Saturday, November 10, 2012

human enhancement

Since the beginning of human history this species has been augmenting its natural abilities through the use of varying technologies; from language and plowshares to fiber optic cables and cellphones, humanity has consistently sought to broaden its capabilities through technological augmentation. As the ages have passed human technology has increased in complexity and scope to the point where existing technology operates at atomic and cellular scales.
Just as all new technology is initially opposed, so too has biotechnologically derived cognitive enhancement been opposed. From the fear of an enhancement divide to the fear of impugning human dignity, opponents to cognitive enhancement have argued that there are many dangers and pitfalls along the path of human enhancement.
While some explicit cognitive enhancement research has been done by hobbyists and groups like DARPA, the preponderance of “enhancement” research has been done for the purposes of “treatment” of “disabled” individuals. Drugs have been developed to treat everything from Alzheimer's to Attention Deficit Disorder, some of these treatments, when taken by normative individuals, show the potential for cognitive enhancement.[1] It is the contentious distinction between therapy and enhancement and radical vs moderate enhancement that serves as the bright lines separating the two sides. Very little debate exists around whether or not individuals who can be treated should be treated. The debate arises when those who are perceived as “able” are given “treatments” for those who are supposed to be “disabled”.
For opponents of enhancement there is a clear distinction between therapy and enhancement, even if it is not morally significant. “Norm Daniels, who has argued for the use of quasi-statistical concepts of “normality”, argues that any intervention designed to restore or preserve a species-typical level of functioning for an individual should count as therapy and the rest as enhancement.” For opponents of cognitive enhancement, this distinction between therapy and enhancement is used to draw metaphorical lines in the sand delineating what is acceptable by the medical profession and what is not. In other words medical treatment should be withheld except for cases where ableness has been diminished.
Proponents of cognitive enhancement, as would be expected, tend to not see such a bright line between enhancement and therapy. For Professor Nick Bostrom, a self described Transhumanist, “there is the question of how to define a normal healthy state. Many human attributes have a normal (bell curve) distribution.[2] The definition of a healthy state being necessary to the distinction between therapeutic treatment and human enhancement, Bostrom argues that to define abnormality as falling below a given population average is to introduce an arbitrary point that seems to lack any fundamental medical or normative significance.[3] From the enhancer perspective, if there is no meaningful distinction between therapy and enhancement, and there exists no limit on therapy, than there ought not exist a limit on enhancement. 
Argument about the distinction between therapy and enhancement aside,the debate boils down to a question of degree. Proponents of cognitive enhancement argue that enhancement will enable humans to think “better” and live longer, and that this will better equip humanity to solve challenging sociopolitical problems and increase the rate of scientific discovery.[4] Because of this, proponents argue that “Cognitive enhancing drugs, along with newer technologies such as brain stimulation and prosthetic brain chips, should be viewed in the same general category as education, good health habits, and information technology.” [5] For them, biotechnologically derived cognitive enhancement is not so much revolutionary, as it is iterative. Trying to create arbitrary distinctions between treatments serves no one from the enhancers perspective.
While the appeal of cognitive enhancement appeals to some, the fear that those enhancements might lead to an “Enhancement Divide,” similar to the Digital Divide, leads opponents to question whether or not if individuals who are unable to enhance might be significantly disadvantaged.”[6] In their minds, the very real possibility that enhancements will be distributed via markets necessarily means that the benefits of enhancement will not be equally or fairly distributed; leading to something worse than a divided class society, a genetically divided caste society.
In a lecture at the London School of Economics[7] Professor Bostrom argues that enhancements could be provided to the less well off through the publicly financed NHS(the national health service) in the same way that existing medicine, like Adderall, is provided. From his perspective the potential for an enhancement gap between classes can be mitigated in the same way that the digital divide has been bridged, namely through government transfers and progressive taxation to fund enhancement programs.
While some opponents fret over the potential for a divide in society, still others worry about the potential for diminishing human dignity. “Before we too quickly dismiss the idea of “human dignity” as romanticized and outdated, we need to give it full consideration and ask whether that concept would suffer if human enhancement were unrestricted.”[8] For these individuals the idea of an intrinsic natural state holds great significance. For them, any radical change in human cognitive abilities might necessarily entail the adoption of new and challenging virtues contrary to existing human virtues. It might, for example, mean the willful abortion of down syndrome babies or the forced enhancement of at-risk individuals like the poor and indigent. This potential for disrespecting “human dignity” stands as  a barrier to accepting cognitive enhancements for some.
For proponents however, the view is that with cognitive enhancements it may well turn out that some of the same knowledge used to facilitate cognitive enhancements may allow for the development of what some have called "moral enhancements."[9] From this perspective as humanity becomes more cognitively capable, the ability to morally reason will also improve. With improved moral reasoning and improved cognitive capabilities proponents of enhancement feel that posthumans will be more morally minded and more capable of following through on their moral prescriptions.
      A final, and legitimate, worry of opponents to cognitive enhancement is that the choice to abstain from enhancement may not remain a viable choice for long. They fear that should the majority decide that genetically enhancing one’s children’s intelligence or pharmacologically enhancing one’s workplace productivity is the morally right thing to do, not doing so will become as taboo as smoking or failing to vaccinate one’s children.”[10] Given this potential, some feel, that enhancement should not be undertaken at all for fear of creating an environment where one does not have a choice but to become enhanced.
Proponents point out that “Cognitive enhancement in the form of education is already required for almost all children at substantial cost to their liberty, and employers are generally free to require employees to have certain educational credentials or to obtain them.”[11] Given this, they feel that cognitive enhancements in the form of implants of pharmaceuticals are no different, in so far as having costs or reducing personal liberty to choose not to enhance. In the same way that children are required to be educated and vaccinated so to ought they be required to accept minimum levels of enhancement.
As this writer see it, the arguments against enhancement fundamentally boil down to arguments of degree. Must humans already chemically or physically enhance their lives. They imbibe caffeine, nicotine, and other pharmacological agent for the purposes of inducing focus and alertness or for reducing stress and anxiety. They use machines of varying sizes and shapes to augment their physical capabilities. Are they not enhancing themselves by ingesting these substances and using these tools? If they are willing to accept a little boost from a substance or tool, why not accept a longer lasting more profound augmentation?
On college campuses across the nation students are taking drugs like Adderall or Modafinil, off label, to increase focus and enhance their cognition. Some consider this to be cheating and have advocated for banning the use of these kinds of substances like they were steroids. Yet their grades can be better and they often more quickly assimilate the knowledge, the only difference is that they are chemically enhancing their ability to acquire and retain the information. This seems to be a good thing, smarter students today means better researchers tomorrow.
Is this not good for humanity? If side-effects are few and the prices are kept reasonable does not the benefit of a smarter society outweigh the risks? Given these drugs already exist for "enhancing" the disabled to the point of ableness, why not take those who are able and make them more able?
Most humans already use physical technology to enhance their natural abilities. Cell Phones for example, despite texting, do enhance human communication, especially over large distances. The difference between a cellphone and a neural implant that connected one to the web seems to be one of degree. Why stop at tools that are used temporarily when the technology to radically enhance human cognitive capabilities exists? Human cognitive enhancement should not only be accepted, it should be promoted.

“In a new study, to be published online Thursday, Sept. 16, in the journal Current Biology, researchers from UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and School of Optometry found that study participants showed significantly greater benefits from practice on a task that involved discriminating directions of motion after they took donepezil.”
[2] Nick Bostrom and Rebecca Roache (2008). Ethical Issues in Human Enhancement. Published in New Waves in Applied Ethics.  pp. 120-152
[3] Nick Bostrom and Rebecca Roache
[4]Nick Bostrom and Rebecca Roache
[5]Nick Bostrom and Rebecca Roache
[6]Patrick Lin and Fritz Allhoff
[7]Professor Nick Bostrom, Professor Anne Kerr. The Ethics of Human Enhancement. Lecture at the London School of Economics.
[8] Patrick Lin and Fritz Allhoff. Against Unrestricted Human Enhancement - Journal of Evolution and Technology - Vol. 18 Issue 1 – May 2008 – pgs 35-41
[9] Henry Greely, Barbara Sahakian. Towards responsible use of cognitive enhancing drugs by the healthy. Advance Online Publication|doi:10.1038/456702a|
[10] Benjamin Storey. Liberation Biology, Lost in the Cosmos. The New Atlantis Journal of Technology and Society 

[11]Henry Greely, Barbara Sahakian.