It is ironic and indeed counterintuitive that our own human nature has a huge potential to drive us towards physical and cognitive enhancements that may completely alter the characteristics of our species. As I have outlined in a previous work, human nature is defined by emotional amoral egoism[i]. Humans are genetically and neuro-chemically programmed to `feel good` and are driven by a number of factors, which I call the “Neuro P5”: “power, profit, pleasure, pride and permanency”. Consequently, if a technology appears which enhances any of these strong motivators, our neurochemically-mediated calculations, emotions and survival instincts will intuitively push us in that direction. I therefore believe such technologies bring us on the brink of inevitable transhumanism. This radical human metamorphosis and enhancement (physical and cognitive), through the convergence of various emerging strategic technologies, is not a question of ‘if’ but of ‘when’, ‘how’, and “at what cost”.
Over the past 50 years, scientific innovations have led to the emergence of new, revolutionary strategic technologies, which have already started to dramatically affect our lives and the world around us. Some technologies influence the way we communicate, how we use energy, our environmental preservation efforts and the management of human health and quality of life. Other Emerging Strategic Technologies (ESTs) such as biotechnology, genomics, nanotechnology, materials science, artificial intelligence, computational logic, speed, and cognitive neuroscience, especially when convergent, will have a tremendous potential to impact the future of humanity.
We are now on the cusp of a period of convergence in which technologies that were previously considered and studied separately (for example biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science) are being approached in an increasingly interdisciplinary fashion. Convergence is already revolutionizing areas such as energy and the environment, global and national security, medicine and health care, manufacturing and materials, biotechnology and agriculture, and information technology and electronics. Technological convergence has the potential to fill basic human needs and improve the human quality of life, but it also raises serious concerns in the field of human, national, environmental, transnational and transcultural security.
Perhaps the most serious danger lies in human cognitive enhancement technologies, which, if not managed properly, are likely to induce pervasive inequalities, redefine the notion of ethics, dignity and integrity and threaten altogether the sustainability of the human race as we know it. Certain ESTs have the potential to alter or enhance the human body and mind. Existing physical enhancements, such as hearing aids, contact lenses, cosmetic surgery, joint replacements, organ transplants, performance-enhancing drugs and pacemakers have already normalized certain forms of human alteration and enhancement. Beyond that, there is much speculation about more radical physical enhancements that would truly alter our human functions. As science advances, we are gaining more and more control over the reproductive process and have increased opportunities to create and manipulate life in unconventional and innovative ways. As futuristic as some experiments might have appeared a while ago, the rapid pace of medical interventions and genetic modifications to alter human life show that `the future is already here`. For example, authorities in the UK have authorized in-vitro fertilization using DNA from three people in order to `cleanse` possible malfunctions and counter life-threatening and debilitating disorders. This is but the tip of the iceberg of the striking potential for manipulation over `human design`.[ii]
The question at stake is if and how we can maintain control and guidance over this process in the long term. Brain-machine interfaces, although still in the early stages of development, present another important field of research for future enhancements. As with all emerging technologies, they have huge potential uses and benefits, for instance, in helping paraplegic patients. However, critical and consequential ethical issues arise when they are applied to healthy persons to enhance “normal” physical and cognitive performance. ESTs, neuroscience and neuropharmacology in particular, are also opening up a floodgate of potential methods for mental and cognitive enhancements. Widely used drugs such as Ritalin and Prozac, merely scratch the surface of the future potential of strategic technologies for mental enhancements. More dramatic mental enhancements include brain-computer interfaces (BCI), cognitive prostheses and could go as far as brain mapping and the possibility of uploading one’s brain, memories, feeling, and other neurological processes on to a computer.
Because human nature is so profoundly connected to neurochemistry, there is a huge potential for human instincts and impulses —as foundations of human nature — to be moderated or altered. This is because the use of technologies to modify our emotions, our bodies and our neurochemical balances, is bound to undermine and alter the instincts that have developed over millions of years in the process of human evolution and was pivotal to our survival thus far. Human enhancement is therefore much more than a matter of individual choice. When human enhancements are implemented on a large scale, something that will happen inevitably, they will gradually alter the fundamental traits and characteristics that make us human. In other words, humans will change to a point where they can no longer be considered humans. We would have taken over the reins of evolution and moved beyond the human phase of evolutionary development.
Strategic technologies and human enhancement have significant ramifications for human dignity and our conception of human rights, and they will also affect geopolitical issues and global security in very real and complex ways. The most salient implications of human enhancement to individual and human security are linked to issues of equality and justice. When more and more people are able to opt for voluntary enhancements, this will give them a competitive edge over other individuals, posing the very real risk of fostering a dangerous divide between enhanced and un-enhanced individuals. Making matters potentially more disruptive from a security perspective, the inequalities and differences would only be reinforced along pre-existing lines of social classes and nationalities as enhancement technologies are, and likely to remain, very expensive. At the international level, ESTs could become a way for richer and scientifically more advanced states to gain a competitive advantage over other states (especially, but not exclusively, in the military and economic contexts), and improve the country’s overall prestige and geopolitical position.
More importantly, this divide might not even be this clear-cut: some technological interventions could have both massive internal repercussions and directly impact international relations. For example, reports of China’s attempts at designing genius babies, based on a collection of DNA samples and embryo screenings, is a project which could lead to increased economic productivity.[iii] But, this will also have the potential to produce very serious domestic ethical concerns, and global geopolitical imbalances thus leading to a potential global “human enhancement race”. Again, a situation that might have provoked cynical disbelief just years ago now appears to be a foreseeable reality.
While dangers to human nature, dignity and destiny are real, I am not suggesting that technological innovations and the potential for enhancement should be halted or stifled. I am instead calling for urgent global action at the UN level to define international moral and bioethical guidelines on what potential enhancements are acceptable to our global societies and on what terms. In my opinion, the only way to ensure our survival as a species, is to prioritize the preservation and advancement of human dignity above all else. As I suggested previously, the attainment of dignity for all, at all times and under all circumstances, was an essential pre-requisite for the sustainability of any political order and for that matter, human destiny. The dignity that I am talking about is much more than just the absence of humiliation. In this holistic framework, it includes nine dignity substrates that are: reason, security, human rights, accountability, transparency, justice, opportunity, innovation and inclusiveness. Any enhancement that violates any of these nine dimensions of human dignity cannot be considered an improvement and will have serious societal and destiny implications in the long run. Taking this into account is the only way to ensure a sustainable history for us all.
[i]Nayef R.F. Al-Rodhan, “Emotional amoral egoism”. A Neurophilosophical Theory of Human Nature and its Universal Security Implications (Berlin: LIT, 2008).
Nayef Al-Rodhan is a Philosopher, Neuroscientist and Geostrategist, Senior Member of St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, UK, and Senior Fellow and Center Director of the Geopolitics of Globalisation and Transnational Security Center at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Geneva, Switzerland. Author of Sustainable History and the Dignity of Man: A Philosophy of History and Civilisational Triumph (Berlin: LIT, 2009), The Politics of Emerging Strategic Technologies. Implications for Geopolitics, Human Enhancement and Human Destiny (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
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