Digi, Nano, Bio, Neuro – or why we should care more about converging technologies

Dirk Helbing expects future digital technologies to penetrate the human body even more in the future. However, he believes that society is not prepared for the risks involved. He puts forward a new legal framework to protect our most intimate data from misuse.
Personality in focus: the convergence of biology and computer technology could make extremely sensitive data available. (Image: by-​studio / AdobeStock)

In my research, I deal with the consequences of digitalisation for people, society and democracy. In this context, it is also important to keep an eye on their convergence in computer and life sciences – i.e. what becomes possible when digital technologies grow increasingly together with biotechnology, neurotechnology and nanotechnology.

Converging technologies are seen as a breeding ground for far-reaching innovations. However, they are blurring the boundaries between the physical, biological and digital worlds. Conventional regulations are becoming ineffective as a result.

In a joint study I conducted with my co-author Marcello Ienca, we have recently examined the risks and societal challenges of technological convergence – and concluded that the effects for individuals and society are far-reaching.

We would like to draw attention to the challenges and risks of converging technologies and explain why we consider it necessary to accompany technological developments internationally with strict regulations.

For several years now, everyone has been able to observe, within the context of digitalisation, the consequences of leaving technological change to market forces alone without effective regulation.

Misinformation and manipulation on the web

The Digital Manifesto was published in 2015 – almost ten years ago.1 Nine European experts, including one from ETH Zurich, issued an urgent warning against scoring, i.e. the evaluation of people, and big nudging,2 a subtle form of digital manipulation. The latter is based on personality profiles created using cookies and other surveillance data. A little later, the Cambridge Analytica scandal alerted the world to how the data analysis company had been using personalised ads (microtargeting) in an attempt to manipulate voting behaviour in democratic elections.

This has brought democracies around the world under considerable pressure. Propaganda, fake news and hate speech are polarising and sowing doubt, while privacy is on the decline. We are in the midst of an international information war for control of our minds, in which advertising companies, tech corporations, secret services and the military are fighting to exert an influence on our mindset and behaviour. The European Union has adopted the AI Act in an attempt to curb these dangers.

However, digital technologies have developed at a breathtaking pace, and new possibilities for manipulation are already emerging. The merging of digital and nanotechnology with modern biotechnology and neurotechnology makes revolutionary applications possible that had been hardly imaginable before.

Microrobots for precision medicine

In personalised medicine, for example, the advancing miniaturisation of electronics is making it increasingly possible to connect living organisms and humans with networked sensors and computing power. The WEF proclaimed the “Internet of Bodies” as early as 2020.3, 4

One example that combines conventional medication with a monitoring function is digital pills. These could control medication and record a patient's physiological data (see this blog post).

Experts expect sensor technology to reach the nanoscale. Magnetic nanoparticles or nanoelectronic components, i.e. tiny particles invisible to the naked eye with a diameter up to 100 nanometres, would make it possible to transport active substances, interact with cells and record vast amounts of data on bodily functions. If introduced into the body, it is hoped that diseases could be detected at an early stage and treated in a personalised manner. This is often referred to as high-precision medicine.

Nano-electrodes record brain function

Miniaturised electrodes that can simultaneously measure and manipulate the activity of thousands of neurons coupled with ever-improving AI tools for the analysis of brain signals are approaches that are now leading to much-discussed advances in the brain-computer interface. Brain activity mapping is also on the agenda. Thanks to nano-neurotechnology, we could soon envisage smartphones and other AI applications being controlled directly by thoughts.

«Long before precision medicine and neurotechnology work reliably, these technologies will be able to be used against people. »      Dirk Helbling

Large-scale projects to map the human brain are also likely to benefit from this.5 In future, brain activity mapping will not only be able to read our thoughts and feelings but also make them possible of being influenced remotely – the latter would probably be a lot more effective than previous manipulation methods like big nudging.

However, conventional electrodes are not suitable for permanent connection between cells and electronics – this requires durable and biocompatible interfaces. This has given rise to the suggestion of transmitting signals optogenetically, i.e. to control genes in special cells with light pulses.6 This would make the implementation of amazing circuits possible (see this ETH News article “Controlling genes with thoughts” ).

The downside of convergence

Admittedly, the applications mentioned above may sound futuristic, with most of them still visions or in their early stages of development. However, a lot of research is being conducted worldwide and at full speed. The military is also interested in using converging technologies for its own purposes. 7, 8

The downside of convergence is the considerable risks involved, such as state or private players gaining access to highly sensitive data and misusing it to monitor and influence people. The more connected our bodies become, the more vulnerable we will be to cybercrime and hacking. It cannot be ruled out that military applications exist already.5 One thing is clear, however: long before precision medicine and neurotechnology work reliably, these technologies will be able to be used against people.

«We need to regain control of our personal data. To do this, we need genuine informational self-determination.»      Dirk Helbling

The problem is that existing regulations are specific and insufficient to keep technological convergence in check. But how are we to retain control over our lives if it becomes increasingly possible to influence our thoughts, feelings and decisions by digital means?

Converging global regulation is needed

In our recent paper we conclude that any regulation of converging technologies would have to be based on converging international regulations. Accordingly, we outline a new global regulatory framework and propose ten governance principles to close the looming regulatory gap. 9

The framework emphasises the need for safeguards to protect bodily and mental functions from unauthorised interference and to ensure personal integrity and privacy by, for example. establishing neurorights.

To minimise risks and prevent abuse, future regulations should be inclusive, transparent and trustworthy. The principle of participatory governance is key, which would have to involve all the relevant groups and ensure that the concerns of affected minorities are also taken into account in decision-making processes.

Finally, we need to regain control of our personal data. To accomplish this, we need genuine informational self-determination. This would also have to apply to the digital twins of our body and personality, because they can be used to hack our health and our way of thinking – for good or for bad.10

With our contribution, we would like to initiate public debate about converging technologies. Despite its major relevance, we believe that too little attention is being paid to this topic. Continuous discourse on benefits, risks and sensible rules can help to steer technological convergence in such a way that it serves people instead of harming them.