Grasping Our Transhuman Future

If you could improve your body, would you do it? It seems a simple enough question with a simple enough answer.

But what if that improvement meant incorporating a mechanical device into your body? Suddenly the question isn’t so simple, is it? And if that integration required the prior removal of a limb, say an arm or a hand, that decision becomes even more complex and controversial.

For Nicola Wilding of England, this question is anything but a hypothetical consideration. Several years ago, Wilding’s arm and hand were severely damaged in an auto accident. While her arm has recovered some functionality following many surgeries and years of physiotherapy, her hand remains useless, a clump of non-functioning flesh at the end of her wrist. As a result, she is seriously considering its elective removal in order that she can be fitted with a neuroprosthetic hand.

But while this situation is extreme, is it truly a dilemma? In many ways, the issue here shouldn’t be why a person would do such a thing, but rather why would they not?

For many, the concept of augmenting the human body elicits strong reactions. There is a ‘yuck’ factor for many people when discussing the integration of anything foreign with or into our bodies. This response is natural. Literally. In all likelihood, this is a genetically-derived instinct that contributed directly to our survival as a species. Until only very recently, an object that breached the body’s outer barriers often resulted in illness or death. In evolutionary terms, the ability of individuals to recognize and avoid this increased their likelihood of survival.

But now we’re entering an era in which bio-compatible substances and machines are increasingly able to be integrated with our bodies without harmful effect. As a result, we’re on the cusp of routinely improving our bodies using such technologies.

In many ways, this is what technology has always done. Canes, crutches, eye glasses, hearing aids are all technologies that can restore a degree of function to damaged or failing biological systems. Similarly, writing, books, libraries, the internet and search engines have all acted as cognitive prostheses, enhancing our memory and other mental abilities. Gradually, over the millennia, these have become increasingly integrated with our bodies and our lives.

Day after day, our ability to repair, restore and even improve upon the human body is increasing. This ability isn’t just limited to replacing limbs with prosthetics. The means to replace organs, senses, even functions within the brain are all becoming part of this advancement.

Cochlear implants have been restoring hearing for decades now. Today, over 200,000 people are able to hear because of them. Retinal implants designed to restore sight are currently being tested in clinical trials. Initially, their resolution will be nominal, but in time this will improve. Ventricular assist devices now replace the function of entire hearts, circulating blood using a continuously spinning motor. Artificial pancreas technologies are also in clinical trials, as are a range of other devices designed to replace biological systems.

Certainly, many of these approaches still fall short of the amazing ability and efficiency of the human body. But for how much longer? Technology continues to advance at a pace many orders of magnitude faster than any biological system can evolve. How long will it be before these technologies are as good as the systems they replace? How long before they are better?

Therein lies the real dilemma.

Consider the South African sprinter, Oscar Pistorius. A double amputee, Pistorius runs on a pair of carbon fiber prosthetics and has been dubbed “the fastest man on no legs.” Due to a perceived advantage given him by his prosthetics, Pistorius was initially deemed ineligible to compete in the Olympic games. Only after making a legal appeal was he able to be considered for competition.

As our technologies become increasingly integrated with our biological selves and as these same technologies improve to the point they provide a significant advantage, we’re going to see resistance from various sectors of society. We already see this with performance-enhancing drugs in sports competitions and some college students reportedly gain academic advantage using nootropics or “smart drugs.” At some point such methods become so integrated into society they’re seen as being the norm rather than an advantage. But what happens until then?

Certainly we approve of the striving for advantage in certain spheres. For instance, the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is involved in many projects designed for the express purpose of improving physical and mental capabilities well beyond the human norm. These “super soldier” programs are considered to be in our national interest and in a theater of war, few would argue that we were taking an unfair advantage. But provide cognitively-enhanced abilities to a derivatives trader or a legal counsel and see if the public still considers this fair or acceptable. The fact is, society and its institutions are going to be responding to this ever-shifting landscape for some time to come. The transition from the human era to the transhuman era will no doubt generate as many problems as it resolves. It’s the inevitable double-edged sword of technological advancement.

(I recently spoke about some of these ideas with Newstalk Radio in Ireland. Most of that interview is available here.)