable observation about this issue: “We are sitting here calmly and having a casual discussion, but we may have robot wars taking place in the near future.” By this remark he challenged the (soothing) assumption that we are well able to govern the new technology wave and safeguard human dignity. Was Roger Strand signaling the calm before the storm? – A storm that Antoine Danchine later argued we are already in the eye of. But if that is the case, how can we perceive and discuss the new technology wave?

We are sitting here calmly and having a casual discussion, but we may have robot wars taking place in the near future.

Roger Strand, philosopher

 One possibility is to look at the storm from the outside, in order to perceive the bigger picture. Our study, Making Perfect Life, tries to do this by pointing at two bio-engineering megatrends. The goal is not only to inform MEPs but also to give them a framework for seeing and reflecting on technological and societal developments that are taking place at this very moment. But there is another option too: listening carefully to the weak signals. Stepen Minger from GE Health Care, for example, stated that the number of stem cells have exploded over the last five years, indicating that the technology is heading toward the market fast. We also need to listen to stories that illustrate how “living” technologies are already influencing are lives. Inez de Beaufort, member of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, remembered the time when her son asked her to fix his “dead” Tamagotchi. She refused, probably to safeguard the human value of the concept of death and what it means to care for something. We need both the big abstract stories and the small real life stories in order to identify, reflect and act sensibly on the social challenges of the new technology wave. The Making Perfect Life conference was a thrilling experience because it presented a platform in the European Parliament for the big story and some of the subtle signals.