Various technologies are now vying to develop an “augmented human being.” Step-by-step, they would gradually modify the basic data registers of life, such as intelligence, procreation, ageing. The “techno-prophets” – not all crazed illuminati – entertain the dream of the advent of New Mankind. Major (and some minor) ethical questions arise as we explore a phenomenon that is no longer restrained within the wraps of sci-fi.
How are we supposed to identify – among the breakthrough technologies in the news today – those that will really change the face of the world? McKinsey & Company carried out an exercise in 2013, focusing on those technologies with the most readily measurable impact on the economy. The twelve technologies they selected could create yearly – if they are implemented widely enough – several thousand of billions of US dollars, combined globally. And within this hit-parade, there are three technologies that particularly draw our attention inasmuch as they directly concern the way Man, his body and his brain function and interact with the environment. To be more precise here, they contribute to what could now refer to as “the augmented Man” to borrow Jason Wells’ expression, using both computer sciences and techno-medicine.
The technologies leading to an augmented Man
Firstly, his intellectual functions and work would be automated: increasingly sophisticated software packages will be able to integrated extensive analytical capacities, subtle assessments and innovative solutions to provide answers to problems set by users. Thus “self-learning” machines will become high added value objects, capable of answering requests in ordinary language format, viz., un-structured language. Ultimately, this would lead to increased productivity for the best qualified categories of workers, additional reliability in decision-taking and automation of the basic intellectual jobs.
Secondly we already see the new generation robots among us. For a long time they were set aside in factories because of possible danger to line workers, but nowadays we see them being installed in mixed configurations with human operatives on the lines. The come fitted with sensors capable of inter-acting (among robots) and self-learning. Thus, as time passes, they can carry out increasingly complex tasks and should in all logic be able to completely replace workers in production manufacturing and also service agents. In our hospitals today, robots with high definition vision and image recognition units can position items for complex, delicate operations. The surgeons are assisted by miniaturised surgical systems, reducing time to operate, the invasive nature of open surgery and the patient’s recovery time and convalescence. Persons suffering from vertebra-medular trauma may have the chance to walk again thanks to wearing a robot exo-skeleton connected directly to the body’s nervous system.
As for advanced gene engineering, her we have a specialty that combines progress in sequencing and modification of genetic material using the latest advances in “big data” analysis
In 2013, full human genome can be sequenced in just a few hours for several thousand euros, this being the end-result of the Human Genome Project that lasted 13 years and cost 2.7 billion $US. With today’s rapid sequencing protocols and newly available computing power, practitioners can systematically test the impact of genetic changes in respect to various illnesses, even when doing routine diagnoses; in this way, they can devise ‘tailor-made’ treatments for their patients.
The next step, protein synthesis biology, i.e., using the possibility now open to create new living matter by rewriting its DNA profile. Progress and sheer power of genetic engineering today could have deep-reaching impacts on medicine, agriculture and even in terms of production of high added value such as bio-fuels and accelerate the discovery of new medicinal drugs and active ingredients (AI).
These three technologies selected by McKinsey belong to a single family that we hear a lot about: the NBICs (viz., nano- and bio-technologies, information technology and cognition sciences).
For the proponents of an augmented man, it will be through a convergence of these 4 approaches that major strides forward in our knowledge of mankind and of his prime organ, the brain will be achieved. As early as 2002, the National Science Foundation (NSF), Washington and the US Department of Commerce published a joint report with a striking title, to say the least: Converging technologies for improving hupman performance. It contains, p.273 in the pre-publication on-line version, in a chapter signed by James S. Albus, senior fellow at National Institute of Standards and Technology, a strong assertion: “Engineering of mind is an enterprise that will prove at least as technically challenging as the Apollo program or the Human Genome project. And we are convinced that the potential benefits for humankind will be at least as great, perhaps much greater. Understanding of the mind and brain will bring major scientific advances in psychology, neuroscience, and education.”
The NSF, the most influential of the US science agencies added: “A computational theory of mind may enable us to develop new tools to cure or control the effects of mental illness. It will certainly provide us with a much deeper appreciation of who we are and what our place is in the universe. Understanding of the mind and brain will enable the creation of a new species of intelligent machine systems that can generate economic wealth on a scale hitherto unimaginable. …/…. Thus, the engineering of mind is much more than the pursuit of scientific curiosity. It is more even than a monumental technological challenge. It is an opportunity to eradicate poverty and usher in a golden age for all human kind.”
Readers may be struck by the somewhat messianic tone of the excerpts above and it should be noted that the very concept of combining ‘nano’, ‘bio’, ‘info’ and ‘cogno (NBIC) is openly criticised. First and foremost, there is an obvious marketing pitch, assured and promoted by the American proponents of nanotechnologies and biotechnologies for the purpose of securing public funding but which in fact has no real scientific base. We can certainly identify area of convergence on a one- to one basis (for example, between computer sciences and nano technologies), but nothing in the intersection area of the four fields taken together. In a country like Japan that has invested enormously in each of the underlying technologies, the concept of NBIC simply does not exist!
Improving on the human species?
The impetus and support given by the NSF comforted the tenets of transhumanism, a school of thought with its ‘techno-prophets’, including well-known research scientists and some key corporate leaders in high—tech companies, such as computer engineer Ray Kurzeil, Director of Engineering at Google . In 1999, the revised version of the Transhumanist Declaration contained two all-telling paragraphs:
1-We transhumanists believe there exists a moral right, for those who so wish, to use technology to enhance their physical, mental, reproductive capacity, and to have more control over their lives. We seek to flourish by transcending our present biological limits.
2-We transhumanists advocate a wide freedom of choice as to possible individual improvement. These can include: techniques to improve memory, concentration and mental energy; therapies designed to augment life expectancy, or impact or reproductive powers; cryoconservation and numerous other techniques that can modify or augment the human species.
Their long-range objective is to improve the human species using technologies. Firstly, this could consist of repairing bodies and mind and freeing us of biological vulnerability, to increase and enhance our performance capacity, notably cerebral, to achieve a more powerful person; lastly, their aim is to eradicate ageing. Indeed, we can surmise, is this not the ambition of Calico , the health and well-being company launched by Google, September 2013?
In its 2012 Report “Global Trends 2030” , the NIC (National Intellugence Coincil) – a body that oversees the 16 US intelligence agencies, the authors insist also on the technologies evoked by the transhumanists. For instance, use of psycho-stimulants to enable combat troops to remain efficient longer in the battle-field, retina implants allowing night vision and in spectra normally invisible to the human eye, as well as neuro-drugs that could greatly enhance our attention, our speed of reasoning and boost our memory functions.
The transhumanists also expect a lot from major brain research programs under way. Moedlling the complexity of the brain with its 100 billion brain-cells and their connections is the aim pursued by the Human Cognome Project in the USA and by the Blue Brain in Switzerland, whilst awaiting a hypothetical ‘upload’ of the contents of a human brain to a computer data base, or its dematerialisation in a ‘data cloud’ or its re-implantation in a robot!
Google Inc., one of the actors most involved in augmented man projects, is also party to an even more ominous project – Singularity University. By the term ‘singularity’ the founders of this unaccredited school in California, USA, providing supplemental education, cf. http://www.singularityu.org foresee point in time when human civilisation will move to a higher order through technological progress. They even announce the advent around 2060 of an artificial intelligence higher than that of human beings! Harry Page, founder CEO of Google and several other leading managers of that company were at the start of Singularity University, the aim of which is to accelerate, support, have converge and circulated the research projects that will attain the 2060 goal and quote “to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.”
These grandiose projects, often with ‘wooly’ scientific postulates exploited delightfully and for our pleasure by sci-fi authors, do however raise some fundamental moral questions. Have we as humans the right to modify our species? What would become of Mankind, or Humanity in its wider connotation in this future vision of a world inhabited by supermen – which jolt our memories back to some of the worst hours of the 20th Century, when totalitarian regimes sought to create “a new mankind” and to this end massacred several tens of millions of fellow human beings? In a world partly populated by supermen, what happens to simple, ordinary, normal men elsewhere?
These are huge and daunting questions. So huge that they somehow seem unreal. To the point that they tend even to have us forget that the doctrines and credo of transhumanism are a reality today, a dynamic step-by-step construction implying modest yet real stages on the path to augmenting man. And for every single stage and step, the same questions arise: how can (and should) ethics delimit and authorise ‘progress’? How are we to adapt the national health systems in such a way as to comply with the demands of bio-equity and the balance of public finance generally?
The ethical questions
Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD or PIGD) provides an excellent example. As of December 2010, it is possible – thanks to the discoveries of Dr. Dennis Lo, Chinese University de Hong-Kong – to make a complete genome diagnosis for an embryo 3 months old, using what are called “circulating foetal cells” in the mother’s blood stream, cells which in fact belong to the foetus and can be found in a simple blood test. An algorithm, run on a very powerful computer, then allows the scientists to differentiate the genome sequences of the future baby from those of the mother. Thousands, literally, of illnesses and disorders could then be screened without any risk to the mother (no more amniocenteses) nor to the future baby. The next step would be to seek the “perfect” child, through deliberate implantation of relevant gene sequences. As of 2009, we already knew how to replace mitochondria (micro-factories that produce cell proteins) in a primate stem cell. As soon as this becomes possible with homo sapiens, an in vitro fecundation would allow you to make an a la carte optimisation of the embryonic genome. Such genetic modifications would then be handed down, from generation to generation, albeit the official ethical disapproval expressed by certain countries. Several other ethical questions arise: if for example an in vitro fecundation offers these high tech options, what would be the future of natural procreation? What consequences would elimination of species imperfections have on biodiversity among humans? To frame the question differently, is there a risk of seeing genetic standardisation becoming systemic?
Inasmuch as the NBIC revolution is gradually instilling genomics into our collective culture, explains the French urological surgeon Laurent Alexandre in his recent book La mort de la mort [The end of Death], it is totally upsetting the way we identify risk factors. Progress registered in genetic diagnosis will rapidly raise the thorny question of relevant public health policy. If everyone knows in advance his/her future health risks, the less threatened will feel entitled to demand that their social security contributions be consequently lower. The principle of solidarity, which underpins French social security and in most countries, would be jeopardised. On contradistinction, if we are certain about the identities of those who will cost most to Society, i.e., if we free liberalise everyone access to his/her DNA (for a few hundred euros only), would those who carry nefarious genes be able to get themselves complementary insurance? And, given that it is impossible to block or deny access to this sort of data, each country will have to re-invent its national health policies and the associated insurance policy bases.
Another economic impact of genomics: if, in the very long term, certain diseases are eradicated through genetic selection, we could hope to see health –related expenditure drop. But, in the first decades of its implementation, the contrary in fact happened: expenses in geo-health, as Laurent Alexandre sees it, will increase for embryos, children and young adults, whereas traditionally 70% of a countries costs are incurred by that 10% of the population suffering from age-dependent pathologies. The health system will therefore have to cope with a double peak- young persons and senior, terminal ailments. The national budget will be severely disturbed and unbalanced.
It is no fluke if certain critics of transhumanism – the most active of who is still Francis Fukuyama, historian and author of The End of History and the Last Man accuses the movement of promoting a superior form of inequality, between Natural Man and Augmented Man? For Fukuyama, the very postulate of transforming human condition via technologies ios simply pushing to the extreme the technical utopia inherited from the English philosopher-scientist Francis Bacon (1561- 1626).
But any utopian society following suit to a transhumanist revolution could be criticised in many other ways. For French academics Alain Marciano (University of Montpellier I, Economics) and Bernard Tourrès (CNRS research scientist at University of Aix-Marseille), transhumanism opens up a vista of global ‘contractualism’ where Society will exist but without “’common wealth”, or notion of “living together” other than seeing free individuals juxtaposed, totally absolved of any obligation to solidarity. Here we are indenting, on one hand, the very idea of democracy such as it has developed historically and on the other a more immediate relationship to fellow humans, in couples, in family bonds in our sexuality. The questions of procreation are significantly worrying, touching as they do on the difference between sexes, parenthood and, beyond that, on our identity as persons. A technological utopian world erases this feature. Philosopher and well known essayist and reporter, Jean-Claude Guillebaud has identified in transhumanism a sort of militant immaturity, signalled by a hatred towards our body, its infirmities and suffering, imperfections – a hatred which targets in essence what we are, ordinary human beings. Transhumanism – how else could we frame this? – is as far removed from humanism as you can get.
More on paris innovation review
On the topic
- Scoot over, I’ll drive: get ready for the Internet of thingsBy Paris Innovation Review on February 11th, 2011
By the author
- How Jumia wants to become a key player for the African consumeron May 5th, 2017
- Civic technology – 1 – Saving democracy?on March 8th, 2017
- Civic technology – 2 – In search of a business modelon March 8th, 2017