Technology + The Human Body = Insurmountable Societal Challenge?
Picture this world for a moment. You are out of work. Technology is moving so rapidly that it is hard to keep up. In fact, at your last job, you almost felt like you couldn’t process information as quickly as the younger employees on your team. They seemed to be up-to-speed on the latest software almost overnight. So when the company had a couple of difficult quarters and your boss scheduled that one-on-one meeting, you knew what was coming. Probably something many can relate to, if not actually experienced.
A few months later, it has been difficult to get a job. So you are networking everywhere you can, including with old colleagues. You decide to get drinks after work. A couple of beers later, the conversation is flowing, you’re chatting away almost forgetting that this was meant to be networking. You mention how frustrating technological advancement has been and that you found it difficult to keep up. Your colleague gives you a wry smile, leans back and says, “yep, you are so right, I’d be lost without my NeuraMesh”.
“NeuraMesh, what’s a NeuraMesh?” you ask.
He points to his head and says that he has an implant that increases his hearing, records all his sights and sounds, increases brain function by 2x and automatically downloads new software. Augmented and virtual reality tutorials operate overnight while he sleeps so that he can learn new technology immediately. “You should get one,” he says. “Only cost me $20,000. My parents bought it for me before college. They wanted to make sure they got the most out of their college investment,” he laughs.
You’re floored. You were competing for your job with a machine. Or at least, a cyborg (part man, part machine). How could you possibly measure up? How could you possibly learn new software while you slept? How could you compete with someone who has 2x brain function?
This may seem like science fiction, but it is nearing science fact. Not necessarily in the brain function department, although there are plenty of people working on it including Elon Musk and his $1 billion commitment to fund a “NeuraMesh” type interface for the brain.
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But you don’t have to wait for those breakthroughs. Today, the government and independent scientists are developing prosthetics for every part of the body. Each one of these is developed with a patient in mind, someone who is disabled, lost a limb, lost an eye, spinal injury etc. This endeavors are generally altruistic and even beautiful advancements. Seeing video of a soldier who lost his arm, wiggle his fingers, by thinking about it is heart-warming. From that perspective, transhumanism is beautiful.
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But there are two parts to that word, trans (across, beyond, through, changing) and human. Because the human is involved, it begins to become problematic.
Humans are competitive. Humans want to win. Humans want to achieve things that have never been done before. Humans like attention and accolades. What steps won’t people take to succeed. Just look at steroid use in sports. Athletes found a way to surpass their previous abilities and it was exploited rampantly. It also changed the game of baseball forever…
Humans will take Artificial Intelligence and Automation, in the form of cybernetics and they will make themselves superhuman cyborgs. But it doesn’t even have to be intentional at first. Take Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius. He lost both of his lower legs. Used prosthetic blades as replacements and competed at the highest levels in sprint racing, a glorious triumph of the human spirit. But it begged the question, do his prostheses enhances his ability to compete. The short answer is yes, there are advantages, but researchers aren’t sure if they are meaningful contributors above human-level performance. However, no one would disagree, that they could be made to be meaningfully better.
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So just like steroids in baseball or blood-doping in cycling. Athletes looking for an edge are incentivized to push the boundaries. Pushing boundaries, as it happens, is the express desire of many scientists in the field. The Department of Defense in the US is already experimenting with exoskeletons that are stronger, faster, bullet-proof and armed. Some prostheses, like mechanical eyes, already have the advantage of recording, rather than relying upon memory. Cochlear implants can record everything audible. These are steps which have already allowed the disabled who have implanted them to achieve super-human status with that sense. These developments will continue.
Here’s the point. ForHumanity has no intention, today, to prevent the use or development of transhuman technologies. Honestly, I don’t think they could be stopped and in many case don’t need to be stopped. However, it creates a problem for humanity. It creates unfair competition and it disadvantages those who do not have super-human cybernetics.
I am afraid, however, that transhumanism may become the steroids of the late 90’s Major League Baseball, but with FAR greater consequences. The peer pressure among baseball players was tremendous. Jobs were being lost, millions of dollars being lost by players who did not use steroids. This article from 1999 in USA Today highlights the pressure that even high school athletes were feeling to use steroids to compete and in some cases to even survive: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/health/doctor/lhdoc058.htm
When you can no longer find work because you can’t compete, you will invest in the cybernetics. When you are no longer strong enough to do your manual-labor job, you will invest in cybernetics. When your friends tell you how convenient their implanted technology is, you will invest in cybernetics. Eventually, societal expectation will be for all to accept certain technologies. When they are proven safe through usage, proponents will argue that there is no excuse for implantation. The argument will be simple, “why rely on that feeble brain when you can have a better brain?. We got rid of horses for automobiles didn’t we? No more abacus, use this calculator. No more calculator, use this computer”. Technology and the assistance it gives us is nice, convenient and makes life easier for us, right? Well, technology is a little bit like a drug. Makes us happier, makes life easier when we use it. But does it have side effects or lead to addiction. If we are honest with ourselves, many of us have some sort of technology addiction. That concern leads me to the gateway “drug” of cybernetics.
The implanted RFID chip. Harmless right? Implanted in my hand in the blink of an eye. Gets rid of those car keys I always lose. Wallets? who needs those, people can steal them or I can lose it? Why not put everything on a chip and embedded it into my hand. Simple, cheap and easy. Well, that is what a gateway drug is… simple, cheap and easy. When will you stop adding tech to your body? Bluetooth ears? Health monitors that make sure you are in tip-top physical shape. Eye implants that record everything you see. Lightweight exoskeletons that triple your strength and speed? Brain interfaces that let you learn faster, record more data and operate your gadgets with a thought. Why would you stop? We don’t stop advancing our external technology? If things are proven to be safe, physically, why not continue to upgrade your internal technology. Each step forward however, you are less human. Partly because you are also superior, to many of those around you. I ask you, is it fair for a natural human to have to compete with you for your job, if you have advanced brain function? or if you are stronger? ForHumanity believes that is not fair.
Where does that leave us? Well, in a conundrum quite frankly. Today, technology can be restorative and beautiful. Tomorrow we will have humans with super human “powers or skills”. In the beginning, we will see these cybernetics hacked and exploited. There will be debates on the pros and cons, but eventually they will become quite robust, all technology does. When there are problems with tech, innovation takes over and gets them fixed eventually. On the other side of the coin, we have natural humans, who choose not to engage these technologies and they will experience heavy peer pressure to join or will become a disadvantaged minority, the likes of which our species has never seen. How will we respond when being/remaining a natural born human is a weakness? Will society protect the weak? Will our leaders and electorates create legislation to protect or even level the playing field? Will those who are natural even feel like a part of the same species? How will we even know who is cybernetic and how much tech they have? These are massive challenges for humanity. I fear it will lead to a genuine break in society and that is why I am raising the issue. We should be preparing to consider these issues right now, at the beginning, while these technologies are being developed. ForHumanity wants your views on this topic, please think deeply and share them with us. Forhumanityryan@gmail.com, or comment here.