With the arrival of the 2012 Olympic Games, we find ourselves focused on the extremes of human performance. For seventeen days, the world’s finest athletes will compete at the limits of strength, speed and endurance. Many observers have speculated that for a number of these competitions, we may well be reaching the limits of what is humanly possible. After all, the mind and body can only be pushed so far. Already competitors are using myriad techniques to maximize their performance, some accepted, others proscribed. But if we want to continue to see records broken and barriers overcome, it may be only a matter of time before we begin to look to the potential of human enhancement.
It’s a conundrum. On the one hand, purists want to eliminate anything deemed to be an unfair, unnatural advantage. Steroids, human growth hormone, EPO, which stimulates the formation of red blood cells, all of these have been banned. On the other hand, one of the attractions of the Olympics is the opportunity to witness limits being surpassed and records being broken. To see someone accomplish a feat never before achieved. What happens to the Olympics when the ultimate limits have been reached? What happens when the last record has been broken?
Human enhancement, or augmentation, is in its very nascent stages. With the rare exception of sprinter Oscar Pistorius, it’s certainly not yet ready for Olympic prime time. Prosthetics, gene therapy, nanomedicine – much of what falls into this category is still theoretical or, at best, replacement rather than enhancement technology. Especially when gauged against the performance of an uber athlete.
But as we well know, technology continues to advance at a pace orders of magnitude faster than evolution-driven biology. In short, it’s only a matter of time before truly enhanced humans exist, capable of outperforming even the best of unmodified athletes.
Of course, these enhanced players, cyborgs, cyber-athletes, or whatever else they’ll be called, will want to participate too. After all, they’ll still be human beings with the same need to compete, the same desire for glory. Will they be allowed into the Olympics? Probably not. At least not at first anyway.
So they’ll compete in their own version – call it the Extreme Olympics or the New Games, if you will. Certainly the demand will be there. With fewer and fewer records being broken by natural athletes, how could the public not flock to see how much further our limits might be pushed? On top of this, new competitions will invariably be conceived. Speed wall crawling or underwater marathons, perhaps. They’ll be novel, they’ll be exciting and they’ll be very, very popular.
Of course, the Classic Olympics would remain – a paean to the purity of its origins. An homage to our pre-technological roots. But while Classic will continue to attract a devoted, if dwindling number of fans, the New Games will become the real draw for both spectators and the media. This will be where the money is. This will be the future of the Olympics because ultimately, this will be the future of humankind.
If you could improve your body, would you do it? It seems a simple enough question with a simple enough answer.
But what if that improvement meant incorporating a mechanical device into your body? Suddenly the question isn’t so simple, is it? And if that integration required the prior removal of a limb, say an arm or a hand, that decision becomes even more complex and controversial.
For Nicola Wilding of England, this question is anything but a hypothetical consideration. Several years ago, Wilding’s arm and hand were severely damaged in an auto accident. While her arm has recovered some functionality following many surgeries and years of physiotherapy, her hand remains useless, a clump of non-functioning flesh at the end of her wrist. As a result, she is seriously considering its elective removal in order that she can be fitted with a neuroprosthetic hand.
But while this situation is extreme, is it truly a dilemma? In many ways, the issue here shouldn’t be why a person would do such a thing, but rather why would they not?
For many, the concept of augmenting the human body elicits strong reactions. There is a ‘yuck’ factor for many people when discussing the integration of anything foreign with or into our bodies. This response is natural. Literally. In all likelihood, this is a genetically-derived instinct that contributed directly to our survival as a species. Until only very recently, an object that breached the body’s outer barriers often resulted in illness or death. In evolutionary terms, the ability of individuals to recognize and avoid this increased their likelihood of survival.
But now we’re entering an era in which bio-compatible substances and machines are increasingly able to be integrated with our bodies without harmful effect. As a result, we’re on the cusp of routinely improving our bodies using such technologies.
In many ways, this is what technology has always done. Canes, crutches, eye glasses, hearing aids are all technologies that can restore a degree of function to damaged or failing biological systems. Similarly, writing, books, libraries, the internet and search engines have all acted as cognitive prostheses, enhancing our memory and other mental abilities. Gradually, over the millennia, these have become increasingly integrated with our bodies and our lives.
Day after day, our ability to repair, restore and even improve upon the human body is increasing. This ability isn’t just limited to replacing limbs with prosthetics. The means to replace organs, senses, even functions within the brain are all becoming part of this advancement.
Cochlear implants have been restoring hearing for decades now. Today, over 200,000 people are able to hear because of them. Retinal implants designed to restore sight are currently being tested in clinical trials. Initially, their resolution will be nominal, but in time this will improve. Ventricular assist devices now replace the function of entire hearts, circulating blood using a continuously spinning motor. Artificial pancreas technologies are also in clinical trials, as are a range of other devices designed to replace biological systems.
Certainly, many of these approaches still fall short of the amazing ability and efficiency of the human body. But for how much longer? Technology continues to advance at a pace many orders of magnitude faster than any biological system can evolve. How long will it be before these technologies are as good as the systems they replace? How long before they are better?
Therein lies the real dilemma.
Consider the South African sprinter, Oscar Pistorius. A double amputee, Pistorius runs on a pair of carbon fiber prosthetics and has been dubbed “the fastest man on no legs.” Due to a perceived advantage given him by his prosthetics, Pistorius was initially deemed ineligible to compete in the Olympic games. Only after making a legal appeal was he able to be considered for competition.
As our technologies become increasingly integrated with our biological selves and as these same technologies improve to the point they provide a significant advantage, we’re going to see resistance from various sectors of society. We already see this with performance-enhancing drugs in sports competitions and some college students reportedly gain academic advantage using nootropics or “smart drugs.” At some point such methods become so integrated into society they’re seen as being the norm rather than an advantage. But what happens until then?
Certainly we approve of the striving for advantage in certain spheres. For instance, the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is involved in many projects designed for the express purpose of improving physical and mental capabilities well beyond the human norm. These “super soldier” programs are considered to be in our national interest and in a theater of war, few would argue that we were taking an unfair advantage. But provide cognitively-enhanced abilities to a derivatives trader or a legal counsel and see if the public still considers this fair or acceptable. The fact is, society and its institutions are going to be responding to this ever-shifting landscape for some time to come. The transition from the human era to the transhuman era will no doubt generate as many problems as it resolves. It’s the inevitable double-edged sword of technological advancement.
(I recently spoke about some of these ideas with Newstalk Radio in Ireland. Most of that interview is available here.)
BBC News is running a series on human enhancement this month. For it, I was asked my thoughts regarding the feasibility of augmentation in the context of a famous 1970s television show. “Is the Six-Million-Dollar Man Possible?” asks whether the bionic capabilities of the Steve Austin character could be achieved in the coming years. In a nutshell, my answer is ‘Yes’.
As far as I’m concerned, most of the necessary pieces are in place. Neuroprosthetic arms, hands and legs are all being developed, providing ever-increasing degrees of motion, sensitivity, feedback and integration. Contact lenses, such as those under development at the University of Washington by a team led by Babak Parviz, will in time provide all kinds of enhancements to vision. Retinal implants designed to restore sight will one day become so capable, they’ll exceed the abilities of natural vision. Likewise cochlear implants that restore hearing.
Of course, there will be those who think such augmentation is unnatural, that it somehow diminishes us or makes us less human. To which my response is: Have glasses, contact lenses, crutches, artificial limbs, or hearing aids made their users somehow less human? Have mental enhancements and prostheses such as books, libraries, and the internet diminished us in some fundamental way? The entire course of human history has always involved the development of tools to improve our abilities, whether mental or physical. Each step has routinely met with resistance. And each resistance has fallen to the realities of necessity. Because ultimately, whatever gives us greater advantage over the environment or over our competition, wins out.