More Than Human Or Merely Human?

By Hannah Chia

Our relationship with human enhancement is an enduring one, aptly summarised in the quote — “we will never be post-human, because we have always been post-human.” Whether our limitations are a product of sickness or the natural process of ageing, humans have always sought to transcend them — to live longer, run faster and become smarter. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 1 billion people today depend on assistive technologies of some form, with the number set to rise to more than 2 billion by 2050.

There are, however, two features in the next phase of this relationship which warrant our attention. First, the impending wave of enhancements go beyond therapy. Instead of restoring impaired or lost function, enhancements are offering the opportunity to increase functionality beyond the norm. Second, there is also an observable trend of personalisation. Individuals seek out and selectively apply forms of enhancement that would realise their preferred lifestyle and (subjective) vision of themselves (and their children).

How should we respond to these trends? Focusing on the technologies themselves would miss the heart of the matter. Technology is but a means to an end, and it is important to explore the human motivations driving such enhancements. This piece will briefly outline four such motivations and how they are already playing out.

First, upgrading — a desire to overcome disability through technological innovation, where disability is just a problem statement awaiting the right technological solution. Hugh Herr, the head of MIT Media Lab’s Biomechatronics group, who lost both his legs to frostbite during a mountain-climbing accident put it this way: “as a society, we can accept the proposition that humans are not disabled. A person can never be broken. Our technologies are broken and disabled. We can transcend disability through technological innovation.”

· The bionic limbs that Herr has developed through the fusing of biomechanics, modelling software and microprocessors have helped countless amputees walk and even dance again with the natural gait of an able-bodied person.

· Sensory substitution or the creation of new senses for humans is another example. Leveraging the neuroplasticity of the brain, David Eagleman, a neuroscientist has developed a vest for the deaf, which maps sounds onto vibration patterns on the vest, allowing the deaf individual to feel and eventually “hear” again. Peter Meijer, a research scientist in the Netherlands, has created artificial vision with a technology called vOICe which represents visual information as sounds. Pat Fletcher, a proficient user of vOICe who lost her sight at age 21, consistently surprises many with her new ability to “see” grayscale images in her head.[1]

Second, preventionenhancements delay the onset of disease or prevent the occurrence of disease altogether; prevention is better than cure.

· Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and pre-implantation screening techniques provide diagnostic information concerning an embryo before it is transferred to the uterus. These techniques are used to prevent single-gene disorders such as Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anaemia and Huntington’s disease. While such use is broadly acknowledged to be therapeutic, our growing knowledge of and ability to manipulate the human genome through tools like whole-genome sequencing, CRISPR Cas-9 hasten the advent of “designer babies” where selection of traits like enhanced athletic ability, avoidance of autism, reduced obesity, sexual orientation, intelligence just to name a few, become possible.

Third, optimisation — enhancements to maximise the body’s peak performance. This is already prevalent in competitive sports where anti-doping boards and athletes play a complex cat-and-mouse game of enhancement and evasion. The extension of this to individuals is seen in the following examples:

· Microdosers take small doses of drugs to achieve their desired state, such as heightened alertness or creativity. For example, nootropics start-up HVMN, based in San Francisco, successfully markets smart drugs to a growing user base who pop the right combination of pills (e.g. Go, Rise, Sprint, Yawn — the products’ names) to achieve their desired outcomes whenever necessary. Besides HVMN, there is also a new generation of LSD users (~18,000 microdosers on a Reddit Forum) who use LSD to treat anxiety or depression, or to achieve an additional level of creative stimulation.

· Human Oocyte Cryopresevation (or egg-freezing) is the procedure to preserve a woman’s eggs, which includes extraction, freezing and storage. This can be seen as a form of optimisation since it allows women to preserve their peak fertility and pursue their careers first while also maintaining the option of having a child in the future. Apple, Facebook and Google are just some of the big companies that offer subsidised egg-freezing as part of their employees’ health coverage benefits.

Fourth, self-expression of personal identity or ideology. These individuals see enhancements as a means to express themselves and their true identity, even if the procedures are dangerous or may result in irreversible or unforeseen consequences. Some examples include:

· Bio-Hackers or Grinders install implants (e.g. magnets, RFID chips) that give them new abilities or do cool party tricks. Originating as an underground subculture, grinders have become increasingly mainstream with online companies like Dangerous Things and Grindhouse Wetware offering DIY kits for purchase with accompanying video demonstrations. One such bio-hacker, Rich Lee said “my conception of an ideal self is something like a Mr. Potato Head, where I can just swap in and out different prosthetics for different senses and abilities.”

· Transgender individuals use cosmetic surgery and hormone injections to achieve their transition in a long drawn and painful process. Advances in stem cell technology coupled with the ability to grow organs could make the future of gender transition safer, more effective and potentially less objectionable on health and safety grounds.

As personalised human enhancements that go beyond therapy become mainstream, the human motivations driving their adoption of technology should always remain a key consideration that guides our response. Technology is often lauded as the means for us to transcend ourselves but in this case, it also presents a way for us to understand ourselves better and what truly makes us human.

[1] Piore, The body builders: Inside the science of the engineered human (HarperCollins, 2017), pp.138–139

Hannah Chia was Assistant Director at the Centre for Strategic Futures. She is now Special Project Officer, Planning Division, Education Policy Branch, Ministry of Education. Her recently published piece in Ethos is entitled From Ageing to Augmented Reality.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.

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