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George W. Bush Is Getting Brain-jacked
J. Hughes   Mar 9, 2004   Betterhumans  

Despite the president’s best efforts to stop human enhancement, the spirit of Vannevar Bush is rising to smite him

Vannevar Bush was an electrical engineer appointed by Franklin Roosevelt to run the US Office of Scientific Research and Development during the Second World War. At the conclusion of the war, President Truman asked Bush to submit a report on ways the federal government could promote “national health,” “new enterprises” and the “standard of living.” Bush responded with Science: The Endless Frontier, a report that recommended creating a federal agency to support basic research. Roosevelt wrote back, “New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.” The proposed agency became the National Science Foundation.

Around the same time, Bush published “As We Think” in the Atlantic Monthly. The piece suggested the creation of a “memex,” a device using microfilm to automatically store and retrieve information as an “enlarged intimate supplement” to our memory. The system would have allowed researchers to follow connections from one article to another, much like modern hypertext.

Most modern commentators remark on Bush’s prescience in predicting computers and the Web. But this ignores the second half of the essay, in which Bush proposes direct neural-computer communication. “All our steps in creating or absorbing material of the record proceed through one of the senses—the tactile when we touch keys, the oral when we speak or listen, the visual when we read. Is it not possible that some day the path may be established more directly?”

For the next 50 years, not much was done by the US federal government to address Bush’s vision of direct communication between the brain and computers. But now, with one of the most anti-science presidential administrations ever in power, the spirit of Vannevar Bush has risen and cyborgology is getting serious government attention—despite the best efforts of the Christian Right to get George W. Bush to stop it.

Fulfilling Vannevar’s dream

Vannevar Bush’s vision was resurrected in the 1990s when the National Institutes of Health established its Neural Prosthesis Program. The NPP program pulls together disparate research on direct neural-computer communication and encourages cross-fertilization between scientists working on control of prosthetic limbs, cochlear implants, biomonitors and brain pacemakers. A central focus of the NPP is research on biomaterials, trying to find the right type of wires to communicate with human neurology.

Enter the National Nanotechnology Initiative. In the late 1990s, the rapid success of nanomaterials research had convinced senior Clinton science advisors and officials at the National Science Foundation to propose, and Congress to pass, $422 million in funding for nanotechnology research (all figures US). Last year, the Bush administration boosted the NNI’s funding to $850 million for fiscal year 2004 alone.

The chief architect and appointed director of the NNI has been Swiss-American physicist Mihail Roco. Since the NNI ladles out an enormous cornucopia of research monies to 16 federal agencies, academia and business, Roco is one of the most influential men in science policy. He has also been a close ally of nanotechnologist Richard Smalley and the NanoBusiness Alliance in their efforts to distance the field from Eric Drexler and exclude from NNI largesse any investigation of the feasibility of molecular manufacturing. Not only would monies put into nanomanufacturing and nanobots be wasted since nanobots will never work, the Smalleyites argue, but any association of the NNI with the loony fringe of millennial techno-utopians and gray goo disaster scenarios could frighten the public and weak-minded legislators into clamping down on funding.

So it was very significant when Roco decided in 2001 to create a special NNI program with sociologist and National Science foundation official William Sims Bainbridge to explore the rapid convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information science and cognitive science (NBIC) toward the goal of “improving human performance.”

In the past three years, the NBIC program has convened hundreds of researchers, entrepreneurs and policy wonks from academia, business, federal agencies and the military to brainstorm what will happen when petaflop chips running expert systems, back-engineered from the hippocampus, can be stuck into the brain as an internal modem using nanowires that are spit out by gene-tweaked extremophile bacteria. The NBIC’s initial report stunned even the most optimistic techno-utopians with its predictions of rapid human enhancement, life extension and nano-neural interfaces in the coming decades. Turns out that when people on the cutting edge of the molecular, information and cognitive sciences begin to talk about merging their fields and applying them to extending the human body and brain, things get very transhumanist very fast—nanobots or no nanobots.

Luddites mobilize

After proposing direct neural-computing links in “As We Think,” Bush asks, “who would now place bounds on where such a thing may lead?” Well, the ecological movement for one. The ecological movement has been raising many legitimate, and some irrational, concerns about genetic engineering since its first use in the 1970s. So it wasn’t much of a leap of imagination to add nanotechnology to their list of Big Bads, especially once they read Drexlerian speculations about the threat from rogue nanobots. A year ago the eco-Luddite ETC Group issued its roundhouse attack on nanotechnology, The Big Down, calling for an international moratorium on nanotechnology research because of the threat of nano-pollution, nano-oppression and nano-apocalypse. ETC then followed up with a specific attack on the NBIC program, arguing that the program was another attempt by the white, male, American military-industrial complex to extend its domination. ETC is calling for the UN to establish an international agency to regulate all such technologies. Other ecological groups, such as Greenpeace, have also expanded their mandate to include nanotechnology and NBIC convergence. The Ecologist reviewed the alleged threats posed by the NBIC initiative to the poor and disabled and asked, “how long before democratic dissent is viewed as a correctable impairment?”

Eco-Luddite drumbeating has had a large impact on the debate in Europe. But having leftwing Greens denounce something as a dangerous effort to create corporate mega-profits and screw the poor just makes the Republicans who control Washington want to dance the Macarena. The only apocalyptic fear-mongers the Bush administration has an ear for are members of the Christian Right. Unfortunately, it turns out that the God Squad also finds the idea of data-jacked posthuman cyborgs as sure a sign of the End Times as gay marriage and Janet Jackson’s breast.

The Christian Right has been hesitant to attack the Bush administration on any grounds since he was divinely anointed through the intercession of the US Supreme Court to lead America through 9/11. But their patience is beginning to fray. For instance, Mayo clinic physician and the Christian Right’s point man on nanotechnology, Christopher Hook, warned the faithful in January that, “This program is forging ahead, mostly unknown to the public and their elected representatives—assuming, without full public discussion, not only that reengineering humankind is completely right, but also that we should commit ourselves as a nation to accomplish it.” In the influential Christianity Today, Hook followed up by pointing out the inconsistency of the Bush administration appointing bioethicist Leon Kass to wage jihad against human enhancement, and then promoting cyborgs with $3.7 billion in nano-funds. “My hope is that those involved in this research will heed the wisdom of the report of The President’s Council on Bioethics released last October, which examines the ethical and social meanings of using biotechnologies for purposes ‘beyond therapy.’ It is a statement appropriately skeptical of transhumanist and scientific utopianism.”

These attacks from the pulpit have put the fear of God into Roco and the NBIC program. At the recent February meeting of the NBIC in New York City, which I attended, Roco objected strenuously when panelists such as “neuroethicist” Zack Lynch began to wax poetic about the posthuman implications of the endeavor. Bush appointee Philip Bond, undersecretary for technology in the Department of Commerce, was on hand to endorse the NBIC program, but made a special effort to note that its implementation should respect ethics and “human dignity.”

Unhappy marriage of science, religion and commerce

Although he tipped his hat to the dark shadow of the Church, Bond spent most of his NBIC talk praising the way that the emerging technologies would help keep the US a postindustrial superpower, and maybe even create some jobs instead of just automating and teleporting them away. Like Vannevar Bush, Phil Bond seemed sincere in his conviction that vigorous federal support for science would make America healthy, prosperous and strong.

You had to feel for the guy trying to make that argument in the week after the Bush administration had been attacked for systematically undermining science policy in the service of war-mongering, religious dogma and corporate profiteering. More than a thousand scientists had endorsed a Union of Concerned Scientists report on Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science. The report details how the Bush administration has engaged in an unprecedented level of “manipulation, suppression, and misrepresentation of science” in areas including “air pollutants, heat-trapping emissions, reproductive health, drug resistant bacteria, endangered species, forest health, and military intelligence.” The report documents how senior administration officials intervene to suppress inconvenient findings, and appoint underqualified religious and free market zealots to stack federal science bodies. For instance, when a panel of scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was on the verge of recommending new regulations to prevent lead poisoning, the administration replaced two members of the panel with two pro-lead advocates.

The week after the USC report, in an example of the kind of bold bring-it-on leadership we’ve come to expect, Kass and the Bush administration replaced two of the most forthright advocates of stem cell research on the President’s Council on Bioethics with three prominent Christian right-wingers. One of the two sacked council members and one of its few scientists, the biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, had clashed frequently with Kass. After being fired, Blackburn issued a statement with a remaining PCB member and scientist, Janet Rowley, detailing how Kass had suppressed their scientific objections to the PCB’s Luddite reports.

Kass responded by insisting that the blatant stacking had nothing to do with the researchers’ religio-political views, but was due instead to the PCB shifting from the issues it had addressed thus far—stopping cloning, human enhancement and embryonic stem cell research, issues into which the replaced biologist and Christian ethicist allegedly had more insight—to new areas where they really needed two political scientists and a neurosurgeon. Anyway, Kass says, he was totally ignorant of the views of the three new appointees, a claim that journalists Timothy Noah and Ron Bailey have shown to be about as credible as Bush-cooked reports of weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad. The three are connected by a web of contacts with Kass and the Biotechnology and American Democracy Project of the Christian Right thinktank the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In the premier issue of BAD’s journal The New Atlantis, Yuval Levin, a senior aide to Kass on the PCB, brazenly announces the agenda of conservative bioethics: To circumvent democratic debate and make religious taboos into laws.

Oh, and that new area of attention that the PCB will study and report on in this last stretch before the presidential election next fall? Neurotechnology.

Twenty-first century biopolitics take shape

Next door to the February NBIC meeting, a press conference convened to announce the formation of the Converging Technologies Bar Association. The CTBA is the brain child of New York attorney Sonia Miller, and the project’s high-powered backers include Art Caplan, the dean of American bioethics, and Roco himself. The CTBA, which is open to non-lawyers, seeks to clear away the legal and regulatory obstacles to the innovation and commercialization of new NBIC technologies. Given the political thicket that the NBIC finds itself in, it may take a little more than the tweaking of patent laws to ensure that we get our brain jacks. It may take an administration willing to take science and the public interest more seriously than free market and religious ideology.

Americans may have that choice in November. Bush’s main opponent in the upcoming election, John Kerry, serves on the US Senate science policy committee. Kerry recently said, “there have always been the few with a distaste for progress and a fundamental distrust of the American people to have the morality and strength to handle the consequences. Unfortunately, today some of that deep distrust of new discoveries and of the American people has found a home in George Bush’s White House. George Bush has proved a ready ally for those who seek to impose their private moral vision on the American people. Over and over again, this President has put partisan politics above scientific and medical advancement. Whether it is global warming or stem cell research, President Bush has appeased his party’s right wing by ignoring scientific fact and slowing medical progress…But we cannot stand still. There are diseases to conquer, barriers to break, and horizons to cross.”

I can only imagine that that Yankee Republican Vannevar Bush, who died in 1974, would have been appalled at the ascendance of the Know Nothing wing of the GOP. I imagine his spirit running interference for us inside the electronic voting machines being programmed by G.W.-backer Diebold Election Systems. As Vannevar said back in 1945 in defense of federally funded research, “in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome.”

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


when a panel of scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was on the verge of recommending new regulations to prevent lead poisoning, the administration replaced two members of the panel with two pro-lead advocates.

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