So here it starts, my quest into biotechnology. Our project aims at mapping and understanding biotechnology and its development process (for more info: our introduction post, our about page). In my thread within this project the focus will lie on research and engineering. Our future is being shaped by decisions made in labs. Nature and technology have never been more linked than in the current development of biotechnology. Let’s dive into what makes biotechnology so revolutionary! What is it exactly?

So, is Biotech indeed so important? Biotech is one of four main themes focussed on by the Future of Life Institute — an institute supported by tech-billionaire Elon Musk, physicist Stephen Hawking, and philosopher Nick Boström — in their research on new technologies and challenges. Biotechnology is part of what is now called the NBIC-Convergence as well. This refers to a convergence of the fields of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive sciences into one multidisciplinary field. This convergence promises to result in innovative new technology by combining disciplines. Even within the Horizon 2020 program for research and innovation (by the European Union) it is listed as one out of four Key Enabling Technologies. So, yes, it is a big deal. Now what is it exactly, this promising new technology?

Biotechnology in its broadest definition is technology with biological material, or as according to Wikipedia, “the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products”. Growing moss on a wall for insulation? Biotechnology. Cloning a pig? Biotechnology. Planting a tree for shade? Arguable biotechnology as well. This roughly encompasses technology based in organic material; living, growing technology instead of nuts and bolts. In this project we focus on modern/high-tech biotechnology by which life is engineered. This “programming life” is often called synthetic biology (SynBio) and is something we will talk about more often.

Bio-luminescent Streetlighting

Rathenau Institute – Bio-luminescent street lighting

When we look at these new technologies we can’t help but be fascinated by their development. Great potential, but also not without risk. The ability to manufacture personalised medicine, but also personalised viruses. Or the (lack of) innocence of bio-luminescent streetlamps. How is this line between opportunity and risk balanced? To answer this question requires an investigation into the technology and the scientific/engineering practices behind it.

This kind of investigation is often called technology assessment (TA). A field of study that looks at science and technology in order to study and evaluate those in a societal context. A specific TA framework called Anticipatory Technology Ethics (ATE) provides me with a useful distinction. It identifies three levels of technology use: the technology level, the artefact level, and the application level. This distinction is valuable because it allows a structured evaluation of different parts of technology. When discussing biotechnology on the artefact level of, e.g., 3D-printing biomaterials; we should not discuss whether it endangers the dignity of life (which is a general technology concern), but we could discuss how the 3D-printing process promotes decentralisation of production (specific for this artefact). More on this division in a later blog!

Back to Biotech. In biotechnology a large role is played by the engineers and scientists that work on this emerging technology. Technology has an immense impact on our contemporary society. How its technological influence steered? Is it all based in the decisions made by engineers & scientists? One way in which the responsible development of technology is approached is through Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), but is that actually applied? These are questions that can only be answered in discussion with the engineers and scientists themselves.

I intent to find out in what way engineers and researchers direct their technological progress; is it through ideology, funding, or emotion? The immensely complex network of aspects relevant for these questions is impossible to map completely. However, I can look for an overview — gather the facts. I am curious about opinions from the labs, what is the attitude among engineers?

We will interview engineers, scientists, philosophers, and social scientists about biotechnology. As well as literature studies. So, if you are aware of some interesting sources or possible interviewees; let me know! And if you are a bioengineer yourself, what are your thoughts?

Duuk Baten | correspondent research & engineering