Tue, Jun 18, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Bionic transhumanism making Superman a proximate reality

By Mark Honigsbaum  /  The Observer

For the moment, the answer is almost certainly no, but that may change as people become more comfortable with posthuman technologies and the opportunities they afford for improved health and function.

“What’s crucial about these technologies is they don’t just repair us, they make us better than well,” said Andy Miah, director of the Creative Futures Institute and professor of ethics and emerging technologies at the University of the West of Scotland. “The human enhancement market will reveal the truth about our biological conditions — we are all disabled. This is why human enhancements are likely to become more popular.”

A good example of the way that these technologies are already changing our perception of human identity and notions of disability comes from the world of sport. When Oscar Pistorius donned a pair of carbon-fiber blades to compete alongside able-bodied athletes he offered us a glimpse of a “superhuman” future where Paralympians aided by bionics or performance-enhancing drugs might set hitherto unimaginable sporting records.


At the moment, such enhancements are considered unfair, but in a posthuman future in which everyone has access to these technologies, such objections may become moot.

As Bostrom puts it: “If every athlete takes a lot of dangerous performance-enhancing drugs, there will still only be one gold medalist.”

Future prosthetic limbs will be immersed within our flesh, rather than being outside it or replacing it. Athletes will also be able to use 3D printing to create new limbs perfectly tailored to their bodies, or grow replacement body parts when their old ones wear out.

Nor are bionics the only technology transforming norms of health and human performance. For example, in search of enhanced cognitive performance, many people are experimenting with modafinil, a treatment for narcolepsy, while others routinely take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Paxil and Zoloft to regulate their moods and sense of well-being. These drugs are but the forerunners of a new generation of neuroenhancers and brain stimulation devices that promise shortcuts to even greater intellectual heights.

In Switzerland, which leads the way in many of these technologies and therapies, concerns about the health and ethical impacts are leading to calls for greater regulation. This month, the Swiss Public Health Service reported that adolescent use of methylphenidate, the generic name for Ritalin, had increased by 40 percent between 2005 and 2008, mirroring trends in the US where off-label use is rife among high-school and college students. There is similar concern about the wide uptake of anti-anxiety drugs as pharmaceutical companies seek to redefine social pathologies as treatable psychiatric conditions and aggressively market the therapies to consumers.

The problem is that as technology blurs the distinction between illness and optimal health, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish normal from abnormal.

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