23 November 2018

Biohacking, cyborgs & wearables: What might the future look like?

Filed under: Humanity Plus — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 11:59 am

Here’s a copy of my prepared remarks to kick off a discussion today in an event at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

For more details on some of the ideas covered, see Sustainable Superabundance.

Biohacking, cyborgs & wearables: What might the future look like?

I’d like to paint some possible scenarios for around ten to twenty years into the future, covering the uses of biohacking, wearable computing, and implantable computers.

I draw the ideas in these scenarios from three sources.

First, the scenarios involve extrapolations from my own experience in the mobile computing and smartphone industries, stretching back just over 30 years, to when I started work as a software engineer inside Psion PLC in Central London. During my career, I held a number of executive responsibilities inside an offshoot of Psion, Symbian, the creator of the world’s first successful smartphone operating system. My experience over these 30 years included periods of slow change followed by periods of intense rapid change. During my career, I also saw dramatic changes in ideas about how widely smartphones could be used.

Second, my scenarios are based on what I learned at more than 200 public meetings which I have chaired since March 2008 for the London Futurists organisation – meetings where radical technoprogressive concepts were discussed many times, from multiple perspectives.

And third, the scenarios draw upon my own research and writing in the field known as transhumanism – the philosophy that says that it is both possible and desirable for human nature to be fundamentally improved by the wise use of science and technology. I first spoke at an international transhumanist conference in Helsinki in July 2006, and as it happens I gave two keynotes at the latest conference in that same series, in Madrid last month. To put all my cards on the table, I serve on the Board of Directors of Humanity+, the world’s longest established transhumanist community.

Rather than using the rather clumsy expression “biohacking, wearable computing, and implantable computers”, I’m going to reframe the discussion instead to be about “humanity enhancement technologies”, h-e-t.

HET includes devices of different sizes. On the larger scale we can foresee wider take-up of improved smart glasses, smart earbuds, and parts of a smart exoskeleton. On a smaller scale, consider myriad bodily sensors, both inside and outside the body, and, perhaps, synthetic replacements for some parts of some of our body organs. On an even smaller scale, more profoundly, consider embedded nanobots – computing devices the size of blood cells, which can travel freely around the body.

In simple terms, HET includes technologies that monitor us and our environment, technologies that advise us, technologies that strengthen us and revitalise us, and technologies that act on our behalf. Overall, these technologies can, to coin a phrase, act like an inner guardian angel.

In all cases, the goal of HET would be to allow people to become more fully human, enabling higher states of health, higher levels of creativity, higher planes of consciousness, and, in general, greater amounts of human flourishing.

Some writers dislike the idea of “becoming more fully human”. This strikes these writers as being somehow anti-human or elitist or divisive. But if there is one constant about human nature – an admirable constant –  it is our deep desire to be able to go beyond our natural condition.

Indeed, it was our natural condition for most of history and prehistory, to be likely to die well before the age of forty. It was the natural condition for women, if they didn’t die whilst giving birth, to see around five of their seven children predecease them, dying in childhood. Humans said to each other, rightly, we can do better. Thankfully, nowadays the average life expectancy for the whole earth’s population is a bit more than seventy years. And thankfully, nowadays the previous natural condition of living in near absolute poverty is, for most people, a thing of the past.

These changes happened in the past; what about the future?

There are still many parts of human nature which get in the way of fuller human flourishing. HET can play a big role in overcoming these aspects of human nature. I’ll briefly look at four areas of human nature where HET can help us transcend our present serious limitations.

First, our bodies are too prone to become damaged, especially with aging. Embedded health monitors and nanoscale repair solutions can help to reverse damage more promptly, giving us many extra years of vitality and health. Second, our minds are too easily misled, by numerous cognitive biases; but smart glasses and smart earbuds, as well as future systems that in due course connect more directly into our brains, can steer us away from decisions we would later regret, a bit like a good friend can do. Third, our emotional states are too prone to become despondent and alienated; again, HET can help keep us in a more productive state of flow – steering us away from egotism and envy. And fourth, our human social dynamics too often involve deception, abuses of power, xenophobia, and tribalism; HET can intervene in our thinking to steer us towards behaving with greater respect, greater transparency, greater empathy, and greater collaboration.

To summarise what I’ve just said, HET, Humanity Enhancement Technology, can help us achieve abundant health and longevity, abundant intelligence and wisdom, abundant emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and, fourth, abundant collaboration and democracy.

Well, that’s the positive vision, but of course there are big risks with such technology, potentially leading to alternative scenarios. I’ll briefly mention four such risks, and I’ll also indicate in each case some steps we can take to avoid these risks.

First, if we in effect have voices in our heads, and miniature robots in our bloodstream, we need to be sure these agents really are acting in our own best interests, rather than in the interest of the corporations or governments that design and operate these agents. For this reason, the large tech companies need to come under improved democratic oversight.

Second, there’s a risk that HET might magnify some of our powers, but in an imbalanced way. We might become stronger but not kinder. We might become cleverer but not wiser. We might become more manipulative but not more merciful. We might become like extra powerful versions of some of the most devious of present-day politicians, or some of the nastiest of present-day criminals – people who are evidently clever and capable, but who lack sufficient moral sentiment. For this reason, we must prioritise technologies that improve our emotional intelligence ahead of technologies that simply make us cleverer or stronger.

Third, there’s a risk that HET remains expensive, and therefore increases the level of inequality in society. In principle, the cost of HET should decline sharply over time, the same as has happened for smartphones, and for many other items containing consumer electronics. But there’s nothing inevitable about such a decline. That’s another reason for ensuring that the development of these technologies remains under improved democratic oversight.

Fourth, there’s a risk of a sharp fracturing of human society, if some people use HET to raise their performance levels significantly, but others decline the opportunity and remain unenhanced. For this fourth risk, the resulting inequality would in principle be voluntary, rather than involuntary, as in the third risk. It would be like having lots of communities akin to the present-day Amish, who are very selective about which kinds of technology they use, and which they avoid using. Well, society should support and respect this kind of diversity. But we should be ready to fight backward-looking ideologies, if these ideologies seek to oppress people and keep them in a state of illiteracy or deprivation. It’s like we don’t allow religious groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses to forbid their children from having blood transfusions. We don’t allow that kind of child abuse. We don’t permit communities to keep their youngsters in a state of being illiterate, denying them basic education. Nor should we permit people to deny their children vaccinations, leaving the community vulnerable to deadly infectious diseases. But we should, nevertheless, respect legitimate diversity and difference of practices. It is is an important topic for further discussion what the limitations of that tolerance and diversity should be.

So, yes, there are profound risks with HET. But there are also profound benefits too, if we get things right. And there are also profound risks in not adopting HET, that is, in leaving humanity in our present unenhanced status. To quote the eminent Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, the real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall. End of quote.

To conclude: In our present state, it’s too easy for us to make fatal mistakes, out of our prejudices, our insecurities, our frustrations, and our egotism. These fatal mistakes can have catastrophic consequences, for the environment, and for human civilisation. Therefore we need to take wise and profound advantage of emerging twenty first century technology, via HET, to elevate our human nature, in anticipation of a forthcoming new era of sustainable superabundance that is within our grasp. Thank you.


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