The Washington Post

Hold on, Singularity fans: The problem with human enhancement

A patron of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum views the plaques of inducted members during induction weekend on July 24, 2010 in Cooperstown, New York. (Jim McIsaac/GETTY IMAGES)

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.

From left to right: former San Francisco Giants baseball player Barry Bonds, former Major League baseball pitcher Roger Clemens and former baseball player Sammy Sosa. (Uncredited/AP)

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?

Lance Armstrong in Sept. 2010 at the annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

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.”

Read more news and ideas on Innovations:

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Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.


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