There are now smartphones, smart homes, and smart factories. Everything’s connected, and in the future, maybe there will even be smart blood (if Spectre, the latest 007 film, is anything to go by). The merging of different worlds of technology seems unstoppable. This convergence appears to be affecting technologies just as much as people and technology. Convergence on a general level refers to a process in which something merges into one or becomes assimilated. When technology or people and technology converge in a digital world, one must inevitably ask the question of what is actually converging and what is just becoming more closely linked.
Until now, there is no standard definition for technological convergence, neither in the world of science nor in business. The only thing people do agree about is that an assessment of converging technology always involves a debate about its societal impacts and consequences. The somewhat scientific term converging technologies (CT) refers to the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science (NBIC) in order to enhance the hitherto limited capabilities of humans with technological solutions. From a practical standpoint, convergence already appears to be an everyday reality, since intelligently combining different features and functions already stands at the core of every technological (re-) development. Given the digital revolution, technological convergence could also be seen as an increasing degree of networking, which in turn results in a convergence between people and technology.
Technological convergence takes places in a kind of digital dialogue, due to the influence of digitalization. Digitalization creates interfaces through which different technological developments communicate with one another using the required software in order to achieve the same objectives, with or without people. It is estimated that the number of objects that will be connected wirelessly to one another (without smartphones or computers) will rise from 5 to 21 billion by 2020. This dialogue between different forms of technology is driven by our willingness to make more and more data available. Fridges, smart watches, windmills, and production robots are constantly gathering information. The increasing degree of networking and our thirst for information are continuously creating new realms of data. In turn, the data this provides is used to create new services – such as windshield wipers, whose movements can be used for real-time weather reports – and these can ultimately be more profitable than the products themselves. This turns the economy into a data economy in a race to develop new platforms. It’s no coincidence that personal data is being called the most valuable raw material of the 21st century.
So as technologies converge, a process that can be seen as digital networking, the interface between humans and technology already has a fundamental significance. At the same time, the dividing line between man and machine is evaporating before our eyes, not least because of developments in the field of nanotechnology. From a scientific standpoint this plays a key role when it comes to converging technologies. Nanotechnology makes it possible to integrate technology into the human body and its environment almost invisibly. The fact that nanoparticles are being used in the blood to monitor a person‘s location as well as his/her bodily functions is no longer the stuff of James Bond movies and can be seen at Google X, which is currently working on nanoparticles that are able to identify cancerous cells in the blood before they multiply irreversibly. In the field of IT, there is already discussion about the impact of machine learning. This makes it possible to processes increasingly large volumes of data as a basis for decision-making. A combination of this artificial generation of knowledge with nanotechnology developments plus our own willingness to make data available through an increasingly broad network of products will mean that in the future it will no longer be possible to distinguish between humans and computers, at least not according to the criteria of Alan Turing.
Convergence of technology thus has a mutually reciprocal influence on the convergence of man and technology. The merging of different technologies on the basis of closer networks as well as multidisciplinary technological developments, especially in the field of nanotechnology, is having a crucial influence on the distance between people and technology, both physically and digitally. Industry’s thirst for information and our fascination with data are paving the way for digitalization, new services and increasingly for the independent evaluation of information. Ultimately, mutual convergence will have its sights set on new targets: the expansion of human capability and of the (thinking) capacity of computers – both Bond and Turing.