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The modern make-over

August 22, 2006 By Kerri Smith This article courtesy of Nature News.

Scientists and philosophers gathered in Helsinki last week for TransVision, a conference about 'enhancing' humans. Kerri Smith talks to Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, UK, about what's on the table.

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What kinds of human enhancement are we capable of now?

There's the obvious example of performance-enhancing drugs for sport, such as anabolic steroids and erythropoietin. We have alertness and wakefulness enhancers modafinil, caffeine that can at least temporarily reduce the need for sleep, although you might be wary of permanently reducing the amount of sleep you get. If it were such a good thing, why wouldn't evolution already have built us to need less sleep?

Memory-enhancing drugs are currently under development. They seem to be effective not only in people they are designed for people with dementia but also for healthy subjects.

What about the more sci-fi notion of implants?

Maybe it will be possible to infuse romance into fading marriages.
Nick Bostrom
director of the Future of Humanity Institute, UK
There's a lot of research in prosthetics and implants, and brain-computer interfaces. Some of this research has great promise for people with specific disabilities: cochlear implants have helped many deaf people. But I don't think healthy people are going to be attracted by mechanical or electronic enhancements in the near future.

You can get most or all of the same benefits from having the same device outside the body. If you want to access Google, you don't have to have a fibre-optic cable wired into your visual cortex. You can just have a computer screen. That saves you a trip to the surgeon, and it's easier to upgrade.

So what kinds of enhancement are people thinking about?

There was a talk at this conference on 'virtue engineering' by James Hughes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies in Hartford, Connecticut. He spoke about the idea of using technology to enhance moral behaviour. A lot of people have trouble with impulse control, for example, and they might benefit from pharmaceutical help.

In the context of marriage, an interesting possibility is the use of pharmaceuticals to regulate the pair-bonding mechanism. There are a small number of hormones, such as vasopressin and oxytocin, that might help us form bonds with others. It could be possible to prevent the levels of these chemicals from trailing off, and to infuse romance into fading marriages like a technological form of counselling.

This sort of thing must be fraught with ethical concerns. What sorts of issues come up?

One issue that always comes up is: will it lead to inequality between those who have access to it and those who don't? Price makes a huge difference to accessibility, and one presentation at the conference tried to estimate the costs of different kinds of cognitive enhancements. These depend very much on the form the enhancement takes. If it's a pill, it can be expected to get cheaper quickly over time [as patents run out and materials get easier to produce]. If it's a procedure, there's a limit to how cheap that can be, at least until we get robots to do it for us.

Beyond ethics or fashion, what is likely to hold back adoption of these sorts of things?

There are technical obstacles to getting things working. There's a difference between, for example, enhancing performance on a specific memory task in the lab and actually increasing people's efficiency in ordinary life. So far, enhancements have been accidental by-products of research to develop cures for diseases.

What can you see being the big news at future conferences?

One thing that has happened over the past five years or so is that bioethics has begun to take enhancement issues seriously. Bioethicists previously tended to ignore them or think of it as science fiction. Now there's debate on a lot of ethical questions related to human enhancement, and interest is still on the up. These technologies are sufficiently likely that it is worth discussing them now.

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