If you buy into Ray Kurzweil's vision of the Singularity, then the future is a marvelous place where we’re all physically- and mentally-enhanced and living longer than ever. Technology and biology will have merged in a way that makes us all somehow more than human, freeing us from our physical limitations and transforming our brains into incredibly powerful computing machines. The only problem with that narrative is that there are certain forms of “human enhancement” that society may never accept.
Case in point: the ongoing scandal over alleged performance-enhancing drug use by some of baseball’s greatest players that has torn apart followers of the national pastime. This year marked the first time since 1996 that not a single player was selected for the Baseball Hall of Fame, despite having some of the biggest names in the history of baseball up for nomination. Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa — all first-ballot candidates, all suspected steroid users, all de-nied. Baseball fans expected a tough time of it for the likes of Bonds and Clemens, but a complete shutout of people suspected of cheating but never confirmed - such as Mike Piazza - was completely unexpected. It was society’s way of saying that we want to pay to see incredible athletic performance on the playing field, but it still has to conform to specific notions of “fair.”
Consider Lance Armstrong, scheduled to appear in an interview with Oprah next week to, hopefully, explain his experimentation with performance-enhancing drugs while becoming one of sport’s greatest legends. Half of society now views him as a cheat and a fraud, hesitant to redeem him just because “everyone else was doing it.” It’s hard to believe that anything he can tell Oprah will make us forget his alleged indiscretions with the needle.
It’s easy to see a similar reaction to the neural-implant and brain-enhancement opportunities promised by the Singularity. Will there be a blowback against people who try to get too enhanced too quickly? Will parents who neocortex-enhance their children to ace their college entrance exams somehow be cheating the system? Will employers be willing to hire employees who show up for work each day connected to a machine of some kind? What if buying a “better memory” in the gray market or using a micro-chip to enhance your brain’s language faculties (enabling you to learn a foreign language in minutes) somehow stigmatizes you?
Would you still do it? Would you be willing to experiment with these performance-enhancing changes if you knew that you couldn’t get caught and that “everyone else was doing it”?
Thought experiments, true. But they are similar to the thought experiments that Ray Kurzweil included throughout his most recent book, How to Create a Mind, to convince us of the inevitability of being able to reverse-engineer the human brain. If Kurzweil is right, then the Singularity will be upon us sooner rather than later. So, as the Post’s Vivek Wadhwa suggested last year, maybe it’s time for society to start thinking through ethics in the age of acceleration. Otherwise, we may wind up with an X-Men Scenario where individuals with remarkable powers of body and mind are banished from society and labeled as “mutants.”
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