To write this article, I drank a beverage containing an effective cognitive enhancer – something that helps me – almost daily – to focus.
In my pocket, I carry an extension of my memory, on which I made notes for this very story.
Caffeine and smart phones might not strike most people as human enhancements, but in changing how we use our bodies and brains, they are exactly that. They improve our subjective wellbeing and facilitate our meeting day-to-day life goals.
The rather more futuristic-sounding concept of transhumanism – the idea that every human should have the right to enhance themselves beyond the so-called “norm” through science and technology – was the subject under scrutiny at a debate this week at the British Science Association Festival in Brighton.
The big question being posed: do we all have the right to enhance our bodies as technology and pharmaceuticals will allow, or is that immoral? As the probably over-used term has it, would that be “playing God”? And who gets to decide?
First we should be frank about what is a correction – a medical fix – and what is an enhancement.
Eyeglasses and contact lenses would be seen by most people as falling in the correction category, restoring sight to normal levels. However, although everyone may strive for 20-20 vision and invest in the technology to get it, such acute sight is far from normal and in many cases more enhancement than correction.
There is no easy line to draw between medicine and enhancement, because the very notion of “normal” is not easy to define. And as science and technology moves on, we have a new and ever-changing normal.
Moral drug maze
Ritalin a central nervous system stimulating drug is used by people unable to maintain normal levels of concentration. It is often prescribed for those who suffer from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
However, it is also in now widespread use as a “smart drug” – to enhance the concentration of people without ADHD. This form of enhancement, often by students battling to hit tight deadlines, has proven very controversial.
Critics of such smart drugs argue that they give users an unfair advantage. But others points out that exams have never been a level playing field – some people can afford the luxury of personal tutors, while others have to work in full-time jobs to support themselves in higher education.
Many people find the idea of any such cognitive enhancement deeply troubling, but what if, as Rebecca Roache, a philosopher at Royal Holloway, University of London argued at the festival debate, “this might be the fastest way to find a cure for cancer?”
That, she pointed out would benefit everyone.
So is it then immoral not to attempt to upgrade people for the sake of improving society? And who and what should we be upgrading?
Sarah Chan from the University of Edinburgh argued that research into enhancement should be directed towards helping those who are worst off in society first.
If not, as Florence Okoye of the Natural History Museum noted, enhancement could magnify already existing societal inequalities.
This then opens up the question of whether society’s goal should be to make upgrades available for everyone.
Are we all enhanced?
Most humans are now enhanced to be resistant to many infectious diseases. Vaccination is human enhancement. Apart from “anti-vaxxers” – as those who lobby against childhood inoculations are often dubbed – most of us are content to participate. And society as a whole benefits from being free of those diseases.
So what if we took that a pharmaceutical step further. What if, as well as vaccines against polio, mumps, measles, rubella and TB, everyone also “upgraded” by taking drugs to modify their behaviour? Calming beta-blocker drugs could reduce aggression – perhaps even helping to diffuse racial tension. Or what if we were all prescribed the hormone oxytocin, a substance known to enhance social and family bonds – to just help us all just get along a little better.
Would society function better with these chemical tweaks? And might those who opt out become pariahs for not helping to build a better world – for not wanting to be “vaccinated” against anti-social behaviours?
And what if such chemical upgrades could not be made available to everyone, because of cost or scarcity? Should they be available to no one? An enhanced sense of smell might be useful for a career in wine tasting but not perhaps in rubbish disposal.
A case in point is military research – an arm of which is already an ongoing transhumanism experiment.
Many soldiers on the battlefield routinely take pharmaceuticals as cognitive enhancers to reduce the need to sleep and increase the ability to operate under stress. High tech exoskeletons, increasing strength and endurance, are no longer the realms of science fiction and could soon be in routine military use.
The US military, always a research leader, has recently tested electrical brain stimulation, which was shown to improve increase multitasking skills and performance in people using flight simulators.
But like GPS and the Internet, many initially military breakthroughs will become available to wider society, leaving us to charter new self-enhancing waters.
Some ethicists have argued that there is an urgent need to enhance human moral decision-making – biomedically, if necessary. And Dr Roache, during the debate, was quick to suggest that most people might approve of morally enhanced politicians.
Public perception of new technology though is often cold to begin with.
But just a few decades ago treatments like IVF were seen by many as morally wrong. IVF is now largely considered routine and socially acceptable. So might we one day accept gene therapy on cells in early-stage embryos, which would produce heritable genetic changes for future generations?
As technology moves inexorably forward, we are being faced with new questions about how enhanced we want ourselves and everyone else to be.
In answering those questions, perhaps we need to recognise how enhanced we already are.
Dr Alexander Lees is a British Science Association media fellow and lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University @Alexander_Lees