Will superhuman powers give us superhuman problems?
By Stu Robarts
April 22, 2014
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.
Trade-offsThe 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 impactsThis 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.
ConsiderationsThe 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 enhancementFuller 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 seasteading.org, 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."