Current exponential technological advances have sparked extensive debates regarding human enhancements, and where the limit lies between what is and not human, what is and not ethical. But what exactly is human enhancement?
We can start by defining human enhancement as Wikipedia does: “any attempt to temporarily or permanently overcome the current limitations of the human body through natural or artificial means”. Or we can look at it as the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford does: “Human enhancement refers to the use of medicine, technology, and techniques to improve the capacities of people beyond what we would consider normal or healthy”. Bearing these statements in mind, you would not be surprised if we said human enhancement was not born in the 21st century after all. It is probably fair to say that the desire to enhance ourselves is as old as humanity itself, and has always been pervasive in all societal forms.
For example, ancient Egyptians used cosmetics very frequently to improve their physical appearance and protect their skin from the heat. On a similar, and simpler note, clothing can be seen as a human enhancement as well. For instance, we would be hard pressed to imagine naked eskimos going for a hunt. Without clothing humans would certainly die in such cold regions of planet Earth. To give a radically different example, telephones are also a wonder of human enhancement. They allow communication between humans over distances that would be unthinkable given the limitations of our physical bodies. Imagine yourself shouting from Lisbon to New York in the hope anyone would listen… Another modern enhancement: pills! They allow us to cope with diseases our immune system would not handle by itself. All of these examples are the result of “the use of medicine, technology, and techniques to improve the capacities of people beyond what we would consider normal or healthy” and also attempts “to temporarily or permanently overcome the current limitations of the human body through natural or artificial means”.
The digital revolution and modern advances in the understanding of our own biological machinery have now opened the door to a whole new class of modifications:
Electronic devices can be incorporated directly in our own body in a symbiotic relationship with living tissue; various chemical drugs can target specific receptors in our cells to regulate the way our organism works; and we can even begin to imagine how we would modify our genome, the very source code of life embedded in DNA, to ultimately changes our fates. These modern developments give rise to very conflicting reactions, ranging from those who embrace the new possibilities without a second thought, to those who point to them as the beginning of the downfall of the whole human race. But are they that much different from what we have been collectively doing since the dawn of History? In some sense, harnessing the power of fire to cook our own food or grinding lenses to make eyeglasses is as much a human enhancement as the development of cochlear implants. All of them produced massive transformations in the way humans live their lives. Did humanity stop with each of these innovations? On the one hand we can say no, since changing ourselves is part of what makes us human. On the other hand, what happens when we gain the power to modify the core components of being? If you can change the way your brain works and the way your body is designed at will, is there something fundamental lost in the process?
Society now worries about the ethics of prosthetics, cognitive enhancers and other human augmentations. Why? We can venture a couple of reasons. First, these modern modifications can be much more invasive, requiring new surgery procedures that are still controversial. The second is that anything that can change our brain can affect our behavior, which is something that is currently far from being generally acceptable. However, there are loose ends to these arguments, which are often not properly addressed.
Some people believe we should only have surgeries to restore a normal human condition. However, what does being normal mean?
Having two arms and legs, two feet and two hands, one mouth, one nose, 32 teeth, two eyes and two ears? Ah, and having no disease, of course. All the rest you should accept as the product of your genes: this is where we should draw line! However, laiming we should benefit from medicine just to maintain our health condition is the same as claiming we should only eat to avoid starvation, wearing clothes to avoid cold or having intercourse in order to reproduce. We all know these are not the usual main motivations for our actions. If we can enjoy the pleasure of eating a delicious dinner, wearing fancy clothes or even having orgasms, what restrains us from having the pleasure of witnessing the result of our body/mind enhancement?
The controversy around cognitive enhancers in particular is most intriguing. The brain is an organ around which several myths still survive worldwide, mainly because we still know very little about how it works. People wonder about what happens when you mess with your brain. Does it change your personality? Does it change who you are?
Everything may induce changes in our brain, thus inducing changes in our personality. That is the curse of experience.
Why do we learn? We make some action that resulted in reward, we might do it again in the future. But if we make some action that leads to pain, then we might not do it ever again. If you feel sick after eating your favorite dessert, you will very likely avoid it for a while. Oh no, you have changed: you are avoiding something you previously enjoyed very much. What are you going to do now?
We go drinking with friends, we get drunk, we get more relaxed and cheerful, and occasionally we even do things we do not remember afterwards. Sometimes we would rather forget them. Oops, I had a temporary personality slip that made me do it…
The lesson to take from this is the realisation that it is difficult to try to define ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’. Furthermore, what we find acceptable or not to change about our body or brain may well change depending on social context and ‘personality’. Ultimately, it is almost impossible to predict what will happen at a large scale before these innovations actually take root. As new generations follow through the technological ascent, these ethical dilemmas will probably be seen over entirely different perspectives. As an example, today we collectively engage modern technologies such as computers and the internet on a scale that could be called no less than ‘insane’ by the standards of other times. Our interactions, public and private, have radically transformed once again during this time. We became familiar with the technology, and as a result of that, we are now in a better position to realize its full possibilities for social, economical and political organization. The discussions are now not about whether we should bring computers into our homes, but about how we can use them effectively to better govern our lives.
If innovations in neuroprosthetics and molecular engineering do take root and we just start taking these modifications home as an improvement, or in many cases, as a requirement for quality of life, we may see very drastic changes in the nature of this debate. In the end, these questions may very well be settled by figuring out whether we can actually realize the potential of these technologies in practical terms, than about trying to determine and enforce a priori what their social, ethical and moral issues will be.
Bruno Afonso is a former PhD student from the Gulbenkian Institute. Gonçalo Lopes is a PhD student in the Intelligent Systems lab at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme.