The ethics of human enhancement are tricky and often the first objection that I hear to technologically improving our minds and bodies is one of morality: why should some people get to become smarter and stronger while others do not? is it right to try to improve our god-given body? isn’t it dangerous to allow such technologies to develop?
Despite these objections the human race seems to be eager to step into this next phase. take exoskeletons for example. a couple of years ago I saw a video of an exoskeleton being tested for military use. Recently a paraplegic woman was able to walk a marathon using an exoskeleton (over the course of 17 days but hey, she can’t move her legs). I also saw that a little girl with a muscular disorder was given a 3d printed pair of arms to help her move. and here’s another suit made by the Tokyo university of science which allows a person to carry substantially more weight.
No one’s asking if we should be doing this, and no one’s saying this isn’t right or natural. Of course, disabled individuals are the first to be helped by enhancement technologies, but not all of these suits are therapeutic. I think that we’ll see many more disabled individuals using exoskeletons to get around, and factory workers using suits and gloves.
If you’ve looked at some of these links you may have noticed that everyone but the story about the little girl references iron man. I’m not really going anywhere with that point, I just think it’s interesting.
Anyway, human enhancement is normal in our culture and I think there is good reason for this. We’ve really been enhancing ourselves ever since we could make tools and talk to each other, all technological progress has been human enhancement and what we are doing now feel in line with that process. I only wonder when we will reach the point when we realize that our enhancement is now actually radically changing who we are, and our tools are significantly more powerful and worrisome than what’s come before.
I personally experience the normality of enhancement in my own college environment. Study drugs (mostly aderall, coffee too) are widely used by college students to help focus and be more productive. The hyper-competitive academic environment encourages students to find ways to get an edge, and drugs are one of the easiest ways to do this. Students take these drugs without thinking about the moral implications for such actions, how such actions unfairly advantage the individual over the collective, making it so others have to take these drugs to remain competitive, like in professional sports. Of the dozens of students I’ve talked to about the morality of using study drugs, I’m the only one who feels strongly that taking these drugs is an immoral decision. My stance falls apart when people bring up coffee, a societally acceptable stimulant. Well, life is a sliding scale, what are you going to do about it? I prefer that we not ingest stimulants via pills. drinking bean juice seems better than prescription drugs.
So while I’m encouraged that humanity seems poised to jump into transhumanism and an enhanced existence, I’m also discouraged by how normal it is for my peers to take amphetamines. Perhaps this has not become a big enough issue to address, like doping in sports, but I really don’t want us to get to a crisis point in academia where the only way to make a meaningful contribution to human knowledge is by getting high on speed.
The problems I’ve explained here only really come up in the context of a competitive environment, and perhaps there is hope if capitalism collapses and we reorient our system. After all, learning and exploring should really not be a competition.
On the other hand, perhaps we will find a way to make our brains run faster without negative effects such as coming down from a drug or mental damage. It wouldn’t be so bad if we all just kept thinking faster and faster I suppose, I’m just not sure that amphetamines are a step in the right direction.
Back when I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion I enjoyed his take on the Christian god as a “God of the gaps.” By this he meant that “God” was a construct which symbolized everything mysterious in the world. As we’ve grown smarter our science has been stripping away the role of God until he is left within the only real gap of scientific knowledge, the creation of the universe. A creator however, argues Dawkins, does not solve the problem of the origin of the universe; it only complicates it, for who created the creator? I’ve talked previously about my belief that the universe is a fractal pattern of simulations producing simulations. I suggest you read that post because it will be relevant to what I am saying here.
I have worried, as most everyone has at one time or another, about the possibility that science is doing to beauty what it has done to God. One way of expressing this is simply “ignorance is bliss,” a sad truth pointing to the fact that our happiness is an illusion we build which likely stands to suffer should new information arrive which changes the way we think. Another way to put this is that mystery seems to be an essential part of beauty, that the freshness of experience, the wonder, is an essential part of beauty. As we investigate that mystery, we dispel the wonder.
Yet another way of looking at this is that life is, all in all, meaningless. Our sense of beauty comes from us ascribing deep meaning to things which in the end amount to nothing, and as we discover the reason behind everything we find more and more that none of it means anything, that it’s all just math, just information.
Under this light our future path looks like this: after the singularity we understand the machinery behind our own minds and begin to rapidly merge and expand our consciousness, merging and expanding with other possible alien intelligences too. Each of us lose our own sense of existence as we realize that we are patterns of information indistinct from the entire universe, and as consciousness slowly becomes everything that is the universe, all matter and energy, the only thing left it has to observe is itself, a scenario many would argue is synonymous with non-existence.
This, by the way, is very much what it feels like to be on acid, and those who have experienced the drug may know more personally about what I am relating. In any case, this view of things, the entire view that we are extinguishing beauty and ourselves overlooks a crucial thing, and that is the “existence” of our thoughts. As we expand and become the universe, the universe we inhabit will be much less exciting, but we will be able to rearrange it into infinite possibilities. By rearranging the universe I mean rearranging the way we think and what we think about, producing countless new universes in our minds to explore, producing our own data to process. The universe won’t be meaningless because we will be capable of producing infinite meaning within it.
We will be able to maintain our sense of beauty, existence and individuality in some sense after this transition, though it will be different, things will always be more meaningless now. But I don’t think we would care much if we knew the nature of the incomprehensible joy, knowledge, and beauty that is experienced by our universe, outside of this small oasis of suffering.