Human enhancement, between progress and ethics

              Mankind as we know it nowadays is the result of billions of years of evolution through Darwinism, the survival of the fittest. And thought the human body might have reached its biological limits, its evolution might continue with the development of new technologies meant to enhance our bodies. These technologies can have a lot of applications be it for military or civilian use.

DARPA for example, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, lunched the BRAIN initiative in April 2013. This initiative is the legacy of decades of research on the human brain and neurotechnology since the 70s. Ten programs are part of this initiative, the eleventh one having been archived, with various aims such as connecting soldiers’ brains to drones or helping servicemen and women who have been injured to recover.

There are also a number of applications for our everyday life. People are already using microchips implanted in their arms and hands in Sweden in order to replace their keys, credit cards or train tickets. Less invasive technologies also exist such as the enchroma glasses that allow colorblind people to see colors.

Yet these new technologies also come with a few concerns, the main one being about our health. Is it safe for us to put chips, wires, metal and plastic in our bodies?

Moreover, there are some ethical issues as well. Can our future cyborg bodies be hacked? Could it gather personal information on us, which can be a real issue like the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed the world? Will these new technologies be available for everybody or only to the lucky few?

What really is human enhancement?

It can be described as the natural, artificial, or technological alteration of the human body in order to enhance physical or mental capabilities. According to Professor and Researcher Johann Roduit, it improves some human characteristics and provides a competitive advantage compared to others.

Also called human enhancement, three categories exist: reproductive, physical and mental. We sometimes picture human enhancement as a fiction and something that is seen in the movies. But this transformation of the body also includes cosmetics such as plastic surgery or even organ replacements. These belong to the physical enhancements.

In terms of mental augmentation, we can cite neuro-stimulation or supplements that improve mental functions. This is a brief introduction to what human augmentation signifies.

These technologies are currently used towards upgrading or restoring physical and psychological abilities for medical purpose, most of the time after accidents. However, as technologies evolve and as the society changes, we are facing another application that is designed with another goal in mind: embellishing performance.

According to a US study published in Scientific American by Dr. Debra Whitman, 95% of respondents support physical restorative applications but when it comes to upgrading a physical or cognitive performance with the sole aim of boosting performance, this number falls down to 35%. For all these people that answered the study, this act of boosting performance touches the essence of humankind and that’s why it raises problems among the population and why it is being controverted.

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A good example of such enhancement is pointed at in the series called “Years and years”. It shows the evolution of technologies, ships but also mind drives. And unfortunately, it also displays the issues that come with human enhancement. Such as having a robot eye, living on a daily basis with Snapchat filters or even having ships and micros in the hand in order to make calls. Well, it highlights the evolution of human to robots and with this, come of course the questions of ethics.

Human enhancement and technologies related

We cannot talk about human enhancement without mentioning technologies.

Human enhancement is a field with a high increase and development in term of technologies. There are several inventions, but here we are going to be focused on them which directly interact and include chips in the human body.

Human enhancement refers to a huge range of techniques and approaches which works at increase body or cognitive functions, through prosthetics, medical implants, human-computer etc.…  We will focus the neuroscience technologies, and only on one area, human cognitive enhancement. Our objective here is providing a statement of the current situation of the neuroscience technologies for human cognitive enhancement.

Invasive technologies use electrodes directly inserted in the brain. That’s why they usually allow to obtain results less affected by the noise and distortions induced by the scalp and skull. However, implanting electrodes needs brain surgery, means these techniques are expensive, and can present potential ethical issues. Plus it could provide a lot of side effects we don’t know about yet, because they are directly on the brain. In case of a problem the fact that it is directly on the brain could have a lot of serious implications, which creates a dilemma between including the electrodes on the brain or maintaining them out of it.

According to Business Insider, the US Military imagines cyborg soldiers who could be able to control drones using these kind of electrodes.

The study predicts that technological advancements will allow the creation of enhanced warfighters with ocular, auditory, muscular, and neural augmentations. For example, with neural implants they could use a connection from the brain directly to the machine and give to a soldier the ability to control multiple drones simultaneously. According to Johann Roduit, military and army are the most fereseable fields where it can be used and helpful.

Elon Musk loves the technologies and is involved a lot in this, and he also took part on the human enhancement, he told that “people would need to become cyborgs to be relevant in an artificial intelligence age”. The serial entrepreneur created “Neuralink”, with the aim of connecting computers directly to human brains. He wants to realize it by using “neural lace” technology, which can be defined by “implanting tiny electrodes into the brain for direct computing capabilities”. Musk is not alone in believing that neurotechnology could be the next big thing. Silicon Valley is working on similar projects. Bryan Johnson, for example, has also been testing “neural lace”. He founded Kernel, a startup to enhance human intelligence by developing brain implants linking people’s thoughts to computers.

Human augmentation and ethics

But with these technologies also raise ethics issues.

Human augmentation aims to go beyond the limits of our body, a technical and/or chemical bio-modification. Technique is that tool that has already transformed or expanded the human body in the past, does so continuously in the present time and will surely be inherent to the human body in the past. However, this challenges the human identity which is becoming more and more digital, the boundaries will start to disappear between the human and non-human aspect of being. Thus, ethical questions about this trans-humanism and human augmentation come into play.

Faced with a constantly evolving society, the limits of the human body want to be explored and exploited by researchers and scientists. At this point, this human augmentation is seen as a renunciation of its natural faculties for a technical augmentation of these. A very blatant case today is man’s renunciation of human memory and the choice to store his memories or personal information externally. Since human memory is too weak, it is remedied by technology. The digital and the fictional become the new reality.

Augmenter l'homme ?
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Vulnerability must also disappear, but would not this very condition of vulnerability be surpassed or even completely erased, but would this not intrinsically mean giving up one’s human identity? For if man no longer feels any vulnerability he will end up becoming insensitive or even a « computer-assisted vegetable » according to the journalist Xavier De la Porte. It is not by having a hip prosthesis or dentures that one will lose one’s humanity, on the contrary one can regain a taste for it, but it is by pushing the increase to the maximum, to the modification of the IQ of a foetus so that it is more capable in certain disciplines. Where then would ethics be in such a practice, imposing a destiny on someone who does not yet exist and who has asked for nothing. This is a matter of a certain fatalism.

Should we therefore add a humanizing dimension to human growth? For to see in genetic and technical modifications a certain weariness of man and of the limits of the human body. We should therefore not be mistaken about the final goal to be achieved by modifying and increasing the body. It would be necessary that the increase remains driven by reason. The philosopher Ellul goes further in terms of ethics and reason with his « choice of non-power » which is the fact of renouncing to do everything that could be done.

Finally, even if ethical questions are raised, the legal context prevails. There is no law or rule concerning the case of the Augmented Human. Only bioethics laws regulate the scope of medicine and research. Human augmentation is a reality in the very near future and is on the verge of creating a two-speed society where ethics will act as a clutch to shift from one gear to the other.

All in all, new technologies are all subject to risks and ethical dilemmas. The lack of regulation of the human enhancing technologies isn’t an isolated case. Social media have been under a lot of fire because of their use of personal information. And even if Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey, CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, had to go to congress for hearing because of their activity, nothing has changed about their activity.

But human augmentation raises much more concerns because it would not only affect our lives, it might also affect our health and the social hierarchy making it even more polarized than it is today. The cost of such technologies could be a deterrent for those with less means, thus making it a commodity accessible only to the wealthy.

Furthermore, the evolution of mankind into cyborgs or robots can be a little scary as well. Some may argue that having metal parts in our bodies and ships in our brains make us less human. But in a world where technology has become a major part of our lifestyle and will continue to gain importance with AI and autonomous cars, maybe being half human and half machine is just the logical next step of our evolution.

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