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Would Technological “Enhancement” Make Us More, or Less, Human?

wearable-computingImagine you wake up in the morning after a refreshing 30 full minutes of sleep, pulling up into your retinal display your top priority tasks for that day, and manually adjusting your mood to something desirable before your colleagues have their holograms projected into your living room for your 7:00am Monday meeting.

With the advent of intelligence technologies being developed and furthered in retail, in finance, in healthcare, and beyond, we are entering the age where these “smart” technologies have become integrated into human bodies for repair and amelioration of medical conditions. Cochlear implants have been used for years to treat deafness (in both patients born without hearing and those who have lost it), and technologies are being created (some of which have already been successful) to aide blind individuals to see again. Bionic limbs are seen as relatively normal today, and the threshold for artificial senses might not be all too far off (some of the most exciting recent discoveries to be found at Brown’s BrainGate).

A profound question looms: will we direct these repair and amelioration technologies towards augmentation and enhancement of our present human faculties?

Internal combustion engines began as a way to replace animal-powered farming equipment. Today, they power cars, chainsaws, helicopters and airplanes. Airplanes themselves were initially used to move people from one place to another – faster. Not long after we had aircraft for war, gliders for tracking weather – and then unmanned drones and spacecraft.

At present, eye tracking devices to help paraplegic individuals and stroke patients communicate even if they are unable to talk, simply by looking at specific keys on a screen – triggering a computer to speak for them or communicate basic messages. If such a technology eventually made handling email and organizing one’s desktop files twice as efficient – are we to believe that this “amelioration” technology wouldn’t find it’s way to the mainstream?

P1050114bThere are also exoskeletons constructed to help weak limbs function more effectively (for upper body, lower body, or both). Imagine if such technologies became affordable and could cut a business’s warehouse crew in half by doubling the efficiency of manual workers. How many businesses would jump on that bandwagon?

Along these lines of thinking – anything that can serve a function in effectiveness or efficiency is likely to be adopted. If nobody has an iPhone, then your old clunker isn’t all that bad. If everyone has an iPhone, then there’s a world of email, photos, contact sharing, GPS-ing, and web browsing that you’re missing out on. Once the internet was in place and in use, no business in their right mind would ignore it’s presence.

Once one company can answer email and sift through tasks without even using a keyboard, the others better jump onboard. Once it becomes the norm in one industry for workers to take a biotech pill that allows them to sleep only 30 minutes per night, other companies – and eventually other industries – will likely follow suit.

In this respect, the slope of human augmentation and emerging technology is a slippery one – and we’re unlikely to develop simple answers to how these transformational technologies are developed and implemented in our world. Rather than a dogmatic “for” or “against” stance on enhancement, I pose that it is important to consider the actual issues or even opportunities for human experience and human potential with the promise of these emerging technologies. Below we’ll explore two very common objections to the very notion of enhancement, and how they might be considered beyond the surface level.

“You Want to Turn Me Into a Vacuum Cleaner?”

It might useful, first to address our resistance to these potential “enhancements” of humanity using the intelligence of tomorrow. We naturally resist the idea of a transformation to something more rigid and limited – more “mechanistic” or “robotic” – into something like “R2D2” from Star Wars.

However, just as concept of “ship” had more limited and simple connotations in Greek and Roman times than it does in the present age of space travel, the concepts of “robotic” or “mechanistic” have different connotations now than they likely will in twenty or thirty years. The “computer” was associated with a certain level of capacities in the 1980s, which now seem utterly feeble with respect to what “computers” are capable of now. We fear becoming the kinds of “machines” that we use in everyday life – such as toasters, vacuum cleaners, or Honda Escorts.

Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be a Honda Escort, either, but these present notions of “machine” cast a light on all enhancement in a way that keeps it’s present connotations today. Admittedly, there are some viable reasons for questioning any transition of our “selves” into any other “shell” (and in fact, not questioning this transition would seem neglectful). However, many of the “instinctual” responses to the thought of enhancement tend to come more from robot movies and less from a perspective on increasing robot / artificial intelligence sophistication.

Even more important than identifying our own present or cultural biases (and their tendency to be projected forward), it seems we should consider the ramifications of “enhancements” that could make us more artistically creative, or more emotionally rich, or more mentally capable. Ask me (or you, or anyone we’ve ever met) if we’d want to be more like R2D2 or a Honda Escort – and the answer (even amongst the most hard-core Star Wars fans) will likely be “no.” However, if an “enhancement” could grant me the capacity to – say – never forget an important fact, idea, or skill, I might find that improvement hard to turn down (assuming there would be no negative side effects).

Even the capacity of memory, though, tends to fit too closely with the mold of “robot” that we know today. Let’s say that I was able to enhance my creative thinking abilities, or artistic capacities in writing or painting – possibly through stimulation of certain brain regions, or brain implants that provided new modes of connecting ideas or more insight and attune-ment to beauty itself.

brain-memory-upgradeAsk me, as another example, if I’d consider a procedure that would allow me to learn multiple languages, or study twelve topics at once and improve in them all at faster rates that I can now (such as poetry, essay writing, martial arts, billiards, etc…), and I would not be so fast to turn that “upgrade” down. Imagine if it were possible through an implant to monitor and manage our emotional states more deliberately (feeling happy, courageous, focused, etc… at my own will). In the above circumstances, the question of whether or not to “change” becomes less polarized, more grey. Unlike the question of whether or not to become more like R2D2, these enhancements would make most people think long and hard and about the real possibility of moving beyond biology.

For the most part, the concept of machines or computers enhancing aspects of our emotional life seems like science fiction (much like space travel seemed like science fiction 80 years ago). However, research, theory, and even basic models for “emotional robots” are already being developed to move this technology forward, evidenced – among other projects – by the European Feelix Growing. By modeling the emotional behavior of infants and apes, European researchers in the “Feelix Growing” project are developing robots (one named “Nao”) with a basic ability to respond with fear, sadness, joy or excitement in response to interactions with humans. This includes a memory of faces and specific experiences with the people associated with those faces, allowing “Nao” and other robots of it’s kind to maintain a kind of relationship with it’s human caretakers.

Even with the explosion of robotics and emerging technologies in the last twenty years, it seems that “emotional robots” are still nowhere near the complexity or relational intelligence as human beings. This might bring us to ask the inevitable next question – which serves as another level of resistance to the notion of enhancement:

“But – How Could it Ever Be Done?”

The-Singularity-is-Near-What's-NextIf I’m claiming that emotional or creative life – in addition to just “rational” or “computational” life could be enhanced – then where is the evidence that this is possible?

This same question could have been asked about putting a man on the moon less than a hundred years ago – a feat which at that time would have been almost more absurd than the ability to enhance the “human” aspects of life with machine intelligence. Heck, a hundred years ago, the Model T was a big deal, and right now we already have brain implants helping people move robotic limbs, and mice growing human ears on their backs. It might be said that “enhancement” technologies already do exist, but are – at present – being used for amelioration rather than augmentation.

With all that we’ve achieved in just the past 100 years, the “it hasn’t been done before, so it never will be done” argument seems weaker than ever. Before we could fly, it seemed natural to pose flight impossible. Before we could travel to the moon, this too seemed impossible. Breaking the 4-minute mile seemed “impossible” – even to scientists in the 1940’s. However, this natural human tendency to resist the possibility of drastic future change – or even relatively minor change, like the 4-minute mile – won’t seem to hold. I would argue that though we remain rational, any unfounded, “instinctual” resistance of change needs to be cleared away in order to make space for the conversations we should be having regarding the future of humanity and emerging technologies. Which brings us nicely to our next point:

“What Should We Be Asking?”

P1040698As mentioned before – with the advancement of technology not stopping anytime soon (or more appropriately, not ceasing to multiply in breathtaking speed any time soon) – important questions still need important answers, though many of them don’t have nearly adequate data as of now. Though some agree more whole-heartedly than others, Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns – despite many potential failings and what some believe to be an oversimplification – is rather convincing. The “LOAR” (as it is sometimes called) states that the price / performance of information technology approximately doubles every year. From computers the size of rooms to computers in our phones, from ear trumpets to cochlear implants, this particularly convincing trend continues in myriad form.

It’s my position that we aught think seriously about why most people might instantly “turn down” ideas of enhancement as either “wrong” or “impossible” without more serious consideration. The debate – in the eyes of many (if not most) in the fields of technology and intelligence – is not a question of “possible” or “impossible.” The question also might end up being more about “human” or “inhuman,” and what elements of our biological nature we want to keep or surpass.

Whether we should or should not surpass biology is a continuing question that will inevitably lead to disagreement, but I believe a dogmatic “no” to the questions of enhancement will likely do more harm to an open mind, willing to consider issues, opportunities, and options for our human future. In this respect, fascination seems a more appropriate response than repulsion, and its safe to say that fascination (tapered with practical wisdom and hard work) will get a lot more done in terms of channeling these developments in ways that will matter most to humanity and the world.


About the Author:

Daniel-Faggella-150x150Dan Faggella is a graduate of UPENN’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program, as well as a national martial arts champion. His work focuses heavily on emerging technology and startup businesses (TechEmergence.com), and the pressing issues and opportunities with augmenting consciousness. His articles and interviews with philosophers / experts can be found at SentientPotential.com


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  • Steve Morris

    I think the idea of augmentation conjures negative reactions partly because of what you say about us thinking of technology in current terms. Sci-fi is full of people with wires and metal stuff sticking out of their heads!
    I’m not signing up any of for that even if I can learn 12 languages, and I don’t imagine that many others would either. This idea of “implants” needs to move forward to less invasive technology before it could become widespread.

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