Will superhuman powers give us superhuman problems?


April 22, 2014

We may not be fully aware of what "human enhancement" will really entail (Image: Shutterstock)

We may not be fully aware of what "human enhancement" will really entail (Image: Shutterstock)

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Any mention of cyborgs or superpowers evokes fantastical images from the realms of science fiction and comic books. Our visions of humans with enhanced capabilities are borne of our imaginations and the stories we tell. In reality, though, enhanced humans already exist ... and they don't look like Marvel characters. As different human enhancement technologies advance at different rates, they bleed into society gradually and without fanfare. What's more, they will increasingly necessitate discussion about areas that are often overlooked – what are the logistics and ethics of being superhuman? Gizmag spoke to a number of experts to find out.

Our natural tendency is to focus on the functionality of enhanced humans. Abilities like super-strength, flight or telepathy seem so far removed from that of which we're capable and so desirable that it's understandable for us to focus on these possibilities. The individual, social and ethical consequences of enhanced humans are considered far less in popular culture, however.

"People tend to imagine the current state of human enhancement as either much more advanced or retarded than it really is," Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, tells Gizmag. "I realize that this sounds paradoxical, but generally speaking it helps to explain the curious blend of impatience and disappointment that surrounds the topic. This simply reflects the fact that people know more about human enhancement from its own hype and science-fictional representations – which can be positive or negative – than from what's actually available on the ground."

Professor Andy Miah, director of the Creative Futures Institute at the University of the West of Scotland, has spent much of his career looking at the potential for human enhancement and what it might mean for us. Speaking to Gizmag, he explains that enhancement is not a new phenomenon, but that, increasingly, we have important decisions that will have to be made.

Miah argues that as society becomes more advanced, more and more difficult decisions surrounding human enhancement will be thrust upon us. "I thinks it's inevitable that we will have to make these decisions," he says, explaining that the only other option would be to halt human progress with an archetypal head-in-the-sand scenario.


The issues that society will have to consider range from straightforward personal issues to highly complex and abstract social issues. Beginning with the more personal considerations, Miah uses the example of super-strength. "In order for that, you are going to need added muscle mass, which will likely compromise your potential for speed and agility," he says. It's a simple proposition used to show that any enhancement is likely to have side-effects.

Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, tells Gizmag that it will be important for people to consider what they are getting themselves into and what exactly they want to achieve. "The nature of the enhancement will take on dramatically different forms," he explains. "Has anyone done it before? It could be dangerous; could go wrong. There could be side effects that we know little or nothing about."

Another example is provided by social psychologist Bertolt Meyer in a recent Wired article. Meyer, who was born without his lower left arm, asks whether people would have a limb amputated to replace it with a prosthesis that was to some extent better. Even now, though, he notes a potential trade-off. "Augmented bodies that contain connected technology give the word hacking a new meaning," he says in the article. "My i-limb connects to my iPhone, but my iPhone is connected to the internet. Technically, a part of my body has become hackable."

Fuller agrees that such unintended consequences are the main consideration required when thinking about enhancement. "If, say, your memory is successfully enhanced, consider how else this might change your way of living and your relationship with people." Warwick reiterates this point by asking, "With superintelligence, what would the enhanced folk do with the stupid unenhanced?".

Social impacts

This application of practicality places the idea of human enhancement under a whole new light compared to its presentation in popular culture. It provides an instant recognition that being bestowed with a "super-power" is unlikely to come without its costs. Furthermore, it only complicates matters when considered on a larger scale.

Miah poses the question of what impact life-extension will have on society. We are already living longer and, already, there is a strain being placed on society. Care, pensions and housing are all impacted by aging populations. So what if we had the option of living to 200? 500? 1000? Trying to conceive how this might impact society requires a huge speculative leap, says Miah.

The issues aren't limited to the present time or to immediate consequences, however. Society also has to consider the potential consequences for future generations of modifying humans today. "If we find out how to remove a specific gene to cure a disease, we may find that in 200 years time that gene is hugely important for another reason," Miah explains.

Similarly, he poses another lateral ethical dilemma. "If we develop the ability to improve our own intelligence," he asks, "do we have a responsibility to do so for animals too? That would completely change our view of animals and animal rights." Although radical, this concept is not that far-fetched. India recently gave dolphins "non-human person" status, recognizing their high intelligence and providing them with specific rights.


The main social considerations for enhancement technology, Fuller suggests, are ensuring their equitable distribution, so that priority is given to those for whom enhancement serves to reduce already existing inequalities rather than increasing them, and the extent to which we will tolerate personal enhancement.

"We are effectively encouraging people to experiment with all sorts of modes of being – involving transgenic and prosthetic implants – that could easily result in a diversity of capacities previously unseen in human history," says Fuller, "some of which are likely to incorporate some measure of what we now call disability."

Almost counter-intuitively, Fuller also points out that we would have to consider the place of people who, for religious or other reasons, refuse to be enhanced, however legal or safe. Is it fair to leave people behind or put them at a disadvantage simply because they opt-out of a post-human world?

Future enhancement

Fuller says he agrees with the transhumanist idea that we need to take greater risks with our bodies and our environments in order to flourish in the long term, but believes that we must have legal, social, political and economic safeguards in place. He is keen for state and international agencies to become actively involved to ensure that the enhancement market is appropriately regulated and doesn't exacerbate the social problems we already have. While he points out that such intervention can't always be relied upon, Fuller suggests that advancement of the technology is likely to happen regardless.

"Generally speaking, even if states end up being either very laissez-faire or prohibitive in their approach to these new technologies, they will happen by other means, i.e. outside the jurisdiction of the state," predicts Fuller. "A good case in point is, a floating vessel outside of territorial waters that is designed to house research for doing challenging science that is currently not allowed by over-restrictive ethics panels at universities."

Warwick suggests that, despite the minefield of ethical dilemmas to be navigated and potential for individuals with increasingly varied capabilities, the market is likely to develop much like any other. "[The future of human enhancement probably involves] initially exciting, pioneering experimentation over the next few years," he predicts. "Then lots of commercial opportunities opening up."

For more information: Andy Miah, Steve Fuller, Kevin Warwick

About the Author
Stu Robarts Stu is a tech writer based in Liverpool, UK. He has previously worked on global digital estate management at Amaze and headed up digital strategy for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology). He likes cups of tea, bacon sandwiches and RSS feeds. All articles by Stu Robarts

After reading the paragraph "Trade-offs", first thing that pops into my head is: ""Deus ex: Human Revolution" anyone?"


As with most things, the mystics and the artists have already explored this. Read up on the classical Greek gods for an examination of the problems involved.

Or Marvel comics, whatever.


I don't think we will have to worry about this for some time. It will be a while before a prosthesis rivals a real limb. Enhanced memory will not necessarily give a person super intelligence or problem solving ability. If anything, depending on calculators and computers will have negative effects on human logic and abilities. Some will thrive creatively but others will become dependent. I have seen this at my local stores where young clerks can't make change without the cash register telling them what the amount is. Living longer may not be that big of a problem as baby boomers who grew up obese on fast foods will likely start bringing the average lifespan back down. We will however continue to see super machines changing our lives for better and worse.


Some good points Bob. The current fastest super computer is still 3-5 PFlop/s behind what the brain can do but actually using it is harder. There was an experiment where the 4th fastest super computer was used to run a simulation of the brain and they were about to simulate about 1% of 1 second of brain activity and it took about 40 minutes to do it and the super computer used (K computer) has 705k cores and takes up a building.

Creating neural interfaces to interface directly with computers will be difficult too.

Things like being able to modify DNA are already happening though so who knows where that could go if people start making changes to human DNA.

With prosthetics people are mostly already matching or passing human capability. Oscar Pistorius (Blade Runner) was a double amputee who competed in the 2012 Olympics and we have hardly scratched the surface on the potential there.


This is a field where, more than in other endeavors, it is imperative to think everything out carefully in advance. When it comes to alteration of the human germline, an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of the cure. In view of that, I am disappointed by how poorly thought out the opinions of the "experts" quoted in this article are. Just two examples:

"If we . . . remove a specific gene . . . we may find that in 200 years time that gene is hugely important . . ." So it will be put back. Duh. The capacity to remove a specific gene implies the capacity to replace it.

". . . the example of super-strength. In order for that, you are going to need added muscle mass . . ." That depends on how you increase strength. It is likely to happen by genetically engineering a stronger muscle, rather than just adding on more muscle. As a matter of fact, all that is necessary is reversing the well-known mutation that makes our muscles weaker than muscles of other adult primates.

But having said that, I must give prof. Miah his due; he is right in saying that progress cannot be halted, and human enhancement by genetic engineering is in the long run utterly unavoidable.


All good points including Diachi. However, you never know what recent advances will do. Just the other day Gizmag posted an article about some scientists in Singapore that showed it was possible to run a computer circuit at 250THz. That changes the game and by 2050 (my estimate for manufacturing feasibility), we are going to have machines faster than our brain can calculate and with the ability to upload/download our consciousness into new bodies or into machines themselves.

Rocky Stefano

In order to prevent the worst abuses, I propose adopting the following four rules (modeled on Asimov's laws of robotics) to guide human germline enhancement. The intent of the rules is to safeguard against outright disaster, without introducing shortsighted constraints.

Four key precepts for genetic modification of sentient germline:

"Existing functionality should not be impaired." No four-armed, legless "space-humans" for instance, as this would sacrifice existing ability to walk in gravity for the sake of an adaptation to a niche.

"Psychological, moral and emotional qualities must not be tampered with." Even "ordinary" sociotechnic engineering conducted with propaganda has resulted in unpalatable dystopias rather than improvement; if genetic changes are employed, the end will likely be a permanent hell on earth, regardless of how well-intentioned the changes are. Production of psychopathic "supersoldiers" is a threat obvious to everyone. But going the other way and producing docile, empathic, law-abiding drones is actually more likely to result in totalitarian horror. N.B. Rule 2 is applicable not only to germline engineering, but to somatic genome engineering of sentients as well.

"The modified humans must be dependent on technological assistance to no greater degree than the original species." For instance, modifying for a bigger cranium would necessitate Caesarean births; this is not permitted unless other modifications are first made, allowing children with bigger heads to be born naturally (e.g. rerouting the birth canal). There is an exception: It is permissible to slow the rate of mutation and evolution. A sentient species evolves primarily by genetic engineering. Evolution by natural selection is no longer significant, anyway: it is faster for a sentient species to repeatedly develop from stone age to a mature genetech technology than it would be to evolve appreciably in the natural fashion.

"No separate specialized human species incapable of interbreeding must be created; modifications which affect viability of interbreeding must be applied to all non-dissenting population at once, free of charge." Dissenting groups may /refuse/ modification, but not obtain variant modification. Thus it is OK to leave "straggler" communities at various stages along the way, but not OK to fork the development process. If the majority refuses a modification, it may not proceed.

:-) Please let me know what you think, and please be specific.


I don't know if Prof. Miah's assumption is correct - adding muscle mass is not the only way to achieve "superstrength" - chimpanzee or tiger muscle is, pound for pound, far stronger than human muscle, so it's conceivable more power from the same mass is achievable, as Freederick pointed out above.

And as for Prof. Warwick's concern regarding superintelligent folks, , I'd say they might "cull the heard"


It's a new game for domestic violence. Yikes.

Dan Lewis

This road of evolution/progression was chosen for us.


GE aside, we already have superhuman powers and problems.

"My WiFi won't reach the back yard"

"My mom likes everything I post on Facebook immediately"

"My car does this weird vibrating thing when I go faster than 85"

"My grandfather is 105 and out of money because he only planned on living to 80"

"I can't believe that picture of me vomiting on Celine Dion will exist thousands of years after I'm dead..."

I guess my point is, we as a species are just going to have to handle the problems that our technology creates for us.

And we will.


"With superintelligence, what would the enhanced folk do with the stupid unenhanced?"

Been doin' that for years....

Billy Geiger

Technology is the product of the brain, which is our best weapon and without which we would not exist. Every other animal is better adapted if you remove our intellect.

But it has always been a two-edged sword. That could change if philosophy could progress before we self-distruct. Only one major advance has been achieved since Aristotle: The concept that the individual has rights that the group cannot morally or practically violate. How those rights can be protected is still unsolved, but some thinkers have made remarkable progress in economics (Austrian economic theory).

However it is very difficult to spread ideas that empower the masses when that would weaken TPTB in a totalitarian world. They indoctrinate the youth (public school) and teach unthinking obedience, e.g., the "Pledge", rote memorization as "learning", and regimentation (wait for the bell) instead of independent thought/action. If it was so beneficial it wouldn't be forced on us at the point of gun.

Don Duncan

Hacking cyberparts will be a more serious threat in the future. It isn't happening now because not enough people have internet accessible prosthetics to make it worth while. However, as current events show, it is hooked up to the net, it will be targeted. Imagine a cyberarm infected with a virus to make it clumsy or a kind "alien limb" scenario. Or if the processor was strong enough it could be hijacked into a botnet and/or used to track and monitor the wearer.

This subject has been explorer pretty deeply in the Ghost in the Shell TV series. Cyberparts, including the computers wired into people's brains, were regularly hacked or infected with viruses.

People will still probably get them though and just like with computers and smart phones have all manner of new problems to go along with them.


I'm afraid I don't agree completely with Don D. What's wrong with our public schools is a lack of obedience, rote memorization, and regimentation with the resulting loss of loyalty, retained knowledge, and order. Independent thought and action are worthless without a firm foundation to start from. I do agree that dependence on technology is a two edged sword. In many ways we are rapidly becoming too civilized to survive on our own. We've gone from growing our own food, making our own clothes, and building our own shelter to dependence on technology and someone else to do those things for us. We can now be controlled by technology and those other people.This is how we are losing independent thought and action and this is how TPTB will consolidate the totalitarian world.


Freederick... I like your four rules.. some comments: Rule 1: reminds me of Marcus Aurelius' quote: "don't throw away your legs to walk on crutches". Rule 2: I would say that psychological, moral and emotional qualities are almost certainly changed for people with augmentation already. I think the horse has bolted on this one. Rule 3: I'm not sure your example of a larger cranium requiring Caesarean births is the best example here: who said increased intelligence required an enlarged cranium? Rule 4: oh boy, this be the Big Ethical + Political Issue. Who has the power and means to do this and who doesn't? Nice try to require "modifications which affect viability of interbreeding [to] be applied to all non-dissenting population at once, free of charge." But who's going to pay for it?

Vicki S


Re 1. :-) Re 2. I wasn't referring to the accidental emotional impact of physical changes, and not even to the unavoidable psychological effect of, say, an intelligence boost. The rule is meant to forbid deliberate genetic messing with mental attitude: creating docile, or aggressive, or amoral mutants, for instance. Re 3. I didn't say it did; I just used an enlarged cranium as an example of a mutation that would make the mutant species dependent on technological assistance for survival. Re 4. You're right, TANFL. OK, so maybe not so much free of charge as "tax-supported". Hardly ideal, but better than the alternative of producing a society stratified by genetics. There are so many Sci-Fi dystopias about that ;-)



Ah got it. Got it, but to my mind an odd example. And not just genetics. Already we have a stratified society in terms of augmented people - people with disability - and, ironically, its a dystopia now and not in the future.


Vicki S

"With superintelligence, what would the enhanced folk do with the stupid unenhanced?"

Eat them with fava beans and a light Chianti. Personally I find a 'light' Chianti to be far more fictional than transhuman enhancement.

Robert Walther

@Vicki: Here's some more on head size vs. Caesarean birth (about halfway down the article):

As you can see, the 3rd rule is already being bent, through biasing natural selection. But this cannot be stopped; it would be inhuman to refuse to carry out the Caesarean when it is available. The only ethical recourse is, ultimately, genetic engineering.

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