Human enhancement: Is it good for society?

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Human enhancement: Is it good for society?

Human enhancement technologies are one of the most controversial and problematic of all “medical” issues. They are raising important questions about what it means to be human, and what is good or bad for our individual and collective well-being. These technologies are currently geared towards upgrading or restoring physical and psychological abilities for medical purposes. An application is surfacing, however, that is designed with another goal in mind: embellishing performance. An international team of researchers has been examining the ethical issues arising from these experiments. The research, published in Nature Human Behaviour, questions and highlights the conflict between individual and collective well-being, together with the important role governments must play.

What the researchers say: Today's new human enhancement technologies are mainly used restoratively following an accident, illness or handicap of birth. A recent study published in Scientific American has shown that these restorative technologies receive near-universal approval from the general public: 95% of respondents support physical restorative applications and 88% cognitive restorative applications. This percentage drops to 35%, however, when the subject turns to interventions intended to upgrade a physical or cognitive ability with the sole aim of boosting performance.

Why? “Because you're touching on the very essence of humankind, and that raises an avalanche of ethical questions,” says the lead author of the present study. An international team of researchers, funded by the World Economic Forum (WEF), has been looking into the factors that need to be taken to ensure a fair society and collective well-being when developing and distributing these new human improvement technologies.

Although well-being is often reduced to economic indices, it goes beyond the idea of money once primary needs have been met. The theory of self-determination divides well-being into three parts: autonomy—the ability to make one's own decisions; competence—the capacity to act and contribute to society; and social relations—the network of relationships that we can count on. “We probed the individual and collective impact of human augmentation technologies based on these three components, the aim being to alert governments to the possible abuses involved in the unrestricted use of these scientific advances,” says the study’s co-author.

Autonomy is making one's own informed decision about how to lead one's life, without being coerced by another person. It follows that an individual may choose whether or not to upgrade his or her faculties. But, suggest the researchers that can quickly lead to certain aberrations. If a military pilot has their eyesight enhanced, it's possible that this improved visual acuity may become obligatory to do the job. So, someone who wants to become a pilot but doesn't want to be operated on would automatically be eliminated from the profession.

Take another example: “If parents were able to choose certain traits for their baby, such as muscle strength, eye color or intelligence, this could have a severe impact on human diversity”, they  say. “Certain trends might favor particular traits, while others might disappear, and that would tend to reduce genetic variability.” And yet, each set of parents would only be choosing traits of a single baby. “Each individual modification has consequences for society,” points out the lead author.

The same applies to competence. What will happen if some people have the resources to buy new skills while others do not? How will companies manage to stay competitive if these advantages become a bargaining tool? How will we be able to compete against someone who has been enhanced? “Doping in sport is an excellent example of how individual enhancement impacts on the collective,” argues the co-author. “When an athlete takes a substance that improves their results, they push others to imitate them for the sake of performance. To be competitive, individuals are no longer free to say no to performance enhancement. This requires new approaches. Perhaps the key question is not about the effectiveness of the regulations, but rather about a new transparency that would allow everyone to take enhancements or refuse, but to be open about it and to factor use into the results.”

The steady increase in the use of drugs with the aim of facilitating social relations underlines the importance of this aspect in human well-being. Although new technologies are beginning to develop in this field, their use raises genuine ethical questions at the collective level. “We can already reverse relationships based on domination in mice by stimulating specific parts of the brain,” said the researchers. “Influencing someone else's behavior—by eliminating the feeling of loneliness often linked to depression, for instance—is within reach.” Every good idea, however, has a downside. Removing a behavioral problem does not solve it. “A study that reinforced people's empathy in order to eradicate racism showed that individuals in the same group were more united through empathy—but that their rejection of other groups rose dramatically.”

Following their comprehensive investigations, the team—consisting of geneticists, ethicists, philosophers, engineers and neuroscientists—recognized the importance of thinking through the consequences on society of each individual change. The experts also reported the urgent need to introduce unified regulations among different governments before the use of these new technologies degenerates. This concern is illustrated by the recent case of Chinese twins who were genetically modified to resist the AIDS virus—a disease that they might well never have contracted. “One of the great unresolved ethical enigmas is how to reconcile the interests of the individual and those of society in the event of conflict. Human improvement technologies require policy makers to find a certain balance. Collective effects are important, and we can't just let the market decide,” said the lead author. “Our remarks are a call to action before it's too late.”

So, what? Genetic engineering, with other performance enhancement technologies, is one of what I call the “the five horsemen of the modern apocalypse” which pose existential threats to humanity. The other four are unregulated AI, overpopulation, climate change and inequality.  The experts behind this study say that,like climate change and the rest this issue needs to be regulated internationally rather than, as the experts behind this study agree, “left to the market.”

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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