Enhancing Humans: Should We or Shouldn’t We?

An illustration of a robust human.

(© kentoh/Fotolia)

A panel of leading experts gathered this week at a sold-out event in downtown Manhattan to talk about the science and the ethics of enhancing human beings -- making people "better than well" through biomedical interventions. Here are the ten most memorable quotes from their lively discussion, which was organized by the New York Academy of Sciences, the Aspen Brain Institute, and the Hastings Center.

1) "It's okay for us to be enhanced relative to our ancestors; we are with the smallpox vaccine." —Dr. George Church, iconic genetics pioneer; professor at Harvard University and MIT

Church was more concerned with equitable access to enhancements than the morality of intervening in the first place. "We missed the last person with polio and now it's spread around the world again," he lamented.

Discussing how enhancements might become part of our species in the near-future, he mentioned the possibility of doctors slightly "overshooting" an intervention to reverse cognitive decline, for example; or younger people using such an intervention off-label. Another way might be through organ transplants, using organs that are engineered to not get cancer, or to be resistant to pain, pathogens, or senescence.

2) "All the technology we will need to fundamentally transform our species already exists. Humans are made of code, and that code is writable, readable and hackable." —Dr. Jamie Metzl, a technology futurist and geopolitical expert; Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank

The speed of change is on an exponential curve, and the world where we're going is changing at a much faster rate than we're used to, Metzl said. For example, a baby born 1000 years ago compared to one born today would be basically the same. But a baby born 1000 years in the future would seem like superman to us now, thanks to new capabilities that will become embedded in future people's genes over time. So how will we get from here to there?

"We will line up for small incremental benefits. By the time people are that changed, we will have adapted to a whole new set of social norms."

But, he asked, will well-meaning changes dangerously limit the diversity of our species?

3) "We are locked in a competitive arms race on both an individual and communal level, which will make it very difficult to put the brakes on. Everybody needs to be part of this conversation because it's a conversation about the future of our species." —Jamie Metzl

China, for one, plans to genetically sequence half of all newborns by 2020. In the U.S., it is standard to screen for 34 health conditions in newborns (though the exact number varies by state). There are no national guidelines for newborn genomic screening, though the National Institutes of Health is currently funding several research studies to explore the ethical concerns, potential benefits, and limitations of doing so on a large scale.

4) "I find freedom in not directing exactly how my child will be." —Josephine Johnston, Director of Research at the Hastings Center, the world's oldest bioethics research institute

Johnston cautioned against a full-throttled embrace of biomedical enhancements. Parents seeking to remake nature to serve their own purpose would be "like helicopter parenting on steroids," she said. "It could be a kind of felt obligation, something parents don't want to do but feel they must in order to compete." She warned this would be "one way to totally ruin the parenting experience altogether. I would hate to be the kind of parent who selects and controls her child's traits and talents."

Among other concerns, she worried about parents aiming to comply with social norms through technological intervention. Would a black mom, for example, feel pressure to make her child's skin paler to alleviate racial bias?

5) "We need to seriously consider the risks of a future if a handful of private companies own and monetize a map of our thoughts at any given moment." – Meredith Whittaker, Research Scientist, Open Research Lead at Google, and Co-Director of New York University's AI Now Institute, examining the social implications of artificial intelligence

The recent boom in AI research is the result of the consolidation of the tech industry's resources; only seven companies have the means to create artificial intelligence at scale, and one of the innovations on the horizon is brain-computer interfaces.

Facebook, for example, has a team of 60 engineers working on BCIs to let you type with your mind. Elon Musk's company Neuralink is working on technology that is aiming for "direct lag-free interactions between our brains and our devices."

But who will own this data? In the future, could the National Security Agency ask Neuralink, et al. for your thought log?

6) "The economic, political, and social contexts are as important as the tech itself. We need to look at power, who gets to define normal, and who falls outside of this category?" – Meredith Whittaker

Raising concerns about AI bias, Whittaker discussed how data is often coded by affluent white men from the Bay Area, potentially perpetuating discrimination against women and racial minorities.

Facial recognition, she said, is 30 percent less accurate for black women than for white men. And voice recognition systems don't hear women's voices as well as men's, among many other examples. The big question is: "Who gets to decide what's normal? And how do we ensure that different versions of normal can exist between cultures and communities? It is impossible not see the high stakes here, and how oppressive classifications of normal can marginalize people."

From left: George Church, Jamie Metzl, Josephine Johnston, Meredith Whittaker

7) "We might draw a red line at cloning or germline enhancements, but when you define those or think of specific cases, you realize you threw the baby out with the bathwater." —George Church, answering a question about whether society should agree on any red lines to prohibit certain interventions

"We should be focusing on outcomes," he suggested. "Could enhancement be a consequence of curing a disease like cognitive decline? That would concern me about drawing red lines."

8) "We have the technology to create Black Mirror. We could create a social credit score and it's terrifying." —Meredith Whittaker

In China, she said, the government is calculating scores to rank citizens based on aggregates of data like their educational history, their friend graphs, their employment and credit history, and their record of being critical of the government. These scores have already been used to bar 12 million people from travel.

"If we don't have the ability to make a choice," she said, "it could be a very frightening future."

9) "These tools will make all kinds of wonderful realities possible. Nobody looks at someone dying of cancer and says that's natural." —Jamie Metzl

Using biomedical interventions to restore health is an unequivocal moral good. But other experts questioned whether there should be a limit in how far these technologies are taken to achieve normalcy and beyond.

10) "Cancer's the easy one; what about deafness?" —Josephine Johnston, in retort

Could one person's disability be another person's desired state? "We should be so suspicious" of using technology to eradicate different ways of being in the world, she warned. Hubris has led us down the wrong path in the past, such as when homosexuality was considered a mental disorder.

"If we sometimes make mistakes about disease or dysfunction," she said, "we might make mistakes about what is a valid experience of the human condition."

Kira Peikoff

Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.

Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on
Brain Cancer Chromosomes. Chromosomes prepared from a malignant glioblastoma visualized by spectral karyotyping (SKY) reveal an enormous degree of chromosomal instability -- a hallmark of cancer. Created by Thomas Ried, 2014

Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.

Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Sarah Philip
Sarah Philip is a London-based freelance journalist who writes about science, film and TV. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahph1lip.

Astronaut and Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency displays Extra Dwarf Pak Choi plants growing aboard the International Space Station. The plants were grown for the Veggie study which is exploring space agriculture as a way to sustain astronauts on future missions to the Moon or Mars.

Johnson Space Center/NASA

Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?

Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”

For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Payal Dhar
Payal is a writer based in New Delhi who has been covering science, technology, and society since 1998.