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Will human enhancement make us better?

August 09, 2005|Daniel Sarewitz | DANIEL SAREWITZ is a professor of science and society at Arizona State University and director of its Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes.

THE FLIP SIDE of the steroid scandal in baseball is last week's announcement of the first cloned dog. Ballplayers are punished for using pharmaceutical technologies to improve their physical abilities, while scientists are rewarded for pushing toward a similar goal -- in the words of artificial intelligence techno-visionary Ray Kurzweil, "reverse engineering our biology and then reprogramming it."

Biological engineering is not just about curing disease anymore. The incentives and profits are moving toward drugs, gene therapies and other technologies to enhance human performance -- memory, creativity, concentration, strength, endurance, longevity. Asking athletes not to partake of these advances is not just hypocritical, it's likely to be increasingly futile.

Speaking last week in a television interview, Kurzweil defined humanity as "the species that goes beyond our limitations." Of course, in that quest we are also the species that has come close to immolating the planet (during the Cold War), destroying our environment and ruining baseball.

But if we are to believe scientists and technologists, nothing but good can come from human-performance enhancement. As a 2002 report of the normally staid National Science Foundation proclaimed, the 21st century "could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment," all through research on human-performance enhancement.

I participated in some of the meetings that led to that report. Most of the attendees were highly intelligent white males who worked in the semiconductor industry, at national weapons laboratories or major research universities. At one point, the group got to talking about how we might soon achieve brain-to-brain interfaces that would eliminate misunderstandings among humans. Instead of having to rely on imperfect words, we would be able to directly signal our thoughts with perfect precision.

I asked how such enhanced abilities would get around differing values and interests. For instance, how would more direct communication of thought help Israelis and Palestinians better understand one another? Unable to use the ambiguities and subtleties of language to soften the impact of one's raw convictions, might conflict actually be amplified? A person at one of the meetings acknowledged he "hadn't thought about values," while another suggested that I was being overly negative. What seemed clear was that the group's homogeneity made it impossible for it to scrutinize the assumptions beneath its rosy vision of "performance enhancement."

This sort of contextual cluelessness is rampant in the world of techno-optimism. Software designer Ramez Naam has suggested that "the debate over human enhancement is at heart a debate over human freedom. Should individuals and families have the right to alter their own minds and bodies, or should that power be held by the state? In a democratic society, it's every man and woman who should determine such things, and not the state."

But who, after all, is making the key decisions determining how research on human enhancement should be supported, advanced and applied? It's people such as those at the meetings I just described.

I suspect the last thing on Earth that Naam would want is for "individuals and families" -- most of whom know little about the relevant science and technology -- to be involved in making these choices. What he really means, I suppose, is that "individuals and families," playing their roles as consumers, will get to exercise some modest amount of choice in the matter, after products are developed and marketed, and perhaps in response to the ways that the Joneses next door are enhancing their children. Yet if this is Naam's idea of freedom, it is a disturbingly shriveled version of the real thing.

Science and technology have immeasurably enhanced the human capacity to work and think, through the development of tools ranging from eyeglasses to bulldozers to computers. But what's being promised now is radically different -- the potential to modify humanity itself, to change the essential attributes of humanness, the same attributes that underlie and inspire all of our social institutions from democratic politics to the economic marketplace to our system of laws and justice. Even the game of baseball.

Why do we trust our long-term well-being to the irrational faith that the good consequences of our ingenuity will outweigh the bad? The time to openly consider which directions we want to push the technology, and which we want to avoid, is now. In this regard, baseball's expanding steroid scandal, as trivial as it may be, is a warning: Once new technologies make it into the marketplace, our ability and our willingness to make meaningful choices all but disappear.

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