Would Enhancement of Humans Create Supermen or Super Villains?
The dream that we may one day transcend our physical and intellectual barriers through advancements in cybernetics and nanotechnology could became a reality during this century. But would this be a blessing or a curse?
As science expands its frontiers and technology continues to evolve, ideas once deemed fanciful or considered part of science fiction find themselves within the realm of possibility. New discoveries may give rise to unique potential and perils, as the field of ethics struggles to keep pace with the latest technological advancements. The dream that one day we humans may eclipse our physical and mental fetters through augmentation by cybernetics or nanotechnology could become a reality. Although transhumanism and posthumanism are considered modern concepts, the idea of improving or transcending the human condition has been explored in philosophy and literature since at least the mid-19th century.
In his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche introduced the concept of the Übermensch (overman or superman) as a goal towards which humans ought to strive, whereby they take control of their own destinies, work collectively towards the betterment of humanity and create a higher set of ideals to give their existence greater meaning. Nietzsche wrote “Man is something that shall be overcome.” (The notion of Übermensch was later corrupted by the Nazis, who integrated it into their perverse racial theories).
Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame (1957) suggests some possible outcomes from refining the human body with technology, before rejecting transhumanism as a sinister concept: the very technology which keeps Beckett’s characters alive, after they have exceeded their natural lifespans, also entraps them and makes them over-reliant upon it. Even as far back as 1839, American writer Edgar Allan Poe made reference to unnatural life extension in a satirical short story – The Man That Was Used Up – where a mysterious and eulogized war hero, whose body parts have been replaced with prosthetics, needs to be assembled piece by piece each day by his African American valet.
Artificial limbs, mechanical heart valves, and devices such as pacemakers already exist to reduce disability and improve, or extend, an individual’s quality of life. British engineer Professor Kevin Warwick and his wife took things to another level in 2002 when they had microchips and sensors implanted into their arms, and connected to their nervous systems, enabling them to feel each other’s sensations. Professor Warwick could reportedly feel the same sensations as his wife from a different location.
Some might dismiss this project as a curious gimmick, but Warwick has voiced plans to expand the project and develop a community of fellow ‘cyborgs’ connected “via their chip implants to superintelligent machines, creating, in effect, superhumans.”
He hopes such future technology might greatly enhance human potential, commenting “Being linked to another person’s nervous system opens up a whole world of possibilities.”
The prospect of attaining superior intelligence or physical attributes may be tempting or appear liberating, but cybernetic enhancement could, theoretically, also be used as a means of control. Whoever manufactures the technologies that augment humans would be in a very powerful position and wield an immense degree of control over their human customers (or subjects). Moreover, cybernetically enhanced humans could see their microchips hacked, have their sensations detected by unwanted parties and stored in a database, or be at risk of receiving unsolicited or unpleasant impulses. Might we evolve from homo sapiens to homo servus?
Ray Kurzweil, American author and advocate for transhumanism, predicted in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near that within a few decades time the human organism will become upgraded, due to mindboggling advancements in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics, to create, in effect, a new species with superior skills and intelligence, virtually immortal lifespans, and unforeseen capabilities. Kurzweil predicts the ‘Singularity’ will occur by the middle of this century and realize “…the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.”
While considering the possibly that augmented humans might exist within our lifespans, it becomes clear that the technology to transcend our bog-standard homo sapiens existence would not be available to all simultaneously. The wealthy, or otherwise privileged, could become yet more powerful and emotionally distant from those they rule, or over whom they exert economic control. Would the elites use ‘Übermensch’ making technologies to forever establish themselves as a ruling class with God like powers to laud over the ‘Untermensch’ poor and oppressed who toil until their comparatively short and expendable lifespans give out?
Alternatively, if the means to augment humans became widely available, would there be pressure to ‘convert’ to a transhuman state? Would those who transcend, or those who refuse to do so, be discriminated against? While many barriers presently divide humans (economic, religious, cultural, political, ethnic), is it wise to introduce what could become yet another excuse for division and antipathy?
Of course, military applications of human enhancing technologies would soon be found. Armed forces across the globe would want to give their soldiers an edge over the enemy. “Soldiers having no physical, physiological, or cognitive limitation will be key to survival and operational dominance in the future,” says Michael Goldblatt, former director of the Defense Sciences Office (DSO), part of the US Department of Defense’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). DSO’s scientists have reportedly sought ways to make soldiers remain active on the battlefield for up to seven days with little or no sleep, and have considered how neural implants might improve cognitive function or allow future “soldiers [to] communicate by thought alone.”
Whilst we humans spend much time feuding and fighting, is it wise to give ourselves superhuman abilities before we have developed the ethical reasoning, moral compass, and maturity to wield such power? Upgrading ourselves by way of advances in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics could usher in a new era of ultimate freedom, where even the most oppressed are liberated from their drudgery, or condemn the human race to permanent slavery. Although new technologies can be used for either laudable or nefarious purposes, they are typically used for whatever purpose creates the most profit.
Tomasz Pierscionek is a doctor specialising in psychiatry. He was previously on the board of the charity Medact, is editor of the London Progressive Journal and has appeared as a guest on RT’s Sputnik and Al-Mayadeen’s Kalima Horra.