How can nanotechnology
improve our quality of life?
Tuesday 1 June 2021
Dutch people who can still remember the introduction of the personal computer, probably remember the name Rathenau. Gerhart Rathenau gained national fame in 1979 with his committee that had to map out the social consequences of microelectronics and the computer chip. Rathenau, himself an enthusiastic scientist - he was director of the Physics Lab at Philips - wanted to shake up the Netherlands and prepare for the impact of the chip and the PC. In his view, they would digitize society to a great extent. The discussion initiated by Rathenau led to the establishment of NOTA in 1986, which was tasked with researching the social meaning of technology and science. NOTA was later renamed the Rathenau Instituut. More than 40 years after the Rathenau Commission, our society has indeed been extensively digitized. Moreover, we are on the eve of a new evolution; the deep-tech wave. Disciplines and technologies such as AI, IoT, molecular engineering, biotech and robotization together provide disruptive innovations that we as humans have to learn to live with. Is it time for a wake-up call again?
What does technology contribute to?
Melanie Peters herself has a scientific background and has been director of the Rathenau Instituut since 2015. "I am driven by the empowering responsibility I feel with regard to technology. That it is used for everyone's interest, so that innovation never misses its social goal." Her interlocutor, Kathleen Philips, has devoted her scientific career to the development of microelectronics. "I find it exciting to be at the forefront of technology. But I agree with Melanie that you should always get support first. We do not conduct research for the pure sake of research. Technology always starts with a social discussion, because you have to understand very well where it lands and to what it contributes. Otherwise you run the risk of making wrong choices. We do this by talking to the customer of the customer; we call that the 'voice of customer' at imec." Imec believes that technology - and nanotechnology in particular - can make an important contribution to our quality of life. In many areas, but especially in healthcare.
Kathleen: "In the first place because we can make illness partly manageable. For example in the case of Parkinson's or a cerebral infarction. With the help of wireless microchips, we can better map the brain and intervene in a very targeted manner with stimulation or medication. That is not only physical gain, but also mental. What we call 'patient to person' means that with a condition you can actively participate in society again. That enriches my life. Just like my phone, which gives me a wealth of information and world views. Man and telephone are already - in a figurative sense - fused with each other. This will continue, when chip technology can also enhance my body if it doesn't function properly."
Put collective values first
When we look at the fusion of man and machine, it's no longer science fiction. Which ethical boundaries do we have to take into account?
Melanie: "Nanotechnology is one of the so-called NBIC technologies, or human-enhancing technologies. They have the potential to radically change the world and our humanity. Our challenge will be not to think in terms of individuals, but also to talk about the collective human values that we want to safeguard as a society. You don't want to withhold solutions from anyone, but at the same time you want to make clear for whose problem this is a solution. In many cases you rely on old ethics. For example, someone must be able to decide for himself: I don't need it, and at the same time have the right to use it. It's about the emancipation of ordinary citizens compared to experts. At Rathenau Instituut we use the term 'technological citizenship'. This means that citizens really have a say. They can think together about what technology is needed, and how it can be developed and implemented. It's about how technology can serve people, instead of asking people and society to continiously adapt to technology."
Kathleen: "My first concern is quality of life, what can we add to that? For a kidney patient, the promise of an implantable artificial kidney is lifechanging. The prospect of having a chip implanted in our body may sound threatening for a lot of people. But what if this chip can actually restore certain bodily functions, and that as a result they no longer have to take large amounts of medication every day? I do notice that the corona crisis has brought a number of those technology-ethics debates to the surface."
New human rights
About five years ago, the Rathenau Instituut came up with the proposal to introduce two new human rights.
Melanie: "The first one is the right not to be measured, analyzed or coached. Monitoring can be a positive thing, but it can also limit you in certain ways. That's why we believe that there should also be situations and places where you can't be monitored. We also advocated the right to meaningful human contact. For example within healthcare, but also when the government makes an important automated decision. This also means that in our opionion robots should never replace human relationships, only improve them. Our advice was ultimately adopted by the Council of Europe. And since then the discussion has returned over and over again."
Kathleen: "Human contact is an important point. We are convinced that with technology we can make much better use of our healthcare professionals. I would even go so far as to argue that nanotechnology is the only solution if you want to make healthcare scalable and regain focus on the doctor-patient relationship, specifically for tasks that cannot be solved with a chip or technology." Melanie: "You have to consciously use it for people who benefit from it, putting technology at the service of people. Together with healthcare professionals you need to carefully look for added value. Technology will not replace doctors, but it may offer instruments that would otherwise not be available to them."
An improved quality of life
Finally: what would Melanie's and Kathleen's ideal digitalized society look like in 20 years, what's their moonshot? "Nanotechnology will then form a crucial part of the solution to global challenges, especially in healthcare," says Kathleen. "With nanotechnology we will soon be able to not only restore functions, but also to improve or adapt human capacities and properties. I see an improved quality of our daily life." Melanie also sees promising applications of nanotechnology: "For example in urban agriculture and local food production, for optimizing crop yields. In the energy sector, in order to be able to coordinate supply and demand. I also believe in 'citizen science', where technology will help us share knowledge. Instead of top-down dashboard models in which the government collects our data, we again have access to our data ourselves. And, I would like to challenge imec that with every innovation you question the underlying problem: what are we trying to solve? Because, as Gerhart Rathenau noted in his time: we sometimes forget that technology is not going to solve everything, but it is not going to mess up everything either."
About Melanie Peters
Dr. ir. Melanie Peters is director of the Rathenau Instituut. She has a broad background in science, business and the public sector. Peters is trained as a food technologist and recognized toxicologist, and holds a PhD in biochemistry. After research positions at the University of Texas and at Shell, she worked in various board positions for the Ministry of Agriculture, the Consumers' Association and Studium Generale University Utrecht.
About Kathleen Philips
Dr. Kathleen Philips is VP R&D and General Manager of imec Netherlands within Holst Center. She has been promoted in electrical engineering, is author and co-author of more than 60 papers and holds several patents. Philips joined imec in 2007 where she was chief scientist and led leading research programs in the field of Internet of Things. Before imec she was a scientist at Philips Research for over 12 years.