Issues Magazine

What’s Wrong with Human Enhancement?

By John Weckert

Human enhancement technology is making great medical and military advances, but John Weckert questions what social impacts may arise.

A recent issue of Wired contained an article about a project designed to enable soldiers, looking through powerful binoculars, to recognise targets before their conscious minds become aware of them. Such discussions of human enhancement are becoming more common.

Leading proponents of quite dramatic enhancement now come from prestigious institutions such as Oxford University and the National Science Foundation in the USA. An increasing number of articles and reports are appearing in serious journals and in the popular press. This has come about primarily because of new technological developments in what have been classed as converging technologies: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, cognitive science and now neuroscience.

Some advances in the medical field, although currently therapeutic, and various military projects are furthering developments in human enhancement. Therapeutic implants are already being used, and research is continuing rapidly. Examples are pacemakers and defibrillators, and implanted computer chips to overcome blindness and to treat or relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and some psychiatric conditions.

An example of research focused on enhancement, rather than on therapy, comes from Kevin Warwick of the University of Reading. By implanting a device into the nerves of his arm he was able to link his nervous system to a computer to assess technology designed for use by people with physical disabilities. Warwick is optimistic about the future of cyborgs – creatures that are part-human and part-machine that will have “extrasensory capabilities, a high-performance means of communication and the best of human and machine brains”. This work is an early step in the direction of new forms of human sensing and communication.

Research at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the USA includes a number of projects designed to enhance the abilities of military personnel. One aims to enhance human cognitive ability, including better memory retrieval and more efficient decision-making. Another involves research into the brain–machine interface and direct control of devices by the human brain without using other body parts.

Other research is examining the possibility of the direct input of skills and information into the human brain without the need for learning in the way that we learn now. Our brain could receive its “download” while we slept.

When does a therapeutic implant or treatment become an enhancement? The line between therapy and enhancement is not always clear, as can be seen from the debate about cochlear implants.

Why are some enhancements controversial and others not? Enhancement of physical performance by rigorous training and intellectual abilities by education is not controversial. Why is anyone worried about the potential human enhancements enabled by new technologies? Most of us want to see and hear better, have better memories, be stronger and healthier, live longer, and so on. Arguably, as long as we do not harm others, we should have the right to any enhancement we want.

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas claims that certain enhancements affect human dignity, or perhaps the human spirit, as Canadian ethicist Margaret Somerville says. It is not clear, however, why this should be so. People enhanced by education or physical training are not thought to be lacking in dignity or to have less of the human spirit, so why should those enhanced by genetic manipulation or implants?

Habermas tries to answer this question by focusing on the enhancement of children by their parents, and argues that enhanced children will have less autonomy. In a world where many enhancements are possible by genetic manipulation, implants or other methods, parents will have a wide variety of options for enhancing their children. They will choose according to their own preferences, and these may not be the preferences of the children when they are older.

Habermas concedes that children today have to live with choices made by their parents, such as education. But she suggests that, even in this case, there is disapproval of parents who have their children educated in a way that is so narrow or dogmatic that it could limit their later choices.

Another way of considering an enhancement is to ask whether it is likely to make life better. Of particular interest here are changes or modifications that confer abilities beyond those that a human normally has, particularly with respect to senses, reasoning and communication.

Consider direct communication between brains. How would this affect privacy? Humans do not have the same sort of control over their thoughts that they do over their actions, and there is the potential for people to have much less control over their personal information.

Consider enhanced senses. Suppose that human vision could be improved, not just to the level of Tiger Woods’ 20/15 vision but to something approaching that of an eagle. This may improve quality of life but it also raises another issue. If only some people have enhanced vision, how will this affect communication and general social cohesion?

Perhaps this is not a problem. A person with a visual or hearing impairment can still communicate with another person.

But suppose that it became possible to have enhancements of many kinds. Could I be a friend of an “enhanced” person? Aristotle would probably say not. Real friends must be equals.

Could I understand this person? Wittgenstein would have his doubts. After all, he did say that if a lion could talk we could not understand it, presumably because its experience of the world is so different from ours.

Although Aristotle and Wittgenstein might both overstate the case, communication and friendship are easier between people who are similar. Although bodily enhancements may improve life in some ways, in others there seems to be a high price to pay if communication becomes difficult. Humans are social creatures who like living in groups, and this aspect of life would appear to be under threat.

What can be said about the “good life” for an “enhanced” person? Currently, people around the world are more or less the same. Humans share a knowledge of the sorts of things that make them happy, what makes them suffer, what gives pleasure and pain, and so on. If human enhancements become widespread, and if people are free to choose, they will choose differently. In an important respect, commonality will be lost.

Technology no longer adapts just the environment to suit the human, but also the human itself. Thus our frame of reference is gone. This should make us think about the extent to which human enhancement is a worthwhile goal.

Reprinted from Australasian Science (