Saturday, December 24, 2011

Enhancing the Humans of the Future

The summer 2011 issue of The New Atlantis carries a series of articles addressing the question of enhancing humanity through technical means: cyborgs, indefinite extension of lifespan, uploading one’s mind to computers, and other dreams of a group that call themselves “transhumanists.” It is a question fraught with implications for engineering ethics, because engineers will be the people who will develop many of these technologies if they come to pass.

In many ways, we are already living in a future where human performance is enhanced beyond what the “natural” human body can do. Is there an essential difference between a man who climbs into the cab of a backhoe and does the work of fifty men with shovels, or five hundred men digging with their fingers, on the one hand; or a man whose mind has been uploaded into a computer that controls a giant robot which can dig ditches as well as a man with a backhoe can, on the other hand? We are accustomed to seeing construction workers use powerful machinery all the time. But we might be surprised to see a gang of giant robots show up at a construction site, especially if we strike up a conversation with one and it claims to have a name, a Social Security number, and opinions on the upcoming Presidential election.

To my way of thinking, a human being with the freedom to get in a backhoe cab in the morning and get back out of it in the evening, is better off than a man (if that is still the right word) who has been permanently embodied in some piece of hardware subject to all the ills of engineered machinery, including obsolescence, breakdowns, and power failures. If all the imaginable enhancements to human performance become reality, a given human being can’t choose them all because some of them will be incompatible with others. And in making a choice, he or she will be shutting a lot of doors, not only to enhancements that are incompatible with the set chosen, but also to the door of living as a normal, natural human being with the incredible and even now not fully understood flexibility that life as a natural human being implies.

Great wisdom is found in old myths, such as the myth of King Midas. To a certain frame of mind, what better gift could be received than that of turning everything you touch into gold? If you substitute for gold the ability to achieve all the transhumanist dreams of indefinite lifespan, superhuman intelligence, artistic ability, athletic ability, vision, hearing, and so on, I think the myth’s point is still valid. Oscar Wilde is alleged to have said, “When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.” Depending on how the thing is done, we may find that at least some of the supposedly desirable enhancements so fondly wished for turn out to be curses in disguise.

This is the stuff of science-fiction novels, and the point of such tales is generally to make us realize that we really have a wider and more complicated set of values than we often think we do. Midas found that he loved his daughter more than he loved gold, but he fully realized this only when he touched her by mistake. In my view, the whole transhumanist program of wanting whatever we can imagine suffers from a severe lack of philosophical and emotional depth. If Ray Kurzweil is a good example of the transhumanist frame of mind (and I think he is), his books about the future blessings of transhumanism are great at explaining how we may get there technologically. But the most you will find with regard to moral philosophy is the fact that he cites as his moral exemplar a fictional hero of novels for boys: Tom Swift.

Now I was an admirer of Tom Swift myself, from about the age of ten when I found “Tom Swift and His Television Detector” in my grandmother’s attic, left over from when her boys were growing up in the 1930s. I continued to enjoy the series when it was revived for a time in the 1960s, but when I went away to college I slowly began to realize that the cardboard world of technological whizzes whose inventions always made for good and banished evil was just that: two-dimensional, unsophisticated, and inadequate for helping me to understand the complex ambiguous world that real technology exists in.

I don’t think Mr. Kurzweil and his transhumanist friends have realized that Tom Swift couldn’t fix all our problems, and neither can we simply by acting like Tom Swift. Almost without exception, the transhumanists are people who disclaim any serious belief in the Judeo-Christian God and an afterlife of rewards and punishments. If you don’t have a hope of heaven, your only chance to get there is to make it yourself, and that’s what the transhumanist movement is trying to do.

I do not fault their motives. Kurzweil has personally developed machines to help blind people read, and I am sure that he and his fellow transhumanists sincerely believe that their plans are the best possible thing for humanity. But they rarely take into account the fact of original sin, and the fact that somehow, the limited scope of power, space, and time that living in normal human bodies gives us is the ground from which every human achievement has sprung.

Like most heresies, the hope of indefinite human enhancement takes a small idea which is proper in its place in the overall scheme of things, and blows it up out of all proportion. The myths of Midas, of Frankenstein’s monster, and even Oscar Wilde all tell us that we had better think in a more in-depth and multifaceted manner about the promise of human enhancements before we cross a line that we may regret crossing someday.

Sources: The summer 2011 edition of The New Atlantis carries extended discussions on “Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity.” The Oscar Wilde quote was found at I consulted the Wikipedia article on King Midas, which says that the incident of Midas touching his daughter was first presented in a short retelling of the legend by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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