Monday, September 19, 2011

Studies in Posthumanity II

I've been following the Future Tense conversation at Slate on transhumanism and the technologies of extreme human enhancement, and then found Pagan Kennedy's article in the Sunday NYTimes Magazine about the collaborations between cognitive neuroscientists and computer engineers to create ways to activate technology using neural implants and EEG headsets. 

Some of the concerns raised about the potential of these new technologies seems to be focused around humanism and its limits. Should we really go beyond the limitations of our biology? As some of the scientists at Slate have pointed out, there are places where our "wetware" bodies can't thrive. Yet biological enhancements are already completely  mainstream, and have been for a long time. Some of these are cosmetic or culturally important, like breast implants, tribal tattoos, or scarification. Others, though not mentioned in the above articles, are about recapturing lost functionality or allowing the biological body to achieve its potential (cochlear implants, ocular lens implants, or bionic prostheses).

Other concerns that come to mind are ethical. Is it meet to work actively towards a global society where a small fragment of the population can elect to live significantly longer or be significantly smarter than most the population? Especially when the inequity in resources is already so great? Millions of people don't even have access to clean drinking water, and even in this country, millions of people live in desperate poverty, without access to enough food, shelter, medical care, or education. 

The other set of concerns is more pragmatic. If it's possible to allow our brains a direct interface with computer technology, does that mean that all of our half-formed, stupid, impulsive thoughts could be privileged over reflection and reasoned action? My first thoughts might be incorrect or unkind, and my impulses (even about what to buy, eat, or say) are rarely the ones that I want to act on. 

There is a long tradition that views our ability for sober, considered reason and for often choosing delayed gratification as the distinctive marker of our humanity. If technology makes it possible to subvert or ignore those abilities, does transhumanism become dehumanizing?


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