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‘A Brave New You’: Human Enhancement and Bioinnovation

“O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in’t!”

 -Shakespeare, The Tempest

Homo sapiens; our differences in experience and understanding shape and define us, however, through these dividing lines our perceptions of reality are underpinned by our humanness. Yet, it is certainly a brave new world that awaits us, and those godly creatures may transcend, to be defined and shaped by science. To what extent, who knows?

Rapid advances in biotechnology are increasingly blurring the line between science and science-fiction. The decisions we make today will lay the foundations for our collective future, only with foresight can we steer progress towards what we want to see. Without it, we face collective failure.

This future is one of human enhancement. One that could see us become more than human, where there may even be the need to eschew the “human” for those whose paths diverge greatly from where we are now.

Technology and science are reaching a stage where they are able to tear through basic evolutionary principles

The human machine has been fashioned through æons of evolutionary progress. Throughout this time we have learned to control the world around us, moulding it as it moulded us. Technology and science are reaching a stage where they are able to tear through basic evolutionary principles, allowing us to frame what lies ahead. The breakthrough technologies, sometimes labelled as “emerging technologies”, are thought to be held within the fields of Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science (NBIC): some of the fields are progressing at exponential or even hyper-exponential rates.

NBIC technologies also have the possibility for convergence, where an advancement in one field could have an impact on another. The types of things we see emerging range from computer chips implanted into brains, through to technologies that are allowing us to replace strands of DNA.

The future has potential for things such as the creation of nano-scale interventions, where drugs could be delivered to exact cells, or perhaps even the artificial creation of an entire human genome, as is the aim of the Human Genome Project-Write project. There will be new ways to keep us healthy, let us live longer, or even re-engineer our basic functions from the ground up.

Though the line between science and science-fiction is becoming blurred, these advances must also be grounded in reality, and the future is difficult to forecast. In 2009 an EU report into human enhancement called brain implants “highly visionary”. Yet, by 2016, a startup named Kernel claims to have developed brain implants that may allow people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, such as alzheimer’s or dementia, to improve their memory.

While the emphasis on our technical abilities may, at times, be a little misplaced and shrouded in hyperbole, these potential capabilities are not something we should turn a blind eye to. What remains a myth for now may not remain that way, as the scientific juggernaut ploughs forward into realms unknown.

There is however a certain mythology abound by techno-progressives, such as futurist thinkers and transhumanists, around how far we can push ourselves, and the future that humanity can take; as author Stewart Brand once said, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it”.

The new man; an era led by the Californian Ideology where our new gods will be created in Silicon, worshiping in the shadow of the Valley of unfettered technologically determined utopianism. Where the powerful drive a new mode of reactionary modernism: concepts such as eugenics are becoming rebranded through liberal ideals – consumer eugenics; remove the state, place the individual’s right of freedom, of choice.

There are a plethora of ethical questions to be addressed: who has access to technologies, and how are they used?

This means we need to plan for the future and our path should be cautiously tread. There are a plethora of ethical questions that need to be addressed, as well as questions such as who has access to these technologies and how, and if, they are to be used. These are conversations that need to be undertaken by a wide spectrum of society, not just through technocrats and a techno-capitalist elite.

The latter of which will be able to buy into and exploit the potential gains of these technologies before the rest of us – digital technocrats who know more about us than we do, who hold the keys to personal advancement, could create a never seen before polarised chasms and stratification within society.

Those who can afford to indulge in fantasies of the techno-progressive project may salivate over endless realms of self improvement: as we live in a world where billions survive of less than a handful of dollars a day. This indulgence, as it stands, will be driven by the same neo-liberal paradigms that exposes and exploits those at its periphery. If the chasm widens the dystopian nature of Huxley’s A Brave New World will start to look less fictional as the 0.1% tightens its grip through regimes of authority that truly bring the bio into politics.

While we ponder our collective future, the military is acting as a major driver of change. The idea of the super soldier is becoming closer to being a practical reality. Justin Sanchez, head of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Biological Technologies Office says that 2017 will “be a game changer” for biotechnology. There are serious advantages to be had for militaries that can increase a soldier’s performance. Soldiers who will one day become veterans; technologies developed for the military will inevitably find themselves filtering into civilian life. Which isn’t ideal. The prospect of a bio-inspired-evolutionary-arms-race wouldn’t bode well for hopes of our continuation.

Given the nature of such technologies and their potential uses. Is their development by such regimes and institutions, with power held in a small minority, the ideal way for them to be progressed? There’s no question DARPA’s implants would probably contain backdoor access for the US government, right into the brain.

As young people we should care about where we are going. Academically we should ask questions about what all of this means. While interdisciplinarity may be somewhat of a buzzword, the future practically demands it. We have seen science without merit; scientific racism still inflicts deep wounds; an excess of modernity can be viewed through the depravity of the holocaust. We need thoughtful progress, one in which social aims are factored in.

We live in a world based on humans and humanness; we live with human rights and universal notions of human equality. If we are to see a delineation of our species into pastures new, it would require a fundamental change in some of the basic tenets of society, of the human experience. We need to ask ourselves if there is an intrinsic value in being human, something we should hold onto, or whether we should embrace entirely new possibilities.

Because drastic change is coming, it’s not a matter of if, but when. Change we need to get right, otherwise dystopia and hyperbole won’t satisfy as explanations for what is yet to come. 

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One Comment

  1. Well written. I think though that “The lady doth protest to much”. Wouldn’t u want any upgrades? Given the chance? I would get a 12 inch genetically enhanced & or bionic dong that could scratch itself!
    That could save me years of work over a life time & I would call it the Scratchinator.

    Reply

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