14 September 2011

Experts gather in Washington for debate on 'Extreme Human Enhancement'

This conversation is part of a Future Tense, a partnership between Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State. On Thursday, Sept. 15, Future Tense will be hosting an event in Washington, D.C., on the boundaries between humans and machines. RSVP here to join us for "Is Our Techno-Human Marriage in Need of Counseling?" 
The Techno-Human Condition.
Gentleman, start your exobrains.
Nick, Brad, thank you for joining me in this discussion about the future of human beings. On Sept. 15, Future Tense is hosting an event on the "Techno-Human Condition" in Washington, D.C. As such, it seems appropriate to spend the next few days discussing the convergence of human beings and technology. Brad, you and Daniel Sarewtiz address the associated ethical and moral dilemmas your book The Techno-Human Condition; Nick, the title of your most recent book, Humanity's End: Why We Should Reject Radical Life Enhancement, would seem to sum up your perspective pretty neatly. But then again, your previous book, Liberal Eugenics: In Defense of Human Enhancementsuggest your view might not be so clear cut.
With our introductions out of the way, let's talk transhumanism.
First things first: What is transhumanism? Transhumanism as a philosophy argues we can become better than human through technology. Unguided, natural evolution has done all it could hope to do. Transhumanists believe that from here on out, humans should take up the reins and craft the evolution of our species using nanotech, genetics, pharmaceuticals, and augmentations to go above and beyond our biology.
Transhumanism was everywhere this summer, from the cyborg anti-hero in the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution to the ill-fated brain-boosting drug experiments of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The promise and peril of radical enhancement seems to be weighing on our collective minds.
But the big question is: Do humans want to be transhuman? That is, presuming that genetic engineering, cybernetic augmentation, cognitive enhancement, and the cure for aging are all technologically possible in the next 50, 100, or 200 years, are they something people will want to use? And is enhancement something people should want?
Short answer: Yes, absolutely. I think humans do want to transcend biological limitations and become better than our bodies and genetics currently allow.
The long answer is, well, longer and more complex. Were the question "Does the average person want to be transhuman, right now?" I would answer, "Probably not." The phrase "human enhancement" conjures Gattaca, Frankenstein's creature, and the social engineering of Huxley's Brave New World. The religious have their hells and their demons, while those of us with a more scientific disposition have our dystopias and Big Brothers. Popular entertainment argues for us to be exceedingly wary of anyone promising bigger brains, longer lives, and stronger bodies. Western Civilization, as a whole, has trained itself to fear the Promethean hubris of stealing our evolutionary fire from the gods of nature.

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