On Transfession and Transdisciplinarity (Part II)

-       Professor Galazhinskiy, the importance of social and humanities expertise has been considered since the beginning of the Third Wave of technologization (see Toffler), i.e. since the middle of the 20th century. However, one can see that most projects have been carried out not only without any social and humanities input, but without any ecological consideration as well. Pollution of air and soil, the number of people who have health problems connected with artificial viruses, various addictions – all that speaks for itself. Is there a possibility that philosophers, who can ask “inconvenient” questions, will be still left out of project groups?

- If we talk about NBIC convergent technologies, the situation is as follows. The concept was presented by Mihail Roco and William Bainbridge. The NBIC model was based on the synergetic combination of Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology, and Cognitive sciences.

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Visually the concept is represented by a tetrahedron with an atom, a gene, a bit, and a neuron as its vertexes. In simple words, the concept of NBIC proposes the idea that at the nanoscale such elements as atoms, genes, bits, and neurons become interchangeable. In this case, nanotechnologies turn into a synergetic parameter of order that controls the process of convergence of other technologies. Nanotechnology breakthroughs may only be compared to the human exploration of space. The authors of the NBIC concept believe that using the concept in producing nanoobjects such as smart pills, nanorobots, and nanomaterials will lead to improving human capability. The human brain and other organs will work better, people will be stronger, more creative, and so on. However, the concept does not include a person, so it remains unclear who will govern and control the evolution and how, monitoring the “breeding”. In other words, NBIC is a perfect tool and it can be used with different intentions.

- One can make people healthy or make universal soldiers and cyborgs out of them.

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- Exactly, and this is not a fantasy anymore. The American company DARPA is famous for its           exoskeletons that take on some weight and reduce the burden on a soldier’s body. The company plans to create eye lenses that will provide soldiers with augmented reality images from drones. 

Elon Musk, Canadian-American business magnate, founder, CEO, and CTO of SpaceX, and co-founder, CEO, and product architect of Tesla, has gone even further. In one of his public lectures in February 2017, he announced that he had launched a new company dedicated to linking human brains with computers. He also said that humans need to merge with machines not to be left out and be competitive. Several days ago, he introduced his new company Neuralink to the mass media. The project is centered on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements will improve memory and even help to fight diseases such as Parkinson’s. The point is that people will not need any mediators such as keyboards or remotes to control their devices. They will directly manipulate the software, using specially designed language.  Many researchers consider such projects utopian, because science still does not know much about how neurons communicate with each other. However, Neuralink has been established and it is ready to work! 


The main factor that sets the goal in these kinds of projects is the value systems of their authors. Social and humanities expertise focused on creating convergent technologies aims at formulating these values. It is supposed to audit the management and to predict possible impact on the society.  If the evaluation does not become mandatory, humanity will turn into servants for creatures with artificial intelligence or even disappear as a biological species. That is why representatives of different spheres of science are doomed to internal friendship and collaboration under the conditions of the convergence of the Fourth Wave of technologization.

- Is there any Russian experience connected with studying or applying  the NBIC concept?

- Yes, Russian researchers not only took up the initiative, but also focused their attention on controversial issues. As a result, in 2009, interdisciplinary research in NBIC was launched at Kurchatov Institute. The project was headed by Mikhail Kovalchuk, president of the Institute, and the abbreviation was completed with the letter S, which stands for the fifth “socio-humanistic” element of research.

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At present, most international (especially European) and Russian scientists who deal with the issues of the NBIC concept are aware of the current need to complete the initial model of NBIC with social, anthropological, ecological, and philosophical components with real experts responsible for them in real projects.

- It is clear that people who develop convergent technologies and participate in serious transdisciplinary projects must be those transprofessionals you talked about at the beginning of our conversation. But this is the frontline of research. Not everybody can or even needs to be on that frontline. However, over the last several years, the idea of life-time learning has been adapted almost everywhere. There are many people who are not happy with that, especially among those who will have to work or hire people who switch careers. Any person would prefer being treated by a dentist who has been a dentist all his or her life, rather than a doctor of a broad spectrum. The former would be considered more trustworthy.  Many experts, such as Guy Standing, professor at University of London, believe that the idea of flexibility and re-skilling is questionable and that it is advantageous only for the current capitalist system. They think it may lead to increasing the precariat, amateurism, and losing professional identity. What is your opinion on that?

- Any idea that is brought to the extremes loses sense. Professor Standing’s position is valuable due to its critical nature and the right time at which it occurred. That is why we hope it will not be brought to the extremes. By the way, Professor Standing proposes some questionable ideas too, for example, he advocates an unconditional basic income. We live in a complex and layered society that requires broad specialists, one-subject experts, and transfessionals who work in the areas of scientific and technological convergence. However, today a good one-subject specialist, for example, a dentist, meets totally different requirements than his colleagues  did 10 or 20 years ago. He or she must be able to master current methods of dental work. This means he is supposed to improve skills constantly and to learn how to use new synthetic materials, new drugs, and new tools. All new instruments and tools are developed across a number of spheres. Besides, a good dentist must be a good communicator and a psychologist capable of getting on the right side of patients. That is why in the age of digital devices and nanotechnologies there is no place for a narrowly focused specialists.

When I mention transfessionalism as crossing professional borders, I mean expanding them, not deleting them. The best transfessionals are those who are good at their original professions but continuously cross their limits and master new skills and technologies from other spheres of professional activity. Professional identity, by the way, is connected with professional activity. Transfessionalism is not an alternative to specialization.  It is an alternative to stagnation and closedness. People lose professional identity when they do not understand for what they have to master new hard, soft, and digital skills (besides increasing their salary).    

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- Is the modern Russian education ready for preparing transfessionals?

- Education, as a system, has always been more conservative than science. This is a global trend. Today, the contradiction between the tendency for synthesis in science and the traditional division into university departments and faculties has reached its apogee. This is seen especially at research universities that have to do research and prepare specialists for it. Universities are in desperate search for new models of education.

- How does Tomsk State University solve these problems?

- As a member of the 5-100 project, TSU has carried out the concept of StrAUs (strategic academic units) that must accumulate different resources to develop spheres that may become groundbreaking on the global level in terms of preparing specialists and doing research. Some universities have chosen a comparatively easy way. They have started joining faculties to establish bigger units. We saw in the potential of StrAUs the opportunity to become new institutes for post-graduates and masters. StrAUs can prepare transfessionals as I described them above. At present, we have four strategic academic units: the TSSW: Siberian Institute of the Future (SIF); the Institute of Biomedicine (IB); the Institute of the Human of the Digital Era (IHDE); and the Institute of Smart Materials and Technology (SMTI). They focus on the environment, the human, society, the technological environment, and the ecosystem of innovation. They carry out several autonomous interdisciplinary master’s degree programmes, some of them are international. StrAUs are based on several laboratories and bring together professionals from various spheres.  The content of the programmes is developed across scientific interests of the laboratories and oriented toward the interests of business and the state. One of the most important principles for those who developed the programmes was combining fundamental and applied knowledge. In the near future, we will conduct a university competition for the best education projects. We hope they will be useful in developing new autonomous interdisciplinary master’s degree programmes.

- Does it mean that preparing transfessionals takes place only in the second stage of higher education, which is master’s programmes?

- We can do it a different way as well. We know that not all school graduates are ready to choose their professional career right after high school. In this case, they will have Liberal Arts as an option. They will study in a multi-profile bachelor’s programme with a number of disciplines from natural sciences and social studies and humanities. During their first years at the university, they will have an opportunity to think more about their future and consciously choose a proper master’s degree programme. That is why Liberal Arts programmes are called “intellectual armor for liberated people (people with freedom of choice)”. Despite the popularity of this model in the Western countries, so far, it has been implemented only at Saint Petersburg State University and at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. At TSU, we have a group that is working on launching such a programme.

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- How else can we prepare students to become transfessionals in the first stage of university education? Not all of them go on to the second stage.

- There are many education technologies that activate not only rational but also creative thinking. For example, BBL  (Brain Based Learning), which is learning based on brain patterns. Or problem-oriented learning, which draws students’ attention to finding solutions to complex problems. There is also such thing as individual education programmes. This means a diverse environment that provides students with options to create their own education strategies. TSU has launched 180 campus courses that have been already attended by 3,000 students. 

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In general, the basis for establishing transfessionalism at our research university is a high level of integration of science and education. This priority is part of our genome. Developing research competencies and creative thinking is the key issue of the education process. This allows people to go beyond their professional activity, while sticking to its core. This is the education policy of TSU.


The interview was conducted by Irina Kuzheleva-SaganThe interview was conducted by Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan