The concept of technological progress and its potential consequences has been the subject of quite a bit of attention lately. First, there was the announcement from Harvard University and Human Rights Watch that a ban on killer robots was needed before the current pace of innovation led to the machines that could so without human oversight.
Then came the University of Cambridge’s announcement about the creation of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to evaluate new technologies. And last, there was the news the news that the DOD had signing a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures that could lead to unintended engagements,” starting at the design stage.
Concordantly, back in early November, the Royal Society along with the Academy of Medical Sciences, British Academy, and Royal Academy of Engineering concluded a workshop called “Human Enhancement and the Future of Work” in which they considered the growing impact and potential risks of augmentation technologies. In their final report, they raised serious concerns about the burgeoning trend and how humanity is moving from a model of therapy to one in which human capacities are greatly improved. The implications, they concluded, should be part of a much wider public discussion.
Specifically, the report raised concerns on drugs and digital enhancements that will allow people to work longer, hard and faster. Such technologies could easily give rise to a culture of enhanced competitiveness, more than we currently know, where the latest in cybernetics, bionics and biomedical devices are used to gain and edge, not to remedy medical problems. Currently, things like bionic prosthesis are being created to aid amputees and injury victims; but as the technology improves and such devices become more effective than organic limbs, the purpose could change.
What’s more, there are the ethical implications of having such technology available to human beings. If people can upgrade their bodies to enhance their natural abilities, what will it means for those who get “left behind”? Will the already enormous gulf between the rich and poor expand even further and take on a new dimension? Will those who want to succeed in the business world be forced to scrounge so they can get the latest upgrades.
Or, as the panel’s final report put it:
“Work will evolve over the next decade, with enhancement technologies potentially making a significant contribution. Widespread use of enhancements might influence an individual’s ability to learn or perform tasks and perhaps even to enter a profession; influence motivation; enable people to work in more extreme conditions or into old age, reduce work-related illness; or facilitate earlier return to work after illness.”
At the same time however, they acknowledge the potential efficacy and demand for such technologies, prompting the call for open discourse. Again, from the report:
“Although enhancement technologies might bring opportunities, they also raise several health, safety, ethical, social and political challenges, which warrant proactive discussion. Very different regulatory regimes are currently applied: for example, digital services and devices (with significant cognitive enhancing effects) attract less, if any, regulatory oversight than pharmacological interventions. This raises significant questions, such as whether any form of self-regulation would be appropriate and whether there are circumstances where enhancements should be encouraged or even mandatory, particularly where work involves responsibility for the safety of others (e.g. bus drivers or airline pilots).”
In many ways, this report is overdue, as it is offering some rather obvious commentary on a subject which has been the subject of speculation and fiction for some time. For example, in the Sprawl Trilogy, William Gibson explored the idea of human enhancement and the disparity between rich and poor at length. In his world, the rich were ensured clinical immortality through AI and biotech while everyone else was forced to spend their savings just to afford the latest tech, merely so they could stay in the running.
However, just about all of the panel’s recommendations were most appropriate. They included further investigations into ensuring safety, affordability, and accessibility, not to mention that some of these enhancement technologies — be they pharmaceutical, regenerative medicines, or cybernetics — should be regulated by the government. This last article is especially appropriate given the potential for personal misuse, not to mention the potential exploitation by employers.
With all the harm that could result from having technologies that could render human beings “postmortal” or “posthuman”, some degree of oversight is certainly necessary. But of course, the real key is a public educated and informed on the issue of cybernetics, bionics, and human enhancement, and what they could mean for us. As with so much else, the issue is one of choice, and awareness of what the consequences could be. Choose wisely, that’s the only guarantee! Hey, that rhymed… I smell a quote!