One benefit to society that neural augmentation brings is an increase in the availability of education. Websites like Wikipedia and databases of scholarly articles already give anyone with access to the Internet access to vast amounts of information on virtually any topic. Excellent schools like MIT, through their OpenCourseWare program, offer free online classes in many subjects. If the human brain is augmented as Kurzweil suggests, this educational benefit will become even more pronounced. People will be able to upload information directly into their minds, and will be able to retain vastly more information than they can now.
Part III: Public Policy
III.A: Benefits To Society
1 If a more educated society is good, then neural augmentation will further that goal very quickly.
A corollary to a more educated society is a more creative society. As people have access to more and more information, they are able to draw connections between seemingly disparate fields and create new works of art, scholastic research, and ways to play. The beginnings of this appear on the Internet, where small groups of individuals now upload music, movies, and websites accessible by billions of people with a simple mouse click. One example of this explosion of creativity exists in the video game industry. Thirty years ago, video games were produced by major studios and were distributed through retail stores at relatively expensive prices.2 Today, video games are available at cheap prices from a variety of sources. Individuals create apps for cell phones that are free or cheap. Massively Multiplayer Online games are now free to download and play. Even our social networks like Facebook have entertaining games available for free.
The very newest video games take advantage of yet newer technology and are stretching the very meaning of the term. Even today when one thinks of playing video games the concept suggests that someone is sitting down at a machine, like an Xbox 360 or a PC, and playing a game in one stationary location, probably inside.3 Augmented reality is beginning to change that dynamic. Google's newest game, currently being beta-tested, is called Ingress and will be played through cell phones.4 Combining GPS location and video game programming, one will be able to use an Internet-connected device like a cell phone or Google Glass5 to look out on physical world objects (like, say, the Luxor in Las Vegas) but also to see computer generated images superimposed on those physical world locations. To continue the example, one might see a force field surrounding the Luxor on the cell phone, and need to perform some video game function on the cell phone to reinforce the force field around the Luxor before an enemy team, performing similar functions in the same physical space, can destroy it. This sort of video game gets players out into the real world, but interacting with a virtual world as they already do in traditional video games.
Applying this sort of technology to mechanical augmentation, one can imagine a set of bionic eyes that incorporate the functionality of cell phones or Google Glass, allowing people walking around in the physical world to see a whole separate layer of virtual reality wherever they go. Indeed, many layers of virtual reality might be keyed to individual applications, such that the Luxor has several video game augmented realities running on it, a virtual reality created by the casino managers that lets people see which rooms are available for which prices, or which slot machines are the 'hottest', a historical application that gives information about the construction and history of the building, and more. Many people, looking at the same physical landmark, will see multiple realities converging.
Kurzweil's vision of replaced organs could likewise do much to eliminate disease and hunger. While these benefits were discussed in the context of the individual, supra II.A, collectively the ability of citizens to forgo eating naturally eliminates the concept of starvation and hunger and provides more resources for those individuals not yet augmented in that way. Food will become pleasurable, but not necessary. Additionally, with nanobots working inside citizens to combat disease, society as a whole ought to be more healthy. The Milken Institute recently found that seven chronic diseases cost the United States approximately 1.3 trillion dollars annually, mostly in lost productivity.6 This report did not take into account more common passing diseases like the flu, common cold, allergies, and more. To the extent that augmented immune systems can combat and prevent these diseases, society as a whole ought to benefit both financially and in terms of general happiness.
Finally, many more possibilities are explored in the massive government research paper Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance.7 Many of the proposed technologies as discussed as external apparatuses, mainly robotic and gadget oriented, but internalizing those components would further increase the fluidity with which they can be used.
III.B: Society-wide Concerns:
As with individual benefits, there are society-wide concerns as well. Some of these are more readily apparent than others. For instance, it is a basic truth that not all and only “good” people will have access to these technologies, and the concept of a villain enhanced with superhuman prosthetic devices is one that has been explored throughout literature, cinema, and video games.
Beyond this basic problem with all technology is the stratification of society. Assuming that the sorts of technology that Kurzweil envisions arrive, there will likely be at least three sorts of people. First are those that embrace the technology wholesale, upgrading and modifying at will and at the maximum speed science permits. These people will likely be on the leading edge of capability, but will also incur the greatest risks that come from brand new technology. Next are people who, for various reasons, have access to this sort of enhancement technology but choose not to upgrade themselves. They will remain essentially the same as we are now. Third, and finally, are the people who do not have access to this technology and will, like those who choose not to augment, remain essentially unchanged.8
This divide could manifest in a number of ways. First, it could simply exacerbate the class divisions that already occur with wealth. Just as wealthy families can send their children to the best schools, on world-wide vacations, and can introduce them to other people of means to whom the middle and lower classes are essentially cut off, wealthy families can enhance themselves and their children with superhuman prosthetic devices too expensive for the third class of people and repugnant or undesirable to the second group of people. To the extent that working remains a human endeavor9 and to the extent that available jobs require prosthetic enhancement (perhaps more likely with neural prosthetic enhancement than physical enhancement, but not necessarily) the wealthy will continue to make gains in areas where others will not or cannot afford to venture.
This second point suggests an ability gap. If the enhanced are significantly more able than the unenhanced – if 'normal' now is the new 'disabled' – then societal jealousy and resentment seem possible. Scientist Frasncis Fukuyama thinks that this is a likely scenario, and envisions enormous, world-wide class warfare resulting from it.10 Indeed, world-wide catastrophe is prevalent in a number of thinkers concerns, though not all of those concerns have to do with prosthetic technology alone.11
The greatest concern shared by most opponents of mechanical augmentation is that we will somehow lose what it means to be human.12 This concern was addressed in the individual concerns section, supra, but carries broader, society-wide problems as well. If mechanical augmentation dulls the sorts of emotions that some argue make us human, if an entire group of humans can live indefinitely as robots or, as Giulio Prisco imagines, software algorithms, what remains of the rest of humanity? It is possible, perhaps even likely, that rapid access to facts might encourage people to act more logically, while forgetting the emotional connection to humanity. It is also possible that the prosthetic devices themselves will not translate emotions so easily as pure data, even if the emotions themselves are data, and so people with many augmentations might have a dulled sense of emotional response.13 If augmented people and natural people are so widely divergent that they cannot empathize with each other, and in particular if augmented people dull that ability to empathize (though augmenting it also seems possible) could they suddenly decide that these 'naturals' are beneath their concerns?
Further, what is the impact on ideas? Fukuyama suggests that the only way to get new ideas is “literally, people dying off.”14 The brunt of his point seems to be that as a society we only evolve as old people with old ideas die and are replaced by younger people with new ideas. While there does not seem to be anything intrinsically true about the idea that people who are alive cannot create new ideas (after all, every new idea has come from a living person) there is something to Fukyama's point. Acceptance of homosexuality and approval ratings for gay marriage have soared in the last few decades as older people stuck in their beliefs died off or stopped voting. Even among the populace as a whole acceptance of new ideas generally is lead by the youth. Is innovation or a more 'open mind' something that we can augment as easily as limbs?
Finally, there is some concern about whether it is our flaws themselves that make us human. “[W]e're beings who are suffused with error, dripping with imperfection, drenched in inefficiency” says author Ellen Ullman.15 Fukuyama similarly says that “There's something about the experience of pain and longing and anxiety and all of these things that … is somehow necessary to our self-understanding of what we are as human beings.” Beyond even overcoming imperfection via engineering, the idea of overcoming death via engineering prompts replies that it is our mortal lifespan and inevitability of death that gives our lives purpose.16 If that's right, then removing imperfections or eliminating natural death makes us something other than human.
There is great debate about what to do with these concerns. Some, like Kurzweil and Bostrom, refute that these concerns are relevant or likely. Technology becomes cheap and widely available very quickly, and so does not lend itself well to the sort of gap-creating arguments that Fukuyama fears. Perhaps there is something to the idea that fear or pain or longing defines our humanity. But do any of us crave fear or pain or longing? Do we seek it out to become more human, or do with try to avoid it and defeat it whenever possible? Isn't becoming more perfect also one of the defining characteristics of human beings? Isn't that why we appreciate, say, Olympic athletes? Is there any reason to think that virtual reality scenarios could not teach us these lessons without having to put our real bodies and lives on the line? Aren't lessons already learned from literature as well as experienced life?
Ultimately, even those who believe that nothing good can come of radical augmentation are at a loss when figuring out what to do about it. Fukuyama argues for massive, world-wide regulation of technology.17 Others think we should relinquish scientific progress and quit researching new technologies entirely.18 Yet, as Garreau notes, the Amish, Chinese, Japanese, and Middle East “were forced to endure humiliation and exploitation by supposedly backward people who weren't overly scrupulous about the technologies they embraced.”19 These societies suffered because they made a conscious choice to stop innovating, even as the rest of the world continued researching and creating. Even if 'advanced' civilizations refuse to fund research for these technological advancements, the world is a big enough place that they will happen in countries friendlier to these sorts of technology. Fukuyama's global governance might stop such a thing, but traditional notions of sovereignty make that sort of governance highly unlikely any time soon enough to matter. McKibben is willing to leave the option to voters and the market – perhaps the only real way that technological advancement might be slowed.20 Yet, with a sizable base of consumers that want this sort of technology, and particularly the wealthy sitting on historically large piles of money, perhaps even the market will not halt the progress of science, whatever the consequences.
5Google Glass is a lens that attaches to the head like a traditional pair of glasses and allows one to keep one eye on the physical world and another on their computing software. See generally http://www.google.com/glass/start/
6See Ross DeVol, et al., An Unhealthy America: The Economic Impact Of Chronic Disease 2-3, MILKEN INSTITUTE Oct. 2007, http://www.milkeninstitute.org/pdf/ES_ResearchFindings.pdf.
7See generally, NSF/DOC, Converging Technologies For Improving Human Performance, (Mihail Roco & William Sims Bainbridge, eds.) 2003, http://www.wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies/Report/NBIC_report.pdf.
9It's worth remembering that while the focus of this paper is human augmentation, this technology does not live in a vacuum. Prosthetic technology lends itself well to robotics, and genetic augmentation might appease at least some of that second group of people. Artificial intelligence may well reduce the need for even human professionals, and devices like molecular assemblers and solar energy could make the 'have nots' significantly more comfortable than even the middle class today. For more on the elimination of poverty, see Peter Diamandis. & Steve Kotler, ABUNDANCE, (2012).
John Niman is an Affiliate Scholar, a J.D. Candidate at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His primary legal interests include bioethics and personhood. He blogs about emerging technology and transhumanism at http://boydfuturist.wordpress.com.
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