Is it right to hack our bodies with technology?

For centuries people have searched for the elixir of life and while we now realise there is no magic potion that can make us immortal or improve our bodies, today’s technological advances are radically altering the human condition. Transhumanism is a field of study that looks at how we can advance our bodies by altering them with technology.

It also tackles the various ethical dilemmas this kind of advancement throws up. Is it dangerous? Is it right to mess with nature? Will it be the preserve of the rich? Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford, is someone who is currently grappling with these ideas. Humans Invent met up with Sandberg to find out more about transhumanism and its moral implications.

How would you define transhumanism?

The short answer is that transhumanism is to do with changing the human condition using technology in order to live longer, become smarter and to extend our bodies and minds in all sorts of ways.

It goes back to the medieval alchemists. They wanted eternal life through alchemy

Does it have a long history?

It goes back to the medieval alchemists. They wanted eternal life through alchemy, which they would of course argue was something real and concrete. Now we think we have technology that does work or that there are ways of developing such technologies, which is why transhumanism is much more controversial. You didn’t have that many people in the Renaissance saying, ‘oh it would be horrible if these alchemists are allowed to do their experiments.’

People were not worried about it. Today people are more worried because scientists in the lab can extend life spans of animals and modify genes and demonstrate that we can connect brains to computers.

What are people most concerned about?

It depends a little bit on where in the world you are when you ask this question. Americans have a slightly religious bent and there is this fear of playing God and messing with human nature.  Other people usually talk about worries of equality and risk. Equality is the big European thing: we always worry that only the rich will get access to these new technologies.

In many cases this is kind of irrelevant because most technologies will become very cheap over time but we need to take a careful look at those which are services because they are potentially expensive.

You can mass manufacture technology… on the other hand, with a service, if you need your genetic engineer to come and do something specific for you, say, or you need to go to an enhancement spa, that will cost money and it won’t go down much in price because you’ll need to pay the salaries of the nurses etc. Then there is the risk factor. Everybody likes to throw up, ‘what if?’ And, yes it is sensible to think about it but in many cases people continue throwing up, ‘what ifs’, because deep down they feel uneasy about it and so they try to rationalise a good argument against it.

What technologies are we going to use with our bodies?

We are already enmeshed in technology. I’m wearing one smart phone, one camera and various cards with microchips on them. Although they are not inside our bodies, from a practical standpoint this doesn’t matter as they are part of our thinking. A lot of our cognition is already put outside.  You can imagine of course that later in the future our brains will have direct contact with a computer. What is probably going to happen is that we develop them for prosthetic use which allows people with things like deafness and blindness to see again, we will start adding apps to this and get better at implanting these using very fine micro surgery.

Right now, the most successful interfaces are not in the brain as such but we have cochlear implants, for example, where we put electrodes in the ear and the interesting thing is that you have a device that is a fairly powerful signal processing computer that generates those signals.

There is an amazing piece in Michel Chorost’s book on cochlear implants, where he is lying in bed and listening to music and realising that the room is entirely silent. What is happening is that on the microchip the music is decoded, converted to electronic signals that are then converted to electrical signals into his ear that moves to his brain. That music has never been a sound wave, in that situation, it goes straight from chip to brain. Eventually technology like this will get so good that it makes sense to get an implant even if you are healthy.

Using technology in order to live longer, become smarter and to extend our bodies and minds

Is natural evolution being outpaced by technological evolution?

Natural evolution has an enormous disadvantage in that if it comes up with a solution it can only be inherited by the offspring but if somebody comes up with a great innovation everybody copies it. The iPhone generated a lot of other phones by people who saw it and said, ‘that is a good idea but I can do that better.’ We make new technologies on a timescale of years while evolution takes thousands and millions of years to actually achieve anything.

Is life expectancy going to increase rapidly?

I think fixing ageing is within the realm of the possible and I think it is a very desirable thing because ageing is a horrible, horrible condition. If it was a disease people would be clamouring to have people research a cure for it. But even if we fixed ageing, we could still die from infectious diseases and accidents.

Even if we eliminate disease and just have accidents we are still going to have a kind of half life of 800-1000 years depending on how dangerously you want to live your life. In the really long run I’m interested in the possibility of making back-up copies of the brain by scanning it and storing it on a computer. It raises a lot of interesting philosophical and technical questions but that would be the way to true immortality in that you could be around forever unless something really bad happened to the whole world.


For more from Anders Sandberg go to www.fhi.ox.ac.uk.


Illustration credit: Deborah Hughes / Shutterstock Images


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