Human enhancements may lead to a worse off society

February 18, 2015
Sam Findlay

Imagine if your mobile phone was an implant in your head, a human enhancement controlled by your brain. Ring a ding, ding, you might say.

But what would you say if the device was for life, unable to be modified or updated? Hold the phone?


This is a scenario a Melbourne philosopher has given much thought to in a paper on human enhancement technology.


Associate Professor Robert Sparrow argues in Enhancement and Obsolescence: Avoiding An Enhanced Rat Race that if the rate of improvement of technological enhancements for humans was akin to that of electronic devices, such as mobile phones, it may do more harm than good.


The Monash University academic says that the evolution of the technology at a similar speed could lead to a host of societal problems, producing an “enhanced rat race”.


Sparrow cites debates already raging surrounding human enhancement, including gene therapies to improve athletic performance, neural implants to enhance cognition and stem cell therapies to extend life expectancy, to name a few.


“Currently, the pursuit of enhancement is leading to a small percentage of the population to experiment on themselves by taking various drugs to try to extend their lives or enhance their IQ,” Sparrow said.


“The history of people taking drugs for non-therapeutic purposes is not a happy one, with many of the drugs that people were initially enthusiastic about ending up having some pretty unpleasant side-effects.”


The use of amphetamines in the 1930s through to the 50s, before people fully understood the risks of amphetamine psychosis is one example cited by Sparrow.


Some enhancements are so ubiquitous many pay them little regard – the pill, orthodontics, pacemakers.


While emerging technologies, such as gene therapy, as mentioned, generate heated discussion.


Other, merely speculative procedures, such as mind uploading, would surely also raise much debate.


The ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science chief investigator says that if the rapid pace of technological progress is going to leave us ultimately worse off, it may be “rational to prefer that a wide range of human enhancements … be prohibited altogether.”


What gives rise to his grim view, says Sparrow, is a scenario familiar to many: what article should I buy and when should I buy it, knowing that today’s hi-tech gear will be tomorrow’s dinosaur?


The philosopher says the key to his argument is that updating obsolete enhancements may only be an option in some cases, generating a society “in which many of the worst features of contemporary capitalist societies … are greatly exacerbated.”


For example, genetic enhancements are unlikely to be able to be modified, he says, giving rise to obsolete technology and a population with widely varying capabilities and perhaps debilitating status anxiety.


“The circumstances that (might) generate an enhanced rat race therefore have a structure of a ‘collective action problem’,” explained by Sparrow thus: “a collective action problem occurs when difficulties with communication and/or coordination make it difficult for a group of individuals to each act so as to secure a collective benefit.


“Most obviously this occurs when what it is rational for each individual to do comes apart from what is necessary to secure the collective benefit.


“So, for instance, even though everybody wants a clean environment,  given that the contribution each of us makes to a polluted environment by littering is so small and the effort to walk to a rubbish bin is not insignificant, it is individually rational for us just to drop our litter on the ground.


“As long as no one else does that, we will still enjoy a clean environment.


“And if everybody else litters then we will have a dirty environment anyway.


“Thus, either way, it is individually rational for us to litter.


“But if everyone reasons that way, we end up with a dirty environment!”

Similarly, a life in which enhancements are available may in fact be worse for all, including those with enhancements, due to the impacts of obsolescence and the subsequent status anxiety, Sparrow says. But if we know that other people will have access to enhancements that will advantage them relative to us, it may be rational for us to choose to enhance ourselves regardless.


According to Sparrow it may instead be better to hold the phone indefinitely on advancing human enhancement technology if it means life for most people will become comparatively worse and worse.

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