Thanks to science fiction in literature and film, we are all familiar with cyborgs, brain-computer interfaces and augmented realty; all are examples of transhumanism, but nowadays, these aspects of emerging technology are also becoming an increasing part of our real lives. Over the next half century, we are likely to see technology bring about dramatic enhancements of our senses and thought processes. Our bodies and minds will have a much more direct connection with computer power than ever before. As advances in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering accelerate and interface, we will advance with them into a post-human world. While exhilarating to some, to many such a prospect is terrifying, and in Dr. James Hughes’ interview on Sentient Potential, he discusses both sides of the coin.
Transhumanism has become part of a new way of thinking about human evolution based on the influences of emerging technology. In this sense, the field of thought deals with the means by which emerging technologies could enhance human capabilities physically, intellectually and psychologically, and the political and ethical implications involved.
Dr. James Hughes, in addition to being a co-founder of what is now Humanity+, is a bioethicist and sociologist, and the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies at Trinity College. He’s also the author of Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond To The Redesigned Human Of The Future. In his book, Hughes explores the danger posed by transhumanism and how we may be able to address and live with radical forms of human enhancement.
According to Hughes, one of the most important issues is the way that transhumanism and technophilia become attached to preexisting political ideologies, a factor that many thinkers overlook when merely considering enhancement technologies themselves. He emphasizes the need for a “technoprogressive” political consciousness.
“It’s a reaffirmation of a lot of Enlightenment memes…particularly the notion that it’s good for humanity to consciously take control of its own destiny, not just for human beings to have more control over their own lives individually, but also through collective agency to have the foresight to see what’s coming and take control of it through technology, science and rationality,” says Hughes.
While a more conservative standpoint would shun the possibilities of transhumanism on ground that it is interfering too much with human nature, and libertarian factions would prefer emerging technologies to have the freedom to develop without government intervention, Hughes’ “techno-optimism” is founded upon the notion that in order for humanity to benefit optimally from transhuman technology, it is necessary not only to take a rational approach but also have government bodies in place that can regulate such technologies. This is necessary not only to establish people’s safety, but also to ensure that such technologies are distributed equitably among the population. Such regulating bodies would not only provide a consensual backbone to transhumanism, they would also allow individuals to feel protected from the possible dangers such advances present. “If you think it’s right for the government to prevent people from selling moonshine that makes people go blind (one of the reasons for the founding of the Food and Drug Administration)… then you might say that there could be come of these enhancement technologies that could pose a threat to public safety,” says Hughes.
Although some of the concerns people have about technological enhancement of humans are extreme, Hughes points out that there are some types of enhancement that do pose an actual threat to public safety.
“I used to be sympathetic to the notion that the X Men were symbols of courageous individual empowerment and that the guys in the X Men universe who wanted to have all the mutants registered were symbols of fascist bio-Luddites, but if you had a neighbor who had the power, by just looking at you, to turn you into a pile of ash…this is a dangerous thing,” explains Hughes.
His point is a pertinent one, particularly in a time when debates over gun control and the registration of firearms is raging; if there is no governing body to regulate and ensure the safety of transhuman technology, it is not the technology itself which becomes dangerous, but who uses it and what it may be used for. This is why there is a necessity for debate over how human enhancing technologies may be used and in this debate, questions such as who should be able to sell these technologies, who should be able to buy them and how can people’s safety can be ensured, are ones that need to be addressed.
Some would argue, and Hughes is among them, that humans began enhancing themselves many centuries ago with the first prosthetics and with psychoactive drugs, these technologies endure today only in much better forms. How far human enhancement will go in the long term remains to be seen, but in the near future, we are already developing technologies which have the ability to fundamentally alter human potential in general, such as those which will increase longevity, those which will cosmetically enhance the body and allow physical mobility to those who are paralyzed.
According to Hughes, these forms of enhancement are “ethically trivial,” but when we begin to use new technologies in ways which will effect reproduction, our brains and our personalities these types of enhancement raise much more complex ethical issues which must be addressed. Will the governments of the world be prepared to tackle the ethical and policy-related concerns that this wave of new technologies is bringing forth? Hughes certainly hopes so.
Daniel Faggella is the founder of TechEmergence, an internet entrepreneur, and speaker. Since graduating from UPENN’s Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program, Daniel has gone on to speak and write on topics related to ethics and the enhancement of human potential. His book Explorations into the Philosophy of Transhumanism – A Lens to the Future Through the Thinkers of the Past is available on Amazon.