Writing ahead of his appearance at NESTA's FutureFest (28-29 September), Dr Anders Sandberg looks at how much human enhancement has already happened, and what advances could lie ahead.
Society as a whole still thinks of human enhancement as a futuristic concept, but the fact is we’re already enhancing ourselves in a lot of ways. People distinguish between the external and internal, and we are fascinated, and sometimes upset by, by the idea of stuff going into our bodies and changing them. But we don’t pay quite as much attention to what’s already going on around us.
Take, for instance, my smartphone. It links me to a global network, which has sensors that report where I am – meaning essentially that I am linked to an extended enormous brain. Facts, friends, and functions are available by tiny gestures. We shouldn’t underestimate how much these smart gadgets will soon be able to do.
I was expecting a long time ago that we would soon be walking around with wearable computers that could project into our eyes – only the version I made had a rucksack that you carried around the batteries in, and made me look like an extra from a low-budget science fiction movie. At that time Thad Starner was my hero – he’s now in the team running Google Glass, a product that was roughly what I had projected. What’s changed is that now we have the Internet, meaning most of the computing can be done somewhere else, out there in the cloud, and that the equipment can be cheaply mass produced. What we are doing is building a giant exo-self – and it’s not just our computing but for everything from our bank accounts to our social life, and it actually changes the way we think. A few years ago I was in Beijing when they censored Wikipedia, and it made me realise just how much I used it – a lot more than I was conscious of. It had become an extension of my mind, and we don’t realise how much sites like this are part of our bigger mental picture. They are in a sense part of our brains.
Considering the question of enhancement, we have to realise that we are living in a super-complicated world that we are not well adapted to. Dyslexia wasn’t a problem a century ago, because there was still a job for you if you weren’t good at reading or writing. We also make stupid mistakes – but the consequences go much further when we press the wrong button.
Looking at enhancement under our skin, a lot actually takes place already through good nutrition. Most westerners are already enhanced compared to their ancestors. In some parts of the world major deficiencies still remain: iodine in salt would be a relatively cheap and simple way of improving intelligence and could help a lot of people – you could make a whole population smarter. Is that an enhancement or just a treatment?
We seem to like the idea of paying to help our neighbour’s health through charity or taxes. But we seem less enthusiastic for the idea of enhancing him – maybe then he might start competing against us? The problem is that we might be better off having smarter and abler neighbours, both because they could help us and because they generally make society wealthier, safer and more creative.
’Smart drugs’, such as Modafinil, that we could use to enhance ourselves are widely discussed and often regarded as something controversial and new, forgetting that already there are a lot of widely used drugs of this type, such as caffeine. We say it’s not a drug, but in truth we drink it not just because of the taste but because the caffeine kicks us into a higher gear. We tend to be more forgiving about natural stuff than a little white pill; a case of how we compartmentalise things that should really be looked at together. Smart drugs are interesting because they can improve various mental faculties by 10 to 20 per cent in the lab, but we don’t know how they work out in the real world. That is kind of disturbing because it could be that they are not useful for anything practical, they could be dangerous - or it could be that they actually work. Yet people use them to enhance themselves. We need ecological studies – tests of what they actually do in real life situations – but these have not yet been done. Some ethics boards are afraid of a positive result, which is a mistake – we should know what can and can’t be done. Meanwhile, drug companies cannot design or manufacture drugs for enhancement, just for therapy. The result is that typically new illnesses are invented, allowing sales for new patient groups, so that we get more and more diagnoses for things that are really just normal. On the other side, I think enhancement is a valid medical activity people should be allowed to do under medical supervision – I should be able to have my GP prescribe an enhancer after I demonstrated I understood the risks and did not have any medical reasons not to take it, and then go to a pharmacy and buy them. That way we would get real data, and side effects could be monitored. What we have now is a dangerous grey market where people are buying things such as smart drugs on the Internet.
There are also brain stimulation technologies, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, which makes different parts of the brain more or less likely to fire off signals. While TMS is expensive and somewhat complicated, new methods such as direct current stimulation essentially consist of running a rather low current through your head. This is cheap, looks safe (although we do not know yet), and seems to be able to improve performance in a lot of areas such as learning – as long as you literally stimulate the right spot. In fact, the worry is that amateurs are already experimenting. The enhancement effect is pretty small but could be very useful in learning things that have a particular brain localisation, such as certain math skills or language. Parents want their children to do well at school, so is this something they would go for in the future? Assuming it is safe and documented I do not see any deep ethical problem, but there is the worry that they might both want to use untested methods and push the kids too hard.
An even more impressive thing is brain-computer interfaces. Reading off brainwaves from the outside is tough: they tend to be drenched in the electromagnetic noise of muscles and nearby cellphones. Implanted electrodes already allow some paralysed people to control computers. Learning and using the method is excruciatingly slow at present, and unlikely to be popular among healthy people (plus, it requires brain surgery, with all that that entails).
In the next decade this could change, though. Work is being done at the moment with making nerve cells light sensitive, and research is being carried out in Oxford and other places with light-based interfaces. In fact, I know a colleague who literally spends his days firing mind control lasers at fruit flies. It’s kinder and gentler interfacing than pushing electrodes into tissue, and there could be lots of uses. Similarly, others are experimenting with nanotechnology for making truly fine electrodes that could gather more data and have less risk – either nanofibres snaking between nerve cells or ‘cortical dust’, micromachines residing in the brain that communicate with a base station on the skull.
Brain-computer interfaces sound awesome, but we should remember that as long as a device interacting through our eyes and ears can provide the same information they do not really have any advantage. It is going to take a long while before we can send in information in a more profound way. My most likely guess is that the first mass market neuro-interfaces will be for things like weight control. We have evolved with a weigh set point that is far too high (our ancestors were more likely to starve than get fat), and turning it down would be very useful. Once that interface is in, why not control pain, aggression or temperature setpoints too? We may even get to a point where you have an options menu for your body. And once these deep systems are wired, then subsequent versions will likely wire more and more of our brains.
If we can develop the hardware to be in very close symbiosis with machines, our skin will be a fairly arbitrary boundary. Our minds are already not entirely in our heads thanks to smart media, and our biology is already modified – deliberately or not – by food, drugs, gut bacteria, implants and even the clothes we wear.
So should we push for more enhancement, or cautiously slow things? At the moment I don’t think the balance is right but exactly how we push it is complicated. Many of the ethical concerns sensitively depend on figuring out what works and what doesn’t work, but that can only be discovered by having people test things – armchair discussions rarely settle important questions. The UK is one of the more liberal countries when it comes to this kind of technology; in my native Sweden it’s taboo. Maybe this means the UK actually has an advantage in experimenting and learning.
In the debate on how we use enhancement, smart drugs are a very good starting point to try out our thinking. Is it unfair if someone uses a drug and we can’t? Some people can’t use caffeine, so they have a disadvantage, but we don’t ban it. A key issue is what kind of activity we are talking about: some form of competition, or something where we mostly care about results? Surely if we’re solving problems, for example in a university, we need to be as smart as we can be. In other domains like sport (or chess?) enhancement might miss the point of the activity. In many cases the situation is intermediate: if students use enhancers to learn more, it seems to be a good thing. If they use enhancers to compete more fiercely it undermines the point of exams and leads to harmful races. In some domains we might want enhancement for the sake of others - take surgeons or truck drivers for example. You would of course need to have safeguards for people who wouldn’t want to be enhanced, but if a surgeon had bad eyesight, would they refuse to wear glasses? We might not be able to force people to enhance – indeed, I think we have a fundamental moral right to refuse enhancements just as we have a right to enhance ourselves – but enhancing might be the moral thing to do in some situations.
Another worry is cost: maybe only the rich could get enhanced? It all hinges on the kind of enhancement. Pills and gadgets could become cheaply and widely available, even for people who don’t have much money, thanks to mass manufacturing. Smartphones are very advanced technology, yet amazingly cheap and widespread. Conversely, enhancements that require much training or services would not come down as quickly in price and might be less equal. However, if they were actually useful I would not be surprised to see them subsidised: after all, a smarter and abler population will produce more wealth and pay more taxes, from the government perspective. So it’s not a problem of availability or access, it’s much more about ambition and willingness to use these developments.
And as our attitudes change over time, there could be a lot of interesting things ahead. The people of the future will not just have some years more of experience compared to us: they might be able to make use of it far better. They will be able to think about Humanity 3.0.
This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.