Science & Technology

The Right to Human Enhancement

And also uplifting animals and the rapture of the nerds.


Palo Alto—Last week an exhilarating and perplexing mixture of visionaries, philosophers, transhumanists, legal scholars, and technophiles along with some crackpots and naysayers gathered for a two day meeting at Stanford University's Law School to ponder the future of human enhancement and posthumanity. The occasion was the Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights (HETHR) conference. HETHR featured lectures ranging from sober discussions of the parental rights and the consent of the unborn and future generations, to the use of steroids and gene enhancement in sports and constitutional rights to enhancements, to uplifting animals to human level intelligence and uploading our personalities and memories into computer networks.

I was invited to participate on the opening plenary panel to argue over human rights in the enhanced future with William Hurlbut, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics and culture critic Erik Davis, author of TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information.

Briefly, I came out full force for a biotech enhanced future. I argue that there are no ethical reasons for forbidding people in the future to use safe biotech enhancements to alter their personalities, abolish sleep, increase their physical strength, boost their intelligence and memories, change their sex, live much longer healthier lives, and even change the number of their chromosomes. I also argued that in general it would be ethical for parents to use safe biotech to enhance their children in these ways as well.

Erik Davis offered the Matrix metaphor in which Morpheus offers Neo either a blue pill or a red pill. Davis' apparent implication is that refusing the new biotechnologies is like taking the blue pill—the human condition, the cycle of birth, life and death continues as it always has. Going forward with biotech progress is the equivalent of taking the red pill, ushering humanity into a posthuman future in which the verities of birth, life and death are up for grabs. Davis hinted that perhaps choosing the red pill of biotech will reveal unpleasant truths about the world that we would rather not know. (In contrast, I believe that there are no dangerous truths.) Davis pointed out that the choices before us catch us in a confused balance between nostalgia and exhilarating expectations. Davis worried that postmodern humanity has lost the grand narratives that used to give meaning to life for most people.

William Hurlbut fulfilled his role as naysayer. He sourly asked, "Biotech progress will give us freedom for what; enhancement for what?" He suggested that the sorts of enhancements people would choose would not be ennobling, but instead "draw us down the gradient of our appetites." Desires, explained Hurlbut, are purposeful passions that drive us to meet the essential needs of the body and of species continuity. True enough, but he warned that desire liberated by biotech from the constraints of nature could lead to lives of empty pleasures and/or intensified competition in the name of selfish ambition.

Actually, Davis had earlier essentially answered Hurlbut's fears about meaninglessly "enhanced" lives. Davis acknowledged that biotech progress will produce a multiplication of choices including more trivial choices, but real challenges are not going to go away. The events that arise out of fate are not going to stop—random events, good and bad, to which we must respond will not stop coming just because people are healthier, smarter and longer lived. All of us will still have to confront things we do not choose. In other words, the shape of the human narrative will change, but there will always be new hardships and life will not be drained of meaning. In any case, humanity will progress with biotech as it has with all past technologies—by trial and error—and if it turns out that some new biotech treatment actually is an apathogen, that is, it induces a sense of purposelessness or meaninglessness, then people will not choose it.

The HETHR meeting was a big tent affair drawing representatives from a wide spectrum of political ideologies. As such it is a hard event to cover, so let me briefly touch on just some highlights. As a libertarian I was as exotic as a kangaroo to many of the more leftish participants. As an example of the tone, several of the male speakers ostentatiously began their talks by insisting that they were feminists. Most agreed with the politically correct bioethical position that the United States desperately needs universal government health insurance. Never mind that the countries that have it are lagging behind in biomedical research. And of course, there was the obligatory ritual of rhetorical self-flagellation over the fact that there were not enough women and ethnic minority participants at the conference.

Nevertheless, a lot of interesting philosophical and legal analysis concerning the right to use enhancing technologies was presented at the conference. One of the conference organizers, James Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) pointed out that some bioconservative ethicists are arguing that making inheritable changes to the human genome should be declared a crime against humanity. He pointed out that arguments that we must preserve the "integrity" of the human genome sound eerily familiar to old-fashioned racist arguments against miscegenation.

Representatives from another sponsor of the HETHR conference, the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics (CCLE), organized several sessions arguing that we have fundamental right to control our own brains. Of course this principle stands in stark opposition to the failed War on Drugs. CCLE senior fellow Richard Glen Boire played a video of a violent police raid on an electronic dance party in Utah. Their crime? Some of the dancers were apparently using the empathogen Ecstasy.

Boire warned that the Drug War would pale in comparison to the looming war on neuropharmaceutical enhancements. Boire also pointed out that biotech is already being used to devise "neurocops" that is, compounds that will police the blood/brain barrier for improper molecules—say, molecules of cocaine or alcohol Such treatments clearly have a place for people who choose to use them to help regain control over their drug use, but should the government have the power to impose them on its citizens? It depends.

I offer three cases for your consideration. Case One: Someone caught driving recklessly drunk—the court gives this person a choice—a year in jail or a regimen of naltrexone. Case Two: A parent decides to vaccinate her child with an anti-cocaine vaccine at age 10. Case Three: Public health officials mandate that every child receives an anti-cocaine vaccination with her mumps, measles and rubella vaccinations.

The HETHR conference was not devoted to just defining and defending human and posthuman rights—some visionary and, some might say, really eccentric proposals were also on offer. For example, George Dvorsky, deputy editor of Betterhumans, argued that using biotech to enhance just human consciousness is not enough—humanity has the moral responsibility to use biotech to lift the veil of brute ignorance from the animals. "It would be negligent of us to leave animals behind to fend for themselves in the state of nature," declared Dvorsky.

In uplifting animals, Dvorsky explained, we must avoid creating subhumans. Specifically we must not use biotech to create happy slaves, creatures with constrained or predetermined psychologies, or beings to be used for demeaning or dangerous work. His project is reminiscent of sci-fi novelist David Brin's The Uplift Wars in which throughout the galaxies one sapient species after another uses genetic engineering to uplift non-sapient species to sapiency. In Brin's books, humanity uplifts dolphins and chimps. In his talk Dvorsky was pretty catholic in wanting to spread sapiency around, even suggesting that cows might be uplifted if we gave them hands. Even if Dvorsky's project were possible, I fear that well-meaning would-be uplifters are much more likely to create simulacra of diminished humans rather than creatures that are the moral equivalent of humans. And I shudder to think what might happen if the uplifters overshot and created cows that are smarter than we are.

The feasibility of the so-called Rapture of the Nerds—uploading our consciousnesses into cyberspace—was also discussed at the conference. One proponent is Martine Rothblatt, who is a genuine visionary. She has helped launch several satellite networks, including the satellite radio network Sirius, and also founded the biotech company United Therapeutics. She is also proudly a postoperative transsexual and author of The Apartheid of Sex.

Her talk entitled "Of Genes, Bemes and Conscious Things" outlined a future in which human consciousnesses are uploaded into computers. Her neologism "beme" is modeled after Richard Dawkin's meme. Memes are units of cultural transmission and Rothblatt's bemes are "fundamental, transmissible, mutable units of beingness." Heideggerian bytes if you will. Bemes consist of smiles, the taste of lasagna, the memory of a first bike ride and so forth. According to Rothblatt, just as genes spell out matter, bemes spell out mind.

Rothblatt suggested that bemes could be eventually captured and stored by more sophisticated wearable recording systems like the MyLifeBits project being developed at Microsoft by Gordon Bell. Researchers are also working on creating a bouquet of nanowires that could be threaded through the capillaries of the brain to monitor and record the activities of individual brain cells. Rothblatt proposes that the output of those brain cells could be stored and retrieved later for uploading as bemes. Rothblatt acknowledged that bemes would need to uploaded into mindware to become conscious. Of course, mindware doesn't yet exist, but she's pretty sure that computer guru Ray Kurzweil's prediction that machines with human-level intelligence will be produced over the next couple of decades is accurate. Thus we will be able to "beme" ourselves up into cyberspace. How will we know that the uploaded "bemans" are conscious? Rothblatt has no doubt: "Consciousness is like pornography; we know it when we see it."

In the end, telling visionaries from crackpots is never an easy task. But I find mingling with people who are wildly hopeful about the future is intellectually invigorating. Transhumanists are the sort of folks who eagerly embrace 19th century British chemist Michael Faraday's maxim: "Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature." And some of the visions painted at the HETHR conference are wonderful—they foresee a future filled with smarter, happier, and more creative people.

Erik Davis is wrong about the demise of grand narratives. As a nascent philosophical and political movement, Transhumanism epitomizes our most daring, courageous, imaginative, and idealistic aspirations. The Transhumanist quest to liberate future generations from the immemorial curses of disease, disability and early death is a new grand narrative worthy of humanity and posthumanity.