Thu, May 10, 2018 - Page 9 News List

No death, enhanced life — a potentially transhuman future

The 21st century tech revolution is transforming human lives across the globe, leading to a future that many are welcoming with open bionic arms. However, others urge caution

By Robin Mckie  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain people

The aims of the transhumanist movement are summed up by Mark O’Connell in his book To Be a Machine, which last week won the Wellcome Book Prize.

“It is their belief that we can and should eradicate aging as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals,” he wrote.

The idea of technologically enhancing our bodies is not new, but the extent to which transhumanists take the concept is.

In the past, we made devices such as wooden legs, hearing aids, spectacles and false teeth. In the future, we might use implants to augment our senses so we can detect infrared or ultraviolet radiation directly or boost our cognitive processes by connecting ourselves to memory chips.

Ultimately, by merging man and machine, science is to produce humans who have vastly increased intelligence, strength and lifespans; a near embodiment of gods.

Is that a desirable goal?

Advocates of transhumanism believe there are spectacular rewards to be reaped from going beyond the natural barriers and limitations that constitute an ordinary human being, but to do so would raise a host of ethical problems and dilemmas.

As O’Connell’s book says, the ambitions of transhumanism are rising up our intellectual agenda, but this is a debate that is only just beginning.

There is no doubt that human enhancement is becoming more and more sophisticated — as will be demonstrated at the “The Future Starts Here” exhibition, which opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on Sunday.

Items on display include “powered clothing” made by the US company Seismic. Worn under regular clothes, these suits mimic the biomechanics of the human body and give users — typically older people — discrete strength when getting out of a chair or climbing stairs, or standing for long periods.

In many cases, these technological or medical advances are made to help the injured, sick or elderly, but are then adopted by the healthy or young to boost their lifestyle or performance.

The drug erythropoietin increases red blood cell production in people with severe anemia, but has also been taken up as an illicit performance booster by some athletes to improve their bloodstream’s ability to carry oxygen to their muscles.

And that is just the start, experts say.

“We are now approaching the time when, for some kinds of track sports such as the 100 meter sprint, athletes who run on carbon-fiber blades will be able outperform those who run on natural legs,” said Blay Whitby, an expert in artificial intelligence (AI) at the University of Sussex.

The question is: When the technology reaches this level, will it be ethical to allow surgeons to replace someone’s limbs with carbon-fiber blades just so they can win gold medals?

Whitby is sure many athletes will seek such surgery.

“However, if such an operation came before any ethics committee that I was involved with, I would have none of it. It is a repulsive idea — to remove a healthy limb for transient gain,” he said.

However, not everyone in the field agrees with this view. Cybernetics expert Kevin Warwick of Coventry University sees no problem in approving the removal of natural limbs and their replacement with artificial blades.

“What is wrong with replacing imperfect bits of your body with artificial parts that will allow you to perform better or which might allow you to live longer?” he said.

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