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Towards a convergence of scientific research within the Euro-BRICS nations

by Jean-Paul Baquiast (October 2013)

Prologue

A few weeks before the passing of Franck Biancheri, and without suspecting the seriousness of his condition, I had the opportunity to discuss with him the stabilizing role that could be played in the evolution of the global world by the convergence of scientific and technological developments within the entity whose construction he had always fought for, namely that which consists of the nations of Europe as well as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Shortly afterwards he sent me a message cancelling a planned appointment, for health reasons, he told me with his characteristic discretion.

Recently, Marie-Hélène Caillol suggested that this idea could be taken back up in the context of the current Euro-BRICS movement. She asked me to submit a piece elaborating on such an initiative. Such is the purpose of this paper.

I must say, for my own part, that I am not a scientist per se, though I am heavily invested in the field of information technology. In fact, for the last 13 years, I have run, along with a colleague, Christophe Jacquemain, close to the French Ministry of Scientific Research, a site dedicated mainly to the critical observation of so-called emerging sciences: www.automates-intelligents.com. This site, graciously hosted by the INIST (National Institute for Scientific and Technical Information), has a pre-print version with a freer spirit available at http://www.admiroutes.asso.fr/. I also advocate for the construction of a European power of a federal type at the site Europe solidate (http://www.europesolidaire.eu/cont.php).

This note has three sections:

1. Why push for a greater convergence of science and technology among the Euro-BRICS countries?

2. The state of the world, which imposes cooperation between EuroBRICS members.

3. Priority areas for shared projects (this part is more developed than the previous two, as it addresses less well-known subjects).

1. Why push for a greater convergence of science and technology among the Euro-BRICS countries? 

* Today, research and developments in science and technology are powerful factors capable of inducing fast-maturing and far-reaching changes in a global world.

* Most countries in the world understand this, but they allocate resources in different ways. Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has seen it as an essential way to secure a position of complete dominance. Despite economic and budgetary difficulties, it persists in this policy. It is generally understood there that they ought to, in all areas, be one to several years ahead of the rest of the world. During the Cold War, Russia sought to meet this challenge, but today it has renounced such a policy. China seems determined to become a scientific and technological power, investing heavily in all areas, but it still has a lot of catching up to do.

European nations have always pursued policies of scientific research. But most of these are now constrained due to lack of resources. The European Union has tried to take over some areas. It has just announced its new framework program (PCRDT), called Horizon 2020, intended to come into force on the 1st of January, 2014 (see the French portal for the program, http://www.horizon2020.gouv.fr/). Cooperation only interests those countries which are assured of a place in the specialized agencies. This is the case with respect to space. It is regrettable that these various policies have struggled to secure autonomy from American science, to which they often remain subordinate.

* All around the world, science and technology are considered by governments and large companies to be instruments of power, and thus of competition. This even includes basic research. Disinterested research cooperation exists only in a few areas. We estimate that 80% of research funds, public or private, are assigned to the fields of defense and security. Their results are seldom and slowly made public. Their applications that could be made in the general interest are often hidden. We must be realistic. Such a situation will not change, except in the case of large-scale disasters that require pooling of resources.

* This situation, in principle, will not be altogether different in the EuroBRICS. European nations, Russia, China, and other members remain in competition, whether it is more or less severe. In some cases, we can even speak of cyber-warfare. If, however, it were possible to create a regional political entity with a global reach which, inter alia, could offset existing large blocks (the United States or some Islamic states), the need for better cooperation in science and technology would be required. This cooperation would not cover all areas, but if it succeeded in certain strategic areas, it would have an exemplary effect and would play a role in cementing the EuroBRICS.

* To achieve this objective, in-depth work would be required in the public arena and within governments themselves. They must be convinced that areas of key importance would benefit from pooling, supposing that there would be a gradual pooling of resources and results. The example of the European Union’s PCRDT is relevant here. But there are also drawbacks. There should also be put into place some original procedures within the EuroBRICS, in keeping with the significant political and cultural diversity in the members. Many interesting ideas have been mooted, which should be included in more detailed proposals.

2. The state of the world requires cooperation between EuroBRICS members

It should be kept in mind that science and technology have become, and remain, convergent and marked by accelerated growth. The term “convergence” means that any progress (in the sense of deepening knowledge) occurring in one place affects the others. Advances in biology affect robotics, and vice versa. The term “accelerated growth” comes from findings in the last 50 years with regards to computing, which has created the so-called Moore’s Law. Every two years, or five years, potentialities double, regardless of the area.

As a result, some futurists have created the concept of singularity. Convergence and acceleration, continued without hindrance, would lead towards and indescribable state of affairs in which everything, for better of worse, would become possible. It is only an image, but one to be kept in mind.

Among these possibilities, one cannot exclude the transformation of the human species, or, if one prefers, the human. Transformation, again, for better or worse. We could then speak of post-human or trans-human. But what kind of future is to be foreseen? A bright future or a generator of disasters?

A bright future: In this view, which we will not delve into too deeply, the above-mentioned singularity would produce such developments in resource development and maturation of attitudes that crises of scarcity and their socio-political consequences, so frequent in the BRICS, would quickly disappear. A few years ago, futurists were in general betting on such a future.

A threatening or catastrophic future: This is what not preoccupies many futurists, for which they are preparing more and more. Thus there was just founded the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risks (www.cser.org). One of its promoters, the astrophysicist Martin Rees, published in 2003 the prescient book Our Final Hours, which nothing today in yet contradicting.

In this context, more and more observers are denouncing the evils around us, and we can see every day their destructive effects:

* The world’s possession by speculative capitalism, favoring individual and short-term profit. One speaks of “global junk bonds funds” and “rotten” global hedge funds. The Anglo-Saxon countries are at the heart of this capitalism.

* The economic dislocations resulting in multiplying inequalities. See the concept of the 1% and 99%, with the 1% increasingly wealthy, the 99% of people poorer.

* The failure of traditional states and the values of collective protection. Most failing states have been failing for some time, but do not rise, while others fall apart further.

*The radical ideologies that drive men to kill for reasons of holy war.

These plagues will continue to rain down on an earth more and more devastated by the effects of temperature changes, which dominant interests persist in refusing to admit the seriousness of, until irreversible steps – i.e. tipping points – come to pass: higher sea levels, from 10 cm to more than 1m, widespread droughts, extreme weather events, disappearances of terrestrial and oceanic species, the emergence of new epidemics…All of these could, as a consequence, result in mass migration and wars of survival, while the most poor will not have the time necessary to achieve a “demographic transition” (a balance between natural deaths and births).

It is to western civilization, today principally under America’s influence, that the most of these risks are now attributed including that of religious radicalization. (See Paul Craig Roberts, in http://paulcraigroberts.org/2013/10/14/whatever-became-western-civilization-paul-craig-roberts/). Aside from Islamic fundamentalism, one cannot deny the increasing weight that “creationism” has in the United States. See e.g. Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line by Jason Rosenhouse (2013). But each great civilization presents, apart from those positive aspects on which others can usefully draw, negative aspects. The goal of greater cooperation on scientific and technical projects is precisely to contribute to the reconciliation of peoples and cultures on the basis of the encouraging elements belonging to each one.

Within the EuroBRICS, old historical convergences, and many shared interests, justify the acceleration of projects involving Europe and Russia. The most emblematic is that of space. But there are many others, like the conservation of the northern and Nordic regions, which benefits from cooperation. With China, reconciliation seems to be a more difficult proposition, but it is likely that the Chinese, having had their researchers and students dependent for decades on American science, would find benefits in wider cooperation, on the basis of reciprocity, with Europe, Russia, and Latin America. We will not go further here in this reflection, which would require analyses region-by-region and country-by-country. Nevertheless, there are many reasons that would justify scientific and technical cooperation in the EuroBRICS. Hopefully it would serve as a powerful tool for building community values in this group of countries.

3. Priority Areas for Shared Subjects

We will limit this discussion to three main areas, those of biology, artificial intelligence, and space. We will ignore, because they are better documented in the current literature, those of energy and materials, including nanotechnology. A more comprehensive approach should obviously be taken into account.

The purpose of this brief overview, remember, is to draw attention to issues that, in the EuroBRICS, can mobilize public opinion. We will express herein personal opinions that may not be shared by all, with the aim, if not to convince every time, to provoke further discussion.

Biology: genetically-modified and synthetic

Future developments in biology will result mainly from the widespread application of genetics, or more specifically genomics (the understanding and the modification of the reproductive or non-reproductive genome). These applications, far from being ostracized, will spread, taking into account the anticipated benefits. One imagines that, barring the always-present danger of accidents, these practices can be well controlled.

Today we distinguish species whose genome has groups of genes that have been modified or interchanged from natural strains with those whose genomes are completely artificial (from biochemical synthetic elements). We can thus talk of synthetic biology. The latter is not yet commonplace, but will spread along with the former. Many of the living species in contact with humans have been partially or completely changed over the course of the last half-century. Already there are numerous studies analyzing the unmet needs and solutions presented by these techniques.

* Viruses, bacteria, and microorganisms: The objective is to obtain, from widely available resources (like waste processed through photosynthetic bacteria) products or energy that it currently rare.

* Plants: The development of still-unknown land or oceanic plants can help them adapt to regions rendered infertile by ongoing transformations of natural environments.

* Higher animals: The same goal drives the effort to produce more efficient animals, or animals that are more efficient consumers in terms of agricultural resources. New varieties and species will multiply. The hybridization of already genetically-modified species will increase, putting paid to traditional classifications in place since Cuvier and other naturalists. Increasingly, moreover, cells extracted from tissues with an economic interest are cultured in vitro and on large scales. Already, synthesized meats have been experimentally proposed for consumption. “Historical” species will be retained as references

* Homo sapiens: Finally, for therapeutic reasons or to improve offspring, the human genome will rapidly be marginally but systematically altered. The benefits of this process, in terms of the struggle against disease, the improvement of physical and mental performance, and longevity will be such that these changes will be generally accepted. Note, however, that the initial cost will be such that these changes will only be accessible by the very few. Moreover, their generalization will proceed slowly, given the length of the human reproductive cycle. The path towards research leading towards the appearance of post-humans will thus be opened, but for ethical reasons will initially be explored with care.

Artificial intelligence

We refer to artificial intelligence when discussing those sciences and technologies that seek to “augment” (as the saying goes), and then to replace, life, humanity, and consciousness.

Already the field of artificial intelligence has invaded and transformed both the natural environment and human society. Unlike genomic techniques, artificial intelligence has a proliferative capacity, with qualitative acceleration and finally exponential growth, against which the values of traditional humanism have little influence. Initially they develop in parallel, interacting with the modifications of living organisms discussed in the previous section. Pretty soon they will become more powerful, outstripping conventional political controls

We can initially, for convenience, distinguish four major directions of oncoming achievements. But in fact they will all overlap or be interconnected via the aforementioned principle of convergence.

* Augmented humans: Already, people with prosthetics are becoming more and more autonomous. These can and will assist with various disabilities and deficiencies affecting humans. But gradually, taking into account the increases in performance that they can provide, they will increasingly be in demand with people with sufficient resources. Prostheses that supplement sensory and motor organs from those concerning internal organs, and finally those applied to the nervous system and the brain itself. In the latter case, aside from invasive techniques, there will be proposed remote commands that can be controlled not just by word but by thought. In parallel, there will be developed devises that can profoundly change the capacities of animals judged fit to operate in tandem effectively with humans.

* Robots: The term is applied more and more not just to automatons acting in a deterministic fashion (as in increasingly obsolete production lines), but to autonomous systems capable of adaptation and decision-making beyond human abilities, allowing for intervention in ways and in spans of time much better than conventionally-enabled machines. Such robots can be found wherever their implementation would be considered likely to make profits or gain otherwise unthinkable advantages. We can talk about the so-called UAV drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), which are able to, in theory, identify targets and decide to destroy them. Other devices with equivalent roles are being developed in land and sea contexts. There are similar trends in the field of surgery

In a few years, in the arena of planetary exploration, robots and fleets of robots will be capable of acting alone, far from centers of earthly control, in carrying out various operations for the exploration and transformation of environments necessary for the subsequent arrival of human settlers. This is not the case with the current American “rovers,” which have limited autonomy

Robots are already taking on, and will continue to take on, all imaginable shapes and sizes, working alone or in groups. Researchers in artificial cognition have managed to develop, in “swarms,” symbolic behavior and original social languages, not imposed by humans, in a fashion analogous to that experienced by the first humans. Once truly emancipated, one can imagine that these populations of robots would produce forms of thought and even consciousness, organizing themselves into cultures as effective, and probably more original, than that of human societies. This will be particularly valuable in understanding the spatial environments in which they would be operating (see below).

It is often argued that current robots, and a fortiori their successors, will eliminate human jobs. This is true, whether in the field of task implementation or control function and design. At the same time, the increased robotization will develop new jobs, no doubt just as many, with respect to the invention, maintenance, and development of new generations of robots. In addition, the new business fields that become accessible thanks to robots will allow for the methodical exploration of related useful human occupations

* Digitized humanity: The subject is complex and in constant upheaval. It can be put simply that telephone or Internet networks and their successors have multiplies the digital traces that surround people. Each exchange, public or private, in any field whatsoever, is now recorded and accessible to all. It is the same when it comes to information provided by the object used (the “Internet of Things”), the geo-location of users, and an increasing amount of private information. Much of this information is taken without the knowledge of businesses and concerned individuals, while others provide it voluntarily, hoping to take advantage of the notoriety.

These billions of traces each day, also called “big data,” are now being stocked on servers whose capacity is apparently limitless. They are analyzed by software programs or algorithms that can either give precise information on an in individual who is showing interesting characteristics, or produce what would be called statistical-probabilistic data concerning the overall behavior of certain groups.

The cost of these servers will remain significant. For the moment they are only used by governmental investigative and spy agencies, such as the America’s National Security Agency, which has recently come into the spotlight thanks to the denunciation of a “whistleblower.” But the big web-based companies, still largely American, such as Google, already cited, Facebook, Youtube, Microsoft, ensnare more and more individuals, consenting or not, into what many observers propose to call a digital gulag (cf our article: http://www.admiroutes.asso.fr/larevue/2013/138/goulagnumerique.htm). One could say these corporations behave like predators, but with a smiling face.

As concerns the future, it is likely that, in spite of the resistance of various “libertarians,” such gulags will expand even further, in both their motivations and their geographic reach. One essential point to note concerns the increasing autonomy of statistical-probabilistic software. They will make more and more decisions on their own that we had thought were reserved for human beings. Such is already the case in the investment world, with high frequency trading. It is doubtless also the case in certain defense and security arenas, given the impossibility of human management of the flood of “big data” coming from surveillance machines (from networks of security cameras, for instance). All sectors in which decisions rely on big data will progressively fit this mold, including the field of medicine.

* Artificial human brains: This term could be applied to all the virtual brains that now proliferate on the web. But it is preferable to reserve it for large-scale research concerning the modeling and simulation of the human brain and its principle sensory-motor and cognitive functions. The task is potentially immense, the human brain known for being the most complex entity in the universe. But the stakes are equally high. Not that humanity lacks for brains, but rather that it lacks brains that can be put to service in the most ambitious areas of research and achievement.

Several techniques are used today in brain modeling. First, the cerebral organ must be observed: clinical observation, cerebral imaging, microscopic analysis of the nervous tissue or the brains of animals. One must next use these observations to construct an artificial brain by means of computer programs and adapted software. Two major projects are now in process, one European project called Human Brain and an American project called BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies).

Designed to develop over the next 10 years, the latter has just announced the overall stages it is envisioning. They are as follows: Inventory the different types of nervous cells. – Create structural maps of the brain. – Develop a large-scale network mapping cerebral capability. – Develop tools that can manipulate neural circuits. – Link neural activity to specific behaviors. – Integrate theories, models, and statistics with experimental results. – Better define the processes underlying he techniques of cerebral imaging. – Create mechanisms to facilitate the observation of humans. – Share the knowledge and the learning methods involved.

Specialists are very optimistic. Many foresee that a humanoid robot equipped with such an artificial brain and all the informational resources of the Internet could become a reality in the next 20 to 30 years. Without waiting so long as that, partial versions of such artificial brains will likely multiply sooner, and will be devoted to the exploration of various strategic arenas, or simply to the “augmentation” of the cerebral capacity of volunteer human subjects.

Outer Space

For nearly the past 40 years, that part of space that is closest to Earth (called sub-orbital—less than 35,000 km) has been subject to intense exploitation, both military and civilian. In the same period, scientific missions to the moon, Mars, and the solar system and beyond have multiplied. Russia, the United States, Europe and today China, leading other Asian nations, have invested quite a lot in these various areas. Despite progressively eroding enthusiasm in space exploration in Western nations, what is at stake politically and economically has not weakened. We know that the United States launched the concept of “full spatial dominance” which for them expressed the culmination of their wish for world domination. As for scientific exploration, it responds to an almost irrational desire for knowledge, seemingly profoundly anchored in the human psyche.

One may therefore foresee that investment in research will continue, even outside of purely technological objectives, linked to the development of communication and observation satellites. These perspectives are well known; it is unnecessary to develop them here.

On the other hand, we can discuss a topic that lies on the boundary with science-fiction, whose importance, one may predict, will be increasingly felt over the next decades, and which will justify a certain amount of research, albeit for the moment deprived of practical applications. It concerns the necessity in which humanity will inexorably find itself, in its current or future form, to find refuge elsewhere than Earth, in the case of a catastrophe of cosmological proportions. We know that the solar system will become unlivable in two to three billion years. But long before that date—rather dispiriting if far away—phenomena closer to home, such as asteroid collisions, large-scale eruptions in the solar corona, not to mention the explosion of a supernova sufficiently distant so as not to be totally destructive, could be predicted and necessitate radical measures, either of protection, or of the abandonment of the Earth. An American association, baptized Lifeboat Foundation, Safeguarding Humanity (http://lifeboat.com/ex/main), devotes itself in particular to envisioning catastrophic scenarios that might occur, and to possible protection strategies. The organization has attracted the support of a number of scientists and renowned donors. Why not others elsewhere?

This approach may seem surprising, given the improbable nature of the risks, at least in the short-term, and its selfish characteristics. It would not be all of humanity that would be protected, given the costs involved, but rather a small minority. Nevertheless, we can predict that this will continue to be an area of extensive research, much of which would be reusable in the short-term. It is therefore not an area to be underestimated in a forward-looking approach.

We will not say more here beyond raising an issue that could potentially rather quickly bring about surprises. Survival beyond the limits of the nearby solar system will never be possible with the technology of today or the coming century. The laws of relativity forbid the speeds necessary for the movement from a terrestrial origin to even a star as close as Proxima Centauri. But what would happen if these theoretical limitations were altered, in light of modifications of cosmological representations? Newton, for example, in his day judged it impossible to escape the Earth’s gravitational field.

Today, various theorists pursue models of the universe corresponding to the time constraints of Einstein’s physics and the possibilities of quantum physics. In this, the observable quantum have “weird” properties (a term used by Einstein), such as the superposition state, the non-locality or entanglements that challenge the properties of time and space, as well as the uniqueness of the universe. Macroscopic physics has involved the study of material particles, called quantum bits, which under certain conditions benefit from these properties. A synthesis between the two physics, under the name quantum gravity, faces difficulties but is ongoing. See this article: ”A partir de la mécanique quantique,” http://www.admiroutes.asso.fr/larevue/2013/139/mms.htm Quantum gravity, or some other hypothesis, could ultimately lead to hope for humans seeking, if not travel in the multi-verse (from one universe to another), at least the removal of some obstacles to movement in our own space-time. The subject is so motivating that the human and material resources needed to study it should not be lacking in the coming decades.

 

Conclusion

It is often objected in the field of prospective studies, notably in the field of robotics, that humans will be quickly surpassed by the performance of systems that they have brought into being. We have for our own part indicated (see Jean-Paul Baquiast, Le paradoxe du sapiens, with a preface by Jean-Jacques Kupiec, edited by Jean-Paul Bayol, March 2010) that such a risk is improbable. Since the first use of tools by certain advanced Australopithecines, humans have founds ways to thrive in symbiosis with the technologies that serve as their instruments. We are setting up joint bodies, which we have dubbed anthropo-technical systems, which evolve with parallel anthropological determinism and technological determinism. It is the Darwinian competition between these entities that will shape the terrestrial world. This, I repeat, is for better or worse.