September 23, 2004

Prometheus Bound (In Red Tape)

I blogged on CNE on the Converging Technologies for a Diverse Europe conference I attended 14-15 September in Brussels.

The quick of it: if the US is doing converging technologies, then the EU must of course do the same. But of course in a more ethical way, just to keep that technology from doing something unexpected. If we can get the public involved, then maybe we can avoid stupid polarizations, misuse and make the technology more human, softer, more european. But I believe it when I see it, because the highminded ideas of the report underlying the conference will be filtered through layer after layer of EU administration and agendas. In the end the result might well be completely opposite to the aim.

Some might remember the nanoethics conference I attended some months ago. Professor Alfred Nordmann discussed the need to normalize nanotechnology. Once electricity was the next great thing and it and its controllers were treated with awe. It was the mysterious power able to raise Frankenstein's monster and heal, as well as a death ray threat. But over time it became an everyday function. Today electricians are held in no greater or lesser esteem than other practical professions. No marketing team anywhere would boast that their product runs on electricity (unless it is a car, maybe). Electricity has become normal, its dangers and benefits integrated into our everyday reality. This normalization and contextualization process is beneficial, since it makes a technology part of our public conceptual world. It can be used by anybody, its use is surrounded by generally accepted norms and disagreements tend to be over rationally decidable issues (like safety) rather than the truly divisible value issues.

The report his group delivered to the EU commission is an attempt to facilitate this normalization of converging technologies. It recommends developing technology with a vision, getting more trans-disciplinary collaboration between the natural sciences and the social sciences, social empowerment through public involvement, transparency and education, and so on. All in all, the CTEKS (Converging Technologies for the European Knowledge Society) is a fairly humanistic approach to radical new technology.

But even the sanest vision might run into trouble. On the value front, it supports engineering for the human mind and body, not engineering of it. While I would support the slogan, there is no doubt that the underlying values of it in the report are far removed from my transhumanist position: I want to engineer myself for myself - to enhance my quality of life, to extend my potential, to achieve desirable states outside of past human ability. And I have no problems with other people doing the same or going in different directions. But this vision of morphological freedom is far outside the bounds of the report - it is firmly anchored in a vision of the future as the present, but better.

The only mention of transhumanism is indeed a dismissive mention of the US report as causing alarms by being too transhumanistic. And that may be the core problem of the entire EU report and conference. The easiest way of appearing to be realistic, a good intellectual european and thinking in moral terms at the conference was to dismiss or contradict the converging technologies report in one way or another. It antiamericanism combined with the usual social psychological trick of increasing the self-esteem on the in-group by denigrating the out-group. That is not to say the the US report is utterly great and a true guide to the best possible future, but it really annoys me that people define their own proposals in terms of an anti-proposal.

The core disagreement was the lack of contextualisation of the US report. That is unfair, since the report was not intended to show how these technologies fit in with everything - it aimed at showing that it was possible, and some first wild consequences in order to get the debate started. It is a bit like complaining to Benjamin Franklin that his description of the kite experiment did not warn about the aesthetic effects of lightening rods on the skyline. Now we have a field of speculation opened before us, and we can start to explore it and try to find ways of putting it into context. No need to kick the door-opener.

The second main disagreement was the commercial/military aspects of the US approach. The ethicists and sociologists were lyrical about the need to put society at the steering wheel rather than the market (or worse, engineers or the military). This was rich, given that the opening speech by the Man From the Commission pointed out the need to get stable and strong economic growth in order to meet the demands of the Lisbon strategy. Let's see, in order to do that we either need huge economic growth (the stuff free markets are good at, especially when new technologies are involved) or that new technology makes the EU a far more efficient place. But the market wasn't supposed to be running things, and the efficiency increases discussed during the conference were all just traditional efficiency (better infrastructure, better machines) rather than the real promise of these technologies - better humans. Which are of course a no-no.

But piles of euros weigh more than sociologists and ethicists. The sentiments expressed at the conference will end up in the final report and doublessly repeated gravely. But if any implementation of them threatens the bottom line, I would guess that a growth-conscious Commission would go for the bottom line. But there is a way of buying out these troublesome priests (, ethicists): Begleitforschung (“accompanying research” alongside science and technology R&D) in their areas. If the big growth-producing projects each set aside 2% of their budget to ethicists, they will hopefully be quiet and busy soaking in their newfound riches and importance. This way, the whole set of ethical and social concerns becomes a vehicle for ambitious researchers to profit.

But getting the public involved is a good thing. Far too often engineers invent devices nobody in their right mind would want. Had the biotech companies asked their consumers what kind of GMOs they wanted they might have aimed for nutraceuticals, cheap and healthy produce or pro-environment crops rather than pesticide resistant soybeans that profit high-tech farmers. The public isn’t stupid and knows a great deal more about what it wants and why than most experts. In addition, if it does not feel that decisionmakerslisten to it it will begin to resist changes - not necessarily because they are bad in themselves, but because they are unasked. And that is a great environment for those who have serious value disagreements with the promotors of new technology to channel public concern and set up self-reinforcing loops of worry (GM foods might be unsafe, so we shouldn't do any testing of it because that might be dangerous...).

But most of the really nice ideas of the report like having bottom-up "Widening Circles of Convergence" where issues, research needs or ideas for convergent technologies are brought up and disseminated, fit awfully badly with the top-down big project approach of the EU. Can citizen participation in fast-moving technologies really be achieved through big projects planned by specialized groups on multi-year timescales according to plans that have to be reported at length upwards? Can the EU handle new fields that break discipline and institution boundaries left and right (and even go beyond the borders of Festung Europa)?

In the myth, Prometheus was the titan of foresight. He ended up chained to a rock. The CTEKS vision might also end up chained at a rock (with a bald eagle picking at its liver?) through the inherent logic of the EU bureaucracy. Emerging technologies are unpredictable dynamic things, napsters and WWWs popping up not because they were decided as desirable but because somebody somewhere had a great idea and it spread like a wildfire. That is anathema to staid, top-down, society-knows-better-than-the-individual and planning-obsessed Europe. But real foresight is about knowing what might happen, making contingency plans and then handling them flexibly as events develop. Maybe the CTEKS vision works better when applied outside the EU.

Posted by Anders at September 23, 2004 09:54 PM

As a European who has some familiarity with the layers of EU administration and agendas, I can understand your frustration. At the same time I hope that the sometimes too careful and slow EU approach, based on long discussions and negotiations to achieve a final consensus, may also prove useful to facilitate the acceptance of converging, "transhumanist" technologies in Europe.

Posted by: Giu1i0 Pri5c0 at September 24, 2004 06:07 PM

It is worth noting however that for *each* year that a delay in the development of such technologies one is eliminating ~40 million lives -- as many or more than were lost in WWII.

So for each day that one accepts the "slow EU approach" one is most probably condeming thousands or more individuals to death.

I doubt that a significant fraction of Europeans would accept the idea that a premature death is a reasonable thing for the European political process to impose on itself.

Posted by: Robert Bradbury at September 24, 2004 10:24 PM

Robert, developing a technology is one thing, deploying it is another thing. You know well that there are a number of potentially useful technologies that have never reached the marketplace and never improved the lives of people.
Suppose tomorrow someone in a lab develops a prototype magic bullet. Like all prototypes, it would work in some cases and not work or even harm recipients in other cases. This would be a good step in the right direction but this step would be only the beginning of a long road. A lot of money and effort would have to be spent to convert the prototype demonstrator into operational technology. This would require acceptance by politicians, probably public funding, acceptance by regulatory authorities, and (especially) by the people in the street. Achieving all that takes time and work. These are all slow processes where you must give the system time to relax to equilibrium before moving on to the next step.
So though I am frustrated myself by the "slow EU approach", I can see its merits in terms of gradually building consensus. Of course I would like to see things happening a bit faster.

Posted by: Giu1i0 Pri5c0 at September 25, 2004 07:16 AM

I think it was "The Clock of the Long Now" that made the point that we have layers of society that change fast (fashion), slower (markets), slow (law) and very slowly (culture). It is a kind of onion with a fluid surface and more and more fixed interior layers. The upper layers adapt quickly to a change, the lower act as dampers. If changes go in the same direction long enough the lower layers move there too. This is far better than a society where all layers are similarly plastic since it will retain long-term information while adapting partially to short-term information. The timescales of change and how different they should be between different levels remains free parameters (that are non-obvious: their "optimal" values are highly dependent on the distribution of event timescales and what metric of success one uses).

Ideally this is how the EU should work. Local systems adapt to local and short-term changes, while Brussels deals with overall strategy. But the problem is that the slow-moving systems not only slow changes, but also that they tie the faster layers to their own timescale. If industries or research projects are forced into lockstep with central planning, they lose flexibility or have to spend resources circumventing the slower systems.

An interesting possibility is that the EU might be useful as a slow-moving reservoir in an otherwise fast-moving world. It would not be highly economically competitive, but it would also be less vulnerable to rapid shifts. Rather than aim for one global onion of societal change we could have several: a slow EU, a faster US and maybe an ultra-fast China or India. Since it is not clear where the optimal gradient of timescales lie, having several different approaches might be beneficial.

Posted by: Anders at September 25, 2004 07:08 PM

Beautiful and useful analogy this of the onion, I am visualizing the outer layers rotating and trying to friction drag the inner layers along.
I think the innermost layer is law, which reacts to cultural changes by codifying them when they are already solid and irreversible.
Perhaps scientific advances are seen more like fashion by Americans, more lke law by Europeans.
I see you agree that the slow approach also has its merits. It could be a T-shirt line: Americans do it fast, Asians do it faster, Europeans do it well.
But I agree that slow change should be seen as nothing more than the price to pay for thoroughness and consensus, and that things should not be made even slower than necessary.

Posted by: Giu1i0 Pri5c0 at September 27, 2004 07:23 AM

One problem with EU discussions is that nobody dares to point out that we have different views and goals. We want thoroughness but to different extent (safety testing vs. extreme precautionary principle caution). In most questions there is no european consensus and quite deep value differences - but making them visible is not popular, since it disrupts the impression of a unified Europe where a single supranational system can make decisions we all agree with.

Had the EU just been seen as a free trade zone, this would not have been a problem. I can trade with people I disagree with. The number of issues where we would have had to reach a compromise would also have been relatively small. But given that the EU tries to be so much more, it needs a lot more consensus and compromise building. And that in turn leads to ignoring dissent.

I see my role in these discussions very much as the irritating reminder that the anti-human enhancement consensus does not exist, doing my best to force a honest discussion about the issue into the agenda (and in the long run finding those good compromises). But it is hard work getting past the self-imposed filters.

Posted by: Anders at September 27, 2004 10:13 AM

You know well that there are a number of potentially useful technologies that have never reached the marketplace and never improved the lives of people!

Posted by: Gevarra at September 28, 2004 12:11 AM

Note that the nice soft and slow European approach works both ways:
There is as you say a requirement for consensus, but no nation is really willing to make too many concessions. So the only way out is to water down any proposed agreements until reaching something so soft that every nation is willing to agree.
This means that on the one hand I do not expect any brave strong push toward transhumanism in Europe anytime soon, but on the other hand, I do not expect any fundamentalist backlash AGAINST transhumanism. Since unfortunately this could happen in the US (e.g. Kass & Co.) we may consider the nice soft and slow European approach as a useful safety net for transhumanism.

Posted by: Giu1i0 Pri5c0 at September 28, 2004 06:49 PM

Great comments guys. Peter FDA

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