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Posts Tagged ‘theme: engineering the human’

I am a cyborg. Don’t look so shocked—you’re probably one too.

I have the following technological enhancements:

  • a removable device for improving visual acuity
  • an assortment of removable artificial skins for temperature control and decoration
  • a prosthetic time sense, significantly better than any natural ability
  • a prosthetic memory that not only allows me to store large amounts of information far more accurately than my natural memory, but allows me to access—and add to—other people’s similarly stored memories

Psychologists and philosophers suggest that humans are natural cyborgs. We are hard-wired not only to create and use tools, but to make them a part of ourselves. Your brain, for example, represents the space around you in different ways depending on what is and isn’t in arm’s reach. That makes sense, because you can directly affect things in arm’s reach—the more distant world, you can merely observe. If you pick up a stick, or get in the driver’s seat of a car, your representation of “arm’s reach” expands along with your influence. I leave it to your imagination what that representation does when you log into Twitter.

Tools change us, but we can’t function without them. Tool use, of course, is not limited to humans. Octopuses use coconut shells for camouflage, crows bend wires into hooks, and chimpanzees make spears. But we make more complex tools, and use them more easily, than any other species. And they’re absolutely necessary for our survival—we have little in the way of truly natural protection or food-gathering ability.

We’ve been worrying about the dangers of new technological enhancements for as long as we’ve been making them. Plato believed that writing would lead to forgetfulness (he was right), and cause people to “entertain the delusion that they have wide knowledge, while they are, in fact, for the most part incapable of real judgment.” Meanwhile, in the 21st century, Malcolm Gladwell believes that social media will undermine revolutionary activism—or at least, he believed it last October. Those who look ahead worry about the dehumanizing effects of nanotechnology and bioengineering. There are certainly many dangerous potential uses for these new technologies. But they can’t “dehumanize” us. Tools are one of the things that make us human.

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If you could get one technological enhancement–real or imagined–what would it be?  And are there any that would worry you if other people got them?

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Post by Minna Krejci

A few weeks ago, Discover’s Science Not Fiction blog explored the hidden message in Pixar’s films:

“The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.” –Kyle Munkittrick on Science Not Fiction

One of the Pixar examples given as evidence was The Incredibles, which shows how human enhancement to beyond the human norm can lead to revulsion and alienation reactions.  The lesson, according to Munkittrick: “…human enhancement does not make you inhuman – the choices you make and the way you treat others determines how human you really are.”

We’ve always been interested in ways to improve our minds, bodies, or abilities.  But what happens as new technologies increasingly allow us to push the limits of our abilities to beyond what is “normal” for our species?  Do we limit human enhancement for fear of “enhanced” individuals acquiring an unfair advantage (in work, school, politics, athetics, etc.)?  Do we avoid regulation to retain our personal freedoms and rights to improve our own minds, bodies, and lives?

In a report funded by the National Science Foundation, the Human Enhancement Ethics Group discussed these kinds of issues in the form of 25 questions and answers regarding the ethics of human enhancement.  I recommend taking a look — it’s an interesting and relevant read, considering that we are already seeing these kinds of debates with respect to cognitive-enhancing and performance-enhancing drugs.  Is it ok for students diagnosed with ADHD to take stimulants to correct the “attention deficit,” but not ok for otherwise-normal students to take stimulants to help them focus better when studying for exams?  Where do you draw the line between what supplements/drugs athletes can and can’t take to improve their performance?

It sounds like we’ve got a lot of “why does he get one and I don’t” and “why can’t I use it just because she doesn’t have one” to look forward to…

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