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Esper Abrão Cavalheiro: The reconstruction of man

Given its potential for profoundly altering human performance, the new convergence of technologies must be debated by the scientific community

CLAUDIO REISNeuroscientist Esper Abrão Cavalheiro, 57, adviser at the Center for Management and Strategic Studies (CGEE – Centro de Gestão e Estudos Estratégicos), has been charged with a very special task; or rather, he sees his time fully taken up by a titanic mission: to spur an intense and, if possible, productive debate in Brazilian society about the so-called converging technologies, so that the country does not lag too far behind in this new techno-scientific field, which in the not too distant future may cause, among other things, formidable transformations in the performance of human beings as far as  the exploration of their potential limits and conservation of their health are concerned. “We need to get feedback from the scientific community about this so we can discuss it with the government, with business people and with the citizens of this country”, is how Cavalheiro sums it up.

Strictly speaking, the so-called converging technologies, a vast interactive area of research in nanotechnology, biotechnology, IT and cognitive science, first burst onto the public stage under this name in June 2001, at a meeting organized by North American researchers Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, with the support of the National Science Foundation (NSF), in Arlington, Virginia. Out of this meeting came a monstrous 500 page document entitled Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, from which emerged previously unthinkable technical possibilities, many of them almost pure science fiction, in areas as clearly different as military defense and human health.

Two years later the European Commission decided to take a look at converging technologies in a way that was more grounded in its humanistic tradition and published a small document called Converging Technologies: Shaping the Future of European Societies, some 70 pages long, but ambitious in its purpose to define the new field using a European approach. According to this document, “the citizens of Europe will benefit from CTs if they are implemented with a view to health care, processing information and communication, environmental mitigation, energy sources and other areas of public and personal interest”.

It is in this complex world of converging technologies that Cavalheiro, head Professor of Experimental Neurology at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), has, for some months now, been immersed in coordinating discussions into what should be an active national participation in defining the restraints of the research, the funding, the regulatory milestones and the policies that are going to consolidate the founding boundaries of this area. He is a respected scientist with an important contribution in  defining  experimental models of epilepsy and who, for some time now, has held significant positions in the country in the management of scientific policy, including being president of the National Scientific and Technological Development Council (CNPq). Below are the main excerpts from the interview that Cavalheiro gave to Pesquisa FAPESP.

There’s a new topic that’s currently occupying your thoughts a lot, which is that of converging technologies, mainly in the medical area. Can we begin with the concept of what  converging technologies are?
When we look at the development of science, we see that there are moments when there is fragmentation, which helps us in our understanding of the more intrinsic phenomena of a particular area, and others when what occurs is a certain grouping, a convergence. This alternation is fundamental; to give you an example from something more recent, we can look at biology, which went through a period of fragmentation, a division into various disciplines that derived from it. Over the last few decades several of these disciplines, in association with other fields of knowledge, have started converging around genes or DNA and this has brought about the fantastic field of genomics and all its ramifications. More recently, and now I’m talking specifically about this topic to which I am dedicating myself, Mihail Roco, a very influential scientist in the nanotechnology area  who has managed to leverage a great deal of funding in the United States, was called upon by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to foster another type of discussion. In 2001, he and William Bainbridge organized a meeting, which he called “Converging Technologies to Improve Human Performance.”

CLAUDIO REISSo was this the first meeting to discuss converging technologies?
This first meeting in the United States proposed converging action in four areas: nanotechnology, biotechnology, IT and cognitive science, which today has been extended to the entire neuroscience area, with the aim of fostering interaction between living and artificial systems in the search for new devices or pharmaceutical products that might help expand or improve cognitive and communicative skills, the health and physical capacity of people and produce social well-being, in general.

Where did this meeting take place?
In Arlington, Virginia, where researchers from these four areas got together and who, to some extent, were already working with the concept of convergence. For instance, nanotechnology and biotechnology converged in a project for encapsulating new drugs to reduce the side effects of medication. Others associated IT and biotechnology to warn of biological disasters using rapid communication. Therefore, some of the areas that were moving in one direction in isolation were strongly urged to participate jointly (converging technologies) in an effort to find a solution to important human issues. I think that the term “converging technologies” is not the most appropriate one, because on their own they do not converge, as do, for example, digital technologies. Here, technologies that are initially separate are summoned to contribute in the construction of a new paradigm, which is why I prefer to call it new technological convergence or a convergence of technologies.

It is not the technologies that relate one to another.
We’re talking about areas of recent major development that even in isolation can significantly modify society and the environment. The objective of the American symposium was to show the countless advantages derived from their interaction, not in the sense of what one can provide in terms of development to the other, but in the construction of proposals that arise from common issues. The title they used there indicated that the objective was improvement in human performance and the discussion indicated the countless application possibilities, like improvements in human performance, global communication, prolonging life, etc.

You mean it didn’t only target health?
Although we can consider human health as the central part of the symposium they even got to the point of proposing a new social environment arising out of the new convergence, which, at a particular moment in the symposium, was proposed as the “rebirth of science”. In other words, a new era of science and technology  would result from the grouping of these areas that could make a difference in  society in the future. Other aspects were related to the use of convergence in the security of nations facing new types of aggression, like biological or chemical warfare, for example, leading to the need for an improvement in the defense systems of countries, which would involve everything from looking after soldiers on the front-line physically to providing them with clothes that they can use to make contact with each other, via satellite, for providing information about battle conditions. However, when we look more closely at the document, we see that a large part of it is directed at human potential, at devices for substituting organs or body parts and at communication without the barrier of different languages, i.e. moving toward a new society.

So these ideas were clearly established in the United States. But on your recent trip to a meeting on the same topic in Austria this had already acquired an international dimension. What is the discussion on converging technologies like in 2007?
The first document from the European Community on the subject was published in 2004 and was given a different name: “Converging Technologies for a Diverse Europe”. In this text we see that Europe, which historically has been more humanistic and which represents a set of countries with often very different cultures and different levels of economic and social development, is striving to include the human dimension, its cultures and values in the new convergence, which goes beyond the pursuit of improved performance. Questions about what and in whom to improve this or the other function are complicated and this discussion cannot be limited merely to the scientific environment. Therefore, the European document gets involved with more pressing issues about human society and about how the new convergence can help to solve problems connected with energy, climate change, pollution, the rise of obesity, hypertension and human longevity, psychoactive drug abuse, etc., in addition to proposing extending the new convergence to include human and social sciences, these being fundamental parameters for understanding humans.”

Do you mean that Europe changes the focus of converging technologies?
In the American document the importance of “getting ahead of the game” is clearly linked to the notion of competitiveness, not only scientific competitiveness but also for guaranteeing a market. Europe tries to play down this aspect and asks how far it can go with the new convergence without its citizens, since they’re the ones who really fund scientific and technological advances, taking part in the debate and deciding on its direction.

The problem, then, is how this field of converging technologies is established, without it being associated with the manipulation of the lives of individuals by uncontrollable instances of power.
You could say that. Careful reading of any of the documents about technological convergence produced by different countries enables one to foresee that fantastic benefits in human health have been uncovered and that they have been received with real enthusiasm. In the man-machine interaction, for example, we could use information techniques to solve the motor skills and communication problems of people with serious speaking, sight or hearing problems, etc. But when it is perceived that the limits between therapeutic action and the improvement in cognitive functions are not very apparent this enthusiasm wanes.

CLAUDIO REISThis is a discussion that began in connection with drugs like Prozac, right? Should we try and free humanity from sadness by treating it as if it were a pathology?
This discussion, which has occurred more frequently in the human and social sciences, and which to some extent is associated with a repudiation of what has been called the medicalization of health, is beginning to question who has the right to decide about what should be improved and when and in whom. What are the possible social effects? Which institutions are going to take care of regulating it? However, the new convergence already seems to be a reality that is here to stay. We only have to look at the large number of medical events that have occurred over the last two or three years that were called “Converging technologies and new drugs” or “Converging technologies for medical equipment”, etc. Although the new convergence is in itself a formal program for financing science and technology, its objectives have been responsible for providing guidance for other programs, in both the US and Europe.

But before getting into operational details, let’s talk about the meeting in Austria, and then move on to Brazil.
Within the Sixth Framework Program of the European Community a public tender was issued to study the  new convergence, not only from the point of view of scientific development, but also its interface with the development of European society. Thus a research network was formed, each group with a specific objective, led by researchers from Germany, under the coordination of Nico Sther. For Sther, who has dedicated himself to the field of studies known as knowledge politics, the belief that greater knowledge necessarily results in greater well-being has to be rethought. Greater knowledge and its suitable application may, indeed, lead to greater economic performance, but it does not imply that the resulting gain is shared by society. But this subject was not the central focus of the meeting. There, and because it was the second of three planned meetings, the groups presented the partial results of their studies that sought to understand the role of the new convergence as the central driver of innovation initiatives and its possible impact on the future of European society.

And when was the first?
Last year. This year they carried out a medium-term assessment on how the research is going and at the next they should present the discussion consolidation document. It was quite interesting to find out about the study that deals with what the European scientists consider as being “doable”, or not, starting with the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, IT and neuroscience. In this meeting, with its nearly 80 participants, it was interesting to witness heated discussions about the use of this convergence in transhumanism – the creation of hybrid beings (human-machine) etc. Someone even said: “We’ve got to the Cyborgs.”

I was thinking precisely that…
Except that this time we may want to go further than a science fiction movie.

And you participated as an adviser of the CGEE?
The CGEE is beginning a study that intends to look at the challenges and the opportunities that the new convergence may bring to the scientific and technological spheres and to society. I’m still trying to understand the various opinions I’ve heard, sometimes enthusiastic about the fantastic possibilities arising from the applications of the new convergence, and sometimes skeptical and pessimistic. It’s possible that what has attracted most attention is precisely this willingness to bring the discussion into the open, since the new convergence brings with it skeptical dilemmas that are too important for it to remain restricted to scientific environments. This discussion cannot be postponed until its effects are known in practice.

Were they thinking about bringing into the public arena this debate about the potential applications of converging technologies in medicine?
The first concern was with the institutionalism of these technologies and of how they permeate human institutions, where institutionalism is understood as being “the rules of the game”. Other aspects discussed had to do with the management and regulation of the products and services resulting from the new convergence, their ethical and legal aspects and their impact on society. One parallel aspect, but none the less important for all that, has to do with the role that religious convictions may have in the public perception of the new convergence, given that individual decisions are not simply based on current knowledge.

CLAUDIO REISBut given this concern with the lack of consideration for personal and individual aspects of religion, something very complicated crops up: how can a lay State work in this particular area? Here in Brazil we have a problem regarding authorization for the use of stem cells from embryos for research, because of religious pressure, and we’re now getting into a discussion about the possible limit of intervention in the individual proposal relating to converging technologies. As an adviser of a body of the CGEE, what are your views on this?
Although the discussion about the use of emerging technologies is very important, both in Brazil and in several other countries, I still have no defined position on this subject, if that’s possible, neither has this been required of me in my CGEE work. This is a relevant issue, principally when we see that in parallel with the recent advances in science we are undergoing a period of significant social upheaval often explained by religious or cultural differences. The understanding and inclusion of these important human values in the discussions about the future path of science and technology may contribute to improving our social coexistence.

What are your expectations with regard to this subject of converging technologies arriving in Brazil in the way it is already being discussed in Europe and the United States?
In Brazil we have a scientific society that is fairly active in the key areas of new convergence. The work being done by the CGEE takes this fact into account and it will be important to know how these researchers intend to take part in this convergence movement and what challenges it presents us with. If we look at the documents I’ve already referred to we will see that they point to the possible benefits that convergence may bring to developing countries. But I don’t believe that Brazilian researchers want to deprive themselves of involvement in the debate and of playing an active role in these decisions.

What concrete changes may we see within the next five or ten years?
We don’t have to wait long, since there are already some devices that have been designed based on technological convergence principles  already in use. Let’s think about the medical area, for example, where a micro-camera in a pill, after it is swallowed, starts sending images of the entire digestive tract back to an external receiver. These images can help in the diagnosis of various gastrointestinal pathologies without using invasive techniques. Other examples include incorporating drugs into nano-compounds directed at specific organs that, while they increase the efficiency of the treatment, may also reduce side effects. Some of these procedures are already being used or are in an advanced study phase in Brazil.

What is “improvement of the individual”?
The meaning is very broad, but the new convergence looks at this aspect in two ways: correcting limitations or accelerating normal processes. In the first case we can develop devices that restore the sight, hearing or mobility of people with problems. In the second, we might think about using a chip that would speed up learning or facilitate creativity. In this sense, the imagination can go a long way.

So is the discussion about whether  this type of intervention is legitimate?
Yes, because alongside these incredible possibilities is the issue of who is going to decide about what is worth improving or not, and why.

What will this discussion be like in institutional terms in Brazil? What is the CGEE talking about with other bodies?
We recently organized a meeting at the CGEE with several scientists from the central areas of convergence alongside others social and human areas. It was extremely useful for outlining the study we have now started. However, it was surprising to see that, although several of the people present have already worked with convergence interface, some have not been tracking the ramifications and discussions that are going on in the international science and technology areas. This observation reinforced the need to extend the debate in our community, particularly because this same community has worked very competently in the training of human resources to take action in the near future. The CGEE work foresees the participation of government bodies, business people and other segments of society that work in the fields of science, technology and innovation.

Does opening up channels to enable this discussion to take place in Brazil help the CGEE, which is five years old, to fulfill its role?
To some extent we Brazilians find it very difficult to work with long term issues; day to day concerns take up almost all our time, leaving us with the feeling that there’s still a lot to be done. However, we have to concern ourselves with the possible ramifications of decisions taken in the present and what impact they may have on the future of society. Better structured countries are always engaged in prospecting and future studies in order to foresee probable and desirable scenarios likely to materialize in 20 to 50 years time, in order to structure themselves so that this can be achieved. The methodologies used in these studies are very rich and varied and the CGEE has dedicated itself to employing  the studies that target science, technology and innovation.

With, however, an enormous degree of uncertainty.
The occurrence of unforeseen events and a degree of uncertainty are incorporated into the process of thinking about the future so that studies do not provide for just one single scenario, or for rigid paths of action that cannot be modified while being carried out. Who could have foreseen the recent changes due to the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the ensuing investments in national security in the USA? These recent facts must perforce be included in the agendas of any prospective studies.

When you talk about projects for 2050 in Brazil, you’re thinking about which areas?
The country has distinguished itself in topics that are not only important for us, Brazilians, but for all mankind. Let’s think about climate change and clean development, in future energies and in the sustained use of our rich biodiversity. We can no longer think merely about correcting that which we’ve already done wrong; we need to think about what the next steps will be and what consequences they may have in the future.

CLAUDIO REISHow did you move from research and teaching to the CNPq and CGEE?
I can consider this change as a “gift” from a wonderful person and someone whom I didn’t know until that time, Minister Ronaldo Sardenberg, who during his term at the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) invited me to work alongside him. Expanding my work from the university environment to working on the preparation of science and technology programs and policies was a notable experience. I learned a lot, not only from the minister, but also from several members of his team, in particular from the executive secretary, Carlos Américo Pacheco, another privileged brain. I worked hard and with dedication on the MST’s proposals.

You have been interested in science and technology policies since your time as Dean at Unifesp, haven’t you?
The fact that I have been working for almost 30 years at Unifesp has been a major privilege. The element that on the one hand was always a great advantage, i.e., that it was centered on the health area, meant, at the same time, a disadvantage as far as experiencing the concept of a university and interfacing with other fields of human knowledge. When I started working as Dean and taking part in meetings with professors from other areas I had the opportunity to broaden my expectations and complete my vision of the educational and scientific environment. When I was elected president of the Forum of Deans of Postgraduate Studies and Research, I was able to learn a lot more thanks to meeting great people.

And your experience at CTNBio?
I was president of CTNBio at the same time I was president of CNPq. Currently, it is a very interesting challenge and, if we consider that period as more “peaceful” than what we have today, I can guarantee that the members of CTNBio who worked with me at that time had the clear sensation that it was the most turbulent period in the young life of the Committee.

I’d like you to wrap up by talking about your work as a neuroscientist and your research into epilepsy and the drug pilocarpine.
Pilocarpine is a drug we’ve known about for a long time. It’s extracted from bushes that grow in the northeast of Brazil and has been used for years in the treatment of glaucoma. I also knew that its effect on neurons was to stimulate them. Our findings, which ended up being fundamental in the advances that have been made in the field of epilepsy, were that pilocarpine in large doses could be used as a tool in the development of a new experimental epilepsy model that is very similar to the one observed in humans. In these 20 years of work with this new experimental model our group and various others in this country and abroad have been able to understand how a previously normal brain can, as the result of a lesion, develop plastic mechanisms that end up leading to epilepsy. The entire process is rather complex and has required the participation of scientists from various areas, a true convergence. We believe that a better understanding of this phenomenon can contribute to the search for new treatment strategies, not only for epilepsy but also for cerebral pathologies that result in neuronal degeneration of the most varied etiologies.