IEET > Rights > CognitiveLiberty > CyborgBuddha > Vision > J. Hughes
Virtue Engineering
J. Hughes   Nov 20, 2007   People Database  

Jeriaska of the Accelerating Future People Database has transcribed another talk by an IEET person, the 2006 Transvision (Helsinki) talk by IEET Executive Director James Hughes “Virtue Engineering: Applications of Neurotechnology to Improve Moral Behavior.” See the video here.

Abstract: In the near future we will have many technologies that will allow us to modify and assist our emotions and reasoning. One of the purposes we will put these technologies to is to assist our adherence to self-chosen moral codes and citizenship obligations. For instance we will be able to suppress unwelcome desires, enhance compassion and empathy, and expand our understanding our social world and the consequences of actions. So, contrary to the bioconservative accusation that neurological self-determination and human enhancement will encourage more selfishness in society, it will probably permit people to be even more moral and responsible than they currently are.

virtue_engineering_1x4440x.png In the last chapter of Citizen Cyborg I have some reflections on the nature of compassion and empathy in the context of trying to talk about what characteristics of persons we want to preserve in a transhuman future as people have increasing control over their brains.  I’m writing a second book now called Cyborg Buddha, which is about this topic.  So it’s very much on my mind.

virtue_engineering_2x4440x.png This cartoon by the way, this is a military general.  It says, “These are for keeping any sexist or homophobic remarks to myself,”  which has been a problem in the U.S. military on occasion.  The motivation for this talk is partly that one of the bioconservative complaints about transhumanism is that as people have increasing control over their own brains, that it lessens the responsibility that we have for our own lives.  People will feel that they are the subject of engineering, they no longer are in control of themselves, and will be able to blame their brain structure, their brain chemistry for their behavior. I think it’s entirely the opposite.  I think what is actually happening is that enhancement technologies, neural technologies in particular, give us increasing conscious control over our own behavior.  They increase our moral responsibility and will increase the demans that society makes of us to control our own behavior - to keep sexist and homophobic comments to ourselves, for instance.

virtue_engineering_3x4440x.png Francis Fukuyama says, “Who is to tell us that being human and having dignity means sticking with a set of emotional responses,” he asks this rhetorically, “that are the accidental byproduct of our evolutionary history?  Why don’t we accept our destiny as creatures who modify themselves?”  That’s, of course, the transhumanist question.  Francis Fukuyama says that that’s a bad idea.  The reason that he gives is children who take ritalin will no longer feel like they really accomplish things themselves, or that women who take prozac will no longer feel like they’re in control of their lives, because they are taking a drug.

virtue_engineering_4x4440x.png But we’ve been trying to control ourselves with willpower for thousands and thousands of years.  “Crazy?  Yeah, I’m crazy.  That’s the point.  The only way I have to control my brain is with this hammer, and I’m going to take the fight to the enemy.”  That’s our usual approach to problems that are only under the control of our willpower.  “I only have this crude tool of will, but I will do my best to lose weight” or “I will do my best to control violent outbursts.”  But we have better tools than that.  We don’t have to use a hammer, or maybe a marshmallow in the case of most people’s willpower.

virtue_engineering_51x4440x.png What I’m suggesting is that neurotechnology will increase our obligation to use some neurotechnologies in certain cases, and also not to use neurotechnologies.  Of course, the not to use neurotechnologies part has already been a part of moral responsibility for quite a long time, because we have, for instance, the consequences alcohol and other drugs have on our behavior.  This is one of the neurotechnologies we’ve had available to us.  When we think about the different causes of auto accidents, not drinking and driving is a moral and legal responsibility not to impair your behavior with a neurotechnology.

virtue_engineering_6x4440x.png But now we have these additional questions, because we know that many auto accidents are caused by cell phone distraction.  We have laws that say you can’t use a technology which distracts you while you are driving.  We also now know that many auto accidents are caused by fatigue, because, especially in the United States, many people are chronically sleep deprived and they fall asleep at the wheel.  Now, we have this drug that we’ve heard in almost every presentation, Modafinil, that has almost no side effects, which increases your awareness and your ability to concentrate.  Why don’t we then have the responsibility if we’re fatigued to take Modafinil?  We have a responsibility not to impair ourselves by using a technology like a cell phone.  Why don’t we have a responsibility to use a technology?

virtue_engineering_7x4440x.png J.B.S. Haldane, who was one of the progenitors of the transhumanist vision, said “We may be able to control our passions by some more direct method than fasting and flagellation to deal with perverted instincts by physiology rather than prison.”  He didn’t work much on the neurotechnology question, he was mostly a geneticist.  But, at least he pointed us in that direction.  First I want to talk about the difference between vice and virtue.  In the classical vices and virtues model of Catholicism, each vice had a corresponding virtue.  Separating what is a vice and what is a virtue, just like separating what is a therapy and what is an enhancement, is kind of complicated or meaningless.  Let’s start with things that we think of as vices. Clearly, in terms of all of your moral behavior, all of your responsibility to other people, your need to be compassionate, to meet your obligations in society, taking drugs and being dependent on a substance can impair those.  One of the concerns I have with transhumanism and how we are portrayed is that if we adopt a purely liberal notion that says that we don’t mind if people wirehead - putting a wire into their head and turning on their pleasure center to constantly be jacking themselves with pleasure - or we don’t mind if people are heroin addicts, or as Jeremy Bentham implied, a utilitarian ethic would support the notion of people having constant pleasure and not accomplishing other things with their lives. I think we need to adopt a more sophisticated statement on this and say, we believe that there is a kind of range of personalities that we can encourage one another to have, within which there is a great deal of diversity.  One end might be something like drug addiction or alcohol dependency, where we think that this is a use of technology in a way that actually perverts the human capability, and that we want to encourage technologies that will lead us away from those.  We have fortunately some technologies in the pipeline, which without putting people in prison for their vices, allow people more control over those kinds of addictions and dependencies.  Things like cocaine vaccines, which block the receptors in the brain that make use of cocaine and that make people resistant to cocaine dependency, or buprinorphine for overcoming opiate addiction, or Neltrexone for alcohol, which causes people to be nauseous when they drink.  Similarly, they are being developed for nicotine.

virtue_engineering_9x4440x.png Sex addiction.  It’s a controversial idea, whether people can actually be sex addicted or not, but it is in the United States, where many things are being treated as diseases, which weren’t previously treated as diseases. Sex addiction is being treated as a disease and people are being treated, for instance, with prozac and other SSRI’s.  It’s become helpful for some people.  Of course, that suggests it really isn’t sex addiction, that it might be depression that is leading people to that behavior. There is related evidence about what leads people to have different patterns of sexual behavior altogether.  There’s this fascinating study with voles, which are these insectile rodents in the United States.  There’s one kind of vole that has monogamous behavior, and there’s another kind of vole where the male has many sexual partners but never pair bonds.  And they tweaked one gene in the voles that were having many partners and that gene increased the amount of vasopressin in their brain and also some of the dopamine, and the voles became monogamous.  What it suggested was that this one gene allowed them to, when they had sex with a particular female vole, to associate the pleasure that they were getting with that particular female.  Then they no longer sought other sexual experiences.  They continued to go back to that female and developed a pair bond with that female. Human behavior is probably a hundred times more complex than this, but it suggests that there may be biochemical modalities for controlling our sexual expression as well, becoming more monogamous or less monogamous.  I’m not a prude - If people decided that they wanted to live in polyamorous, non-monogamous communities, then perhaps they would suppress their vasopressin so that they weren’t as monogamous.

virtue_engineering_10x4440x.png In the New Testament it says that Jesus says to people, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”  Now, I know I’m not a Christian scholar, but it seems to me like Jesus is advocating castration for men, which is a pretty profound insight that testosterone is a modulator of sexual behavior and many kinds of aggressive male behavior.  I often say that testosterone is one of the most potent neurotoxins in the world.  The degree of violence and crime in a society can be directly tied to the number of males 15-25 in a society.

virtue_engineering_11x4440x.png We may not want to systematically suppress testosterone because it has other benefits.  It encourages, for instance, sexual desire, which we find pleasurable.  But for people who have too much testosterone or problems with their testosterone regulation, this is another avenue.  Another disease that is beginning to be discussed being put into the DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual for psychiatry is the notion of obsessive racism.  There are anecdotal accounts of people who walk around constantly obsessed with the fear of Jews, blacks, immigrants. There is very interesting related research to this that comes out of twin studies in England that suggests that your attitudes toward immigrants is actually partly genetically inherited.  This is one of the many characteristics that genetically similar twins share more than other people do.  There might be some brain structure, some set of neurochemistry that creates a positive or negative xenophobia in people.  In extreme cases, this might become part of people’s psychopathology, where they become obsessively racist or hostile to immigrants.

virtue_engineering_12x4440x.png This relates to what is the dominant emerging model, at least in American psychology about the structure of personality.  This is mainly coming out of statistical analysis of personality surveys, so you ask people hundreds of thousands of questions.  You find these certain kinds of traits tend to hang together statistically.  There is much debate as to whether there is three of them or five of them, but these five appear to be pretty stable and cross-cultural.  When you go to different countries, different societies may have more or less of one of thes, but the same traits hang together in each of these societies. These are things like neuroticism: the degree to which you are obsessed with your personal problems.  Extroversion: the amount of energy that you have and how much you communicate and interact with other people.  Agreeableness: the degree to which you are trusting of other people and compassionate.  Conscientiousness: the degree to which people want to meet their obligations, the degree to which they want to be precise about particular jobs, or whether they are spontaneous and lose the details, as I often tend to do. Openness to experiences: there is some suggestions that the love of learning is chemically related to other kinds of pleasure centers in the brain.  When people have an a-ha! experience, they actually get the same kind of neurochemical rewards that people get from nicotin, alcohol and other kinds of drugs.

virtue_engineering_13x4440x.png This is the notion that there is a systematic trait set at birth.  All of these traits, you have a certain setpoint at birth, and you can become a little bit more of this or a little bit less, but it is pretty much neurochemically or genetically determined at birth.  A related field of endeavor that has come out of what is called the positive psychology movement in the United States is that this guy, Martin Seligman, was the president of the American Psychological Association.  When he became president in the 1990’s he said we have been focusing almost exclusively on psychopathology, on illness, and how to treat neuroticism.  What about the positive side of psychology?  How do we become happier?  How do we become better people?  What does it mean to become a better person? He established a commission to investigate different areas of this.  What was the happiness research saying about the relationship to health?  What kinds of values do people have cross-culturally that they consider to be virtues?  They summarized about twenty different virtues that they found across many different cultures.  Within those they had six major sets of virtues that they found in almost every culture.  They have begun to empirically look at the psychological literature through this lens and say, with this particular analysis of what the structure of human character is, and what we consider to be an ideal character for someone, what does the literature say about the relationship to happiness and health? They find, for instance, there are many kinds of research that suggest that people who are higher on humanity, which is your compassion or agreeableness, are happier people.  Again, happiness has a setpoint.  The degree to which you are happy appears to be strongly genetically determined.  About 50% of the degree to which you say you are happy is genetically determined at birth.  Things can influence this - if you win the lottery, you’re happier for awhile, but then you come back down to your happiness setpoint.  There are shocking findings coming out of studies of people with terminal illness in the United States.  If you get a terminal illness, you are sad for awhile and then you come back up to your happiness setpoint.  If you are already sad, you don’t move very much.  If you were happy to begin with, you become happy again. Happiness seems to be a relatively inflexible, and again, genetically determined at birth, as are some of these character traits because they are partly determined by your personality.  The question for transhumanists then is that nothing is really variable in the long-term.  This model that they have at the top (S+C+V=H) summarizes the positive psychology movement.  The degree of happiness that you have is determined by your happiness setpoint, the conditions of your life (whether you are in a concentration camp or living in idyllic Finland), and what you do with your life (things like whether you are married, whether you drink, and things like that).  S is a strong component of that model.  V is a relatively weak component.  Income does not have much influence on happiness after $20,000 a year.  You have very little additional happiness per additional income.  Getting married has more, being a member of a religious community has a little bit more, and so forth.  They see S as a set condition that cannot be changed, and of course, we don’t.

virtue_engineering_14x4440x.png This is a summary of some of the relationships that one can draw between these set personality characteristics, some of these virtues, and then, over here are some suggestions about what are the potential enhancers of these virtues and personality enhancers.  Again,  the personality model has been related to happiness.  The more agreeable you are, the happier you tend to be.  Spontaneity has some advantages and conscientiousness has some advantages, so there is an ideal place in the middle.  The less neurotic you are, the happier you are.  The more extroverted, the happier you are.

virtue_engineering_15x4440x.png Let’s talk about a couple of these.  This is my niece.  She is one of the happiest people I know.  I’m not suggesting that she takes ecstasy herself.  Ecstasy has been suggested to be a drug by the people who take it to break down the barrier between self and other, to increase the feeling systematically of love for other people.  There is some suggestion that it changes the structure of the brain permanently in that direction.  Now there are some initial clinical studies being done in the States for the use of ecstasy to determine whether it is useful for psychiatric conditions of one kind or another.  Again, there is research that suggests that fear of other people has a genetic or neurochemical component.

virtue_engineering_16x4440x.png We may have drugs like ecstasy.  Oxitocin is another drug that may be useful for increasing agreeableness or humanity in people.  Oxitocin is a neuroactive hormone that is released during breastfeeding and during orgasm.  It is also a key component of people bonding with one another.  The degree of oxitocin that you have helps you trust other people.  There is some very interesting research out of Switzerland, where they put people in role-playing game situations where they could either trust one another or they could compete against one another.  They found that dosing people with oxytocin without their knowledge led to more cooperative behavior in the games than not.  The reports of this last year suggested that diplomats would have to have oxytocin monitors so that they weren’t being gassed with oxytocin when they went in to negotiate.

virtue_engineering_17x4440x.png There are some very interesting potential implications of this.  This study, Neuroactive Hormones and Interpersonal Trust: International Evidence, they went to 32 countries, tested the amount of oxytocin in the blood of people from different countries, and then looked at a hundred different variables to see which ones were correlated with the amount of oxytocin in their blood.  There were this set of phytochemicals that were relatively strong correlates of the amount of oxytocin in people’s blood.  You can see the countries in the upper range here of trust: Demark, Norway, Sweden, Canada.  These are countries with relatively social democratic orientations.  The countries at the bottom: Columbia, Philippine, Turkey, Peru, Brazil.  This is just the correlation with diet, which seems to be triggering the release of oxytocin. In turn, they looked at studies of asking people whether they trusted other people and it was correlated with the amount of oxytocin in their blood.  They looked at studies of the relationship between the amount of oxytocin in their blood to the level of happiness and here again you see in the upper quadran: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands.  Down here at the bottom: Brazil, Turkey, Portugal.  The implication that they make in this study, it’s in a journal of biology and economics, is that trust is a key component of all kinds of social cooperation, both economic and political cooperation.  There are serious economic and political consequences of a society being oxytocin-deficient, because you are not able to engage in the same kind of economic activity.  You are not able to engage in the same kind of political cooperation as people who have more oxytocin in their blood.

virtue_engineering_18x4440x.png Another condition that U.S. psychology is anxious to treat is social anxiety disorder, or SAD. This is called shyness by other people. Systematic shyness now is considered a treatable condition in the United States. There are many different kinds of therapies that are used for it. For many of these kinds of conditions, I don’t want to suggest that drugs are the only way to change these things. Cognitive behavioral therapy, where you teach people to think differently is a very effective way to treat many of these kinds of things.  But also SSRI’s (prozac and so forth), beta blockers (which suppress the flight or fight reflex) , other kinds of drugs that calm people down and allow them to interact have been shown to make people less shy.  You have this phobia in upwards of 6% of the population on that end of the bell curve.

virtue_engineering_19x4440x.png I just saw this study today.  Not to slight the electronic and interactive technologies and their potential benefits, we hear a lot of complaints about the ways the internet and mediated electronic communication will make us more alienated from one another and reduce social solidarity.  Just today a study came out where researchers suggest that people who play games like Second Life or World of Warcraft have established social ties through these games that are as important to them, though not quite as deep as face-to-face communication, but are broad.  On Myspace you can have a thousand friends.  You can’t actually spend time with those thousand friends, but at least you have a thousand friends. It increases your social awareness in other ways.  I think this is a very important experiment: Camp Darfur, which is a role-playing environment in Second Life where you adopt the role of a Darfuree. You have to fight the Janjaweed and try to save your family from being slaughtered, and learn a lot about the Sudan in the process.  So I think there are many ways that these electronic forms of communication will increase our empathy, as they already do.  In the sense that the more we know about how other people think in other parts of the world, the less cosmopolitan we become, and the more complex our models about empathy for other people’s ways of thought become. When we live in a parochial world we find it incomprehensible how someone could be a Muslim, or how someone could be a Communist, or whatever.  At least when we have more communication with them, we may begin to understand the way they think.  We may not like it, and that may lead to some of its own conflicts.  We may like them even less when we understand how they think, but at least we begin to have a more complex model of the world. A study came out last year that suggested that giving people caffeine allowed them to change their mind more often.  There was some debate about what the causes of this were, and so there was another paper that was released a couple months ago where they again gave people in a controlled setting drinks.  In one set of drinks there were doses of caffeine, and in the other there weren’t.  Then they exposed them to arguments about things they were opposed to, and they measured afterwards which group were more likely to change their mind in relationship to the arguments that they had heard.  The group that got the caffeine changed their mind more.  The suggestion is that caffeine stimulated their brains, so they were able to pay attention to the arguments better than the other group was.  Of course the media spun this as “Caffeine makes you more suggestible.”  It does suggest that this characteristic of open-mindedness may be malleable by some of these attentional mechanisms.

virtue_engineering_21x4440x.png This was a great connection for me, because I have been reading about the Enlightenment recently, it turns out that coffee houses were closly associated with the rise of the Enlightenment.  Before the Enlightenment, the principle way that men socialized with one another was in ale houses.  As the Enlightenment began to rise, people began to go instead, especially in the morning and all through the day, to drink coffee, to read the newspaper, and to debate politics, to create what economists call “the first internet.”  It was a place where all kinds of newspapers and broadsheets were collected.  In fact, some of the editors, just like bloggers, had their addresses at a coffee house.  You could send mail to them at the coffee house. You weren’t drunk the whole time, so you were able to pay attention to arguments.  Now we know you were more open-minded as well.  Beer, by one anonymous broadsheet writer, was called “the foggy ale that besieged our brains, while coffee was the brave and wholesome liquor that heals the stomach, makes the genius quicker, relieves the memory, revives the sad, and cheers the spirits without making mad.”  They were also called “penny universities” because of all the free newspapers.  They were also classless.  Working men and men from the middle class could go and have a conversation together.

virtue_engineering_22x4440x.png Conscientiousness and emotional control, the ability for us to overcome our neuroticism, our degree of getting upset with the things that happen in our lives.  It is also the degree to which we can carry through with our commitments.  An example of a disorder that is related to that is, again, something that American psychiatry wants to now treat: intermittent explosive disorder.  There have been only one or two epidemiological studies to determine who might fit into a category of explosive disorder.  That is, having periods of rage which are overpowering and which cause you to do things you didn’t intend to do.

virtue_engineering_23x4440x.png There is some suggestion that certain kinds of brain lesions may lead to it.  A lot of research has been done in prisons.  The cause and effect there is a little unclear.  For people who fit this diagnosis one NIH study found an average of 43 attacked people across their lifetime, averaging $1400 in property damage.  $1400 does not sound like a lot to me, but the 43 attacks is quite dramatic.  I think I haven’t gotten into a fistfight since I was ten years-old.  Treatments for this are anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, beta blockers, alpha-agonsists, mood stabilizers. Stepping away from personality for a second, and our kind of basic inclinations to be a moral being with other people, there is another model in psychology specifically related to ethics and moral reasoning.  This is the model that Lawrence Kohlberg developed in the 1970’s.  Kohlberg was influenced by Piaget, who was a child psychologist.

virtue_engineering_24x4440x.png Piaget did all kinds of experiments with children.  He said, “When does a child know that an object really exists?”  So, if you take a ball and show it to a child and then put it under the table, do their eyes follow under the table, waiting for the ball to come back up?  Or do they immediately lose interest in the ball as soon as it disappears from their vision because they don’t think it exists anymore?  That’s called “object permanence.”  So he had a series of stages that children go through.  You have to have object permanence before you have other kinds of mental processing capabilities. There were a series of stages, and you could not have stage three if you did not have stage two in the Piagetian model.  Kohlberg wondered if the same thing were true for morality: whether having certain forms of moral logic was a staged process. He did international research and a lot of research in the States and found that there were six stages of moral reasoning, which started with punishment avoidance: whatever someone who is control of me says is right is what’s right.  That is your basic childhood stage.  Whoever is powerful, whatever they say is right.  Then, if someone can give something to me, that’s right.  Then there is the social contract model, that we have to have rules of right and wrong, otherwise everything will go to hell. The final one, universal ethical principle orientation, he only found in a very small subset of adults.  The degree to achieve these higher levels of reasoning was somewhat correlated with higher education.  It was a little bit different by country.  But very few adults got to the sixth stage, which was basically a Gandhian or Martin Luther King stage, that there was a universal ethic and I have to be subject to that before social ethics.  So if sometime it is required that I do something that society says is wrong in order to achieve this higher ethic, I will take the consequences for that.  He considered that the highest level of ethic and very few people were at that level of ethic. It sounds like a pretty ethnocentric model.  He tried to validate it internationally and found that there was some support for it.  It has come under criticism from feminists and others who consider it far too legalistic and rationalistic.  But if you think about the fact that we may eventually have machines interfacing with our brains, and we already have machines surrounding us in various ways, the notion that we might hold ourselves accountable to a higher ethic that we don’t consistently… people, when they answered the questionnaires to determine what stage of ethic they were at, some would respond to one situation at stage two and another situation at stage four.  They weren’t consistent.  You could rank them generally at a certain stage, but they were not terribly consistent. Some kinds of questions completely distort ethical thinking.  If you ask somebody about human enhancement, incest, cannibalism, or eugenics in Germany, there were things which overwhelmed their moral reasoning and don’t allow them to be consistent in the way that they are thinking about situations.

virtue_engineering_25x4440x.png This leads me to the idea of a morality PDA.  I carry around a PDA that I’m supposed to enter all the food I eat into, and which tells me when I get to the top number of calories that I’m supposed to have for the day.  Of course, I never enter anything into it.  What I would like is for it to be able to sit in my glasses or on my tongue and measure automatically the amount of food that I want, and then signal to my stomach “now it’s time to stop eating.”  That would be the kind of automatic feedback loop that I would like.  Otherwise, it’s just far too cumbersome. In the United States we have the “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets, which kids where.  It’s supposed to be a constant reminder that I’m supposed to think about in this situation, “What would Jesus do?”  Well, he would leave his family and go live with a bunch of men out in the wilderness and eventually get killed for being a political dissident.  Okay, great, that’s what I’m going to do.  Also, you have the electronic bible, which people can carry around in their pocket, and if they have a moral question they can immediately type up “What does Ezekial say about premarital sex?” We have the potential in the future to have these automatic, in our environment and potentially in our brain, kinds of morality checkers.  An example of one that is already in existence is that on some software programs there is a list of words that you really don’t want to use in software that is considered flaming.  It will warn you, “Do you really want to send this message with these words in it?”  That’s a pretty useful thing to have.  I don’t have it turned on on mine because I’m way above that, but I think it might be a useful thing for some.

virtue_engineering_26x4440x.png Another dimension of morality is the degree to which we are morally autonomous.  This of course is an enormous concern. Surveillance of our behavior is related to this as well.  The degree to which we are independent and are able to control our own behavior, I think in the end this is going to become much more difficult to define, but at least where we are at right now we have this notion of whether I am in control or whether I am being influenced. We might want to think about the development in the future of morality spam filters. An example for me of this is Steve Mann, the guy in Toronto who wears glasses that have a camera in them.  He never sees what is actually in front of him.  The camera goes into a computer and then it goes into a display that he sees in his glasses.  He has it programmed so that when it recognizes an ad, he has some sort of algorithm for a billboard or advertisement, it replaces that billboard with his email or a beautiful picture that he wants to see instead of that ad.  He is trying to filter out the influences in his environment that might annoy him. I think we can think about this in a similar way.  There is lots of evidence to suggest that the degree of threat that people perceive in their environment, the degree of violence that they perceive in society, increases their tolerance for authoritarian leadership.  This was pointed out in the last election when the Bush administration was very carefully moderating the threat levels assessment, how threatening terrorism was, and arresting groups of Christian fundamentalist teenagers who they had entrapped into being terrorists in the United States, saying that this was another Al-Qaeda plot.  The same thing was suggested in Russia when buildings were blowing up and people thought that it was an attempt to booster support for Putin.  It has happened in many regimes, this notion that there is an attempt to portray society as out of control so people will turn to authoritarian leadership.

virtue_engineering_27x4440x.png If we had more control over our own sense about those things and are able to parse out those kinds of influences on our thinking, we might not be so subject to influence by others.  My conclusion with this is that, I think with transhuman neurotechnologies we have the capability to build a society in which we are happier, more intelligent, more self-aware, potentially more independent of other influences to the degree that that’s desirable, more socially minded, and have better moral and political decision making.  I do reference some of that in Citizen Cyborg.

virtue_engineering_28x4440x.png But I think there are also some serious risks here, as you might have already imagined.  There is the risk of, for instance, brain fingerprinting.  Neuroimaging technologies are now being used, with a lot of financing from American Homeland Security, to say if we show you a bunch of pictures including George Bush and Osama bin Laden, and your pleasure center goes on when we show you Osama bin Laden and your disgust center goes on when you see George Bush, doesn’t that suggest something about the kind of person you are and whether we should let you into the United States?  These kinds of terrorist brain fingerprints are being sought.  If we found that someone had a systematically bad set of mental responses, we might then say we should put you on the prozac or give you the morality PDA that will systematically retrain you. You remember of course A Clockwork Orange, the classic scene where he has his eyes wired open and he’s being shown images.  This is a potential rehabilitative technology that I think we have to be very conscious might be out there.  There is the possibility that people in a purely liberal framework might take drugs that would bliss them out, might make them insensate to the kinds of oppression that they live under and not be the kind of dynamic engaged citizens that we want them to be.  If you read The Hedonistic Imperative by David Pearce, one of the founders of the WTA, he parses out this question very interestingly.  There is no evidence that people in the top ten percentile of happiness setpoint are systematically more passive or less engaged with their world. There is a whole debate as to whether SSRI’s cause people to commit suicide.  They do kind of cause people to commit suicide, because when you are really depressed, you are too depressed even to kill yourself.  When you take an SSRI you get a little bit less depressed, and then you think, “Now I can finally kill myself.”  Across that whole spectrum, the degree of neuroticism and depression that you experience is the degree to which you are not able to engage with the world and change the world.  When you look at the history of revolutions, rising expectations and optimism can be as much a cause of political change as people being really bummed out. I imagine that if you go into a battlefield and you find it difficult to shoot innocent people or people that you haven’t met before, you might be given a drug to help you overcome that kind of innate compassion for your fellow human being.  If you go into the workplace and you need to be extra competitive, you might take something that suppresses your innate humanity so that you can become a more competitive person.  These kinds of pressures might encourage society to use these technologies in ways that we don’t like. Another example might be the degree to which we might encourage people to conform to society instead of change society.  Imagine if you are transgendered and you go to the doctor and say, “I’m a woman living in a man’s body.”  Right now a doctor can say, “Over time we could transform your body to become a woman’s body and eventually you could live as a woman.”  But in the future you might be able to go to the doctor and he could say, “We can either give you this pill that can make you feel that you are a man in a man’s body, or we can transform your body.”  I don’t know if it’s morally preferable to do one or the other.  I think it should be up to each individual to choose.  But it would mean there would be less pressure on society to accept those kinds of differences.  People might find that the path of least resistance is the path that they want to take. Not to bash China too much, but just as a final comment I will say that I am very concerned about the use of these technologies in authoritarian countries that don’t have the same kinds of liberal democratic traditions and values that the Enlightenment has attempted to spread throughout the world and in which people seem much more oriented towards conformity than towards individual rights and expression.

virtue_engineering_29x4440x.png In conclusion, we could have a better world or we could have a worse world, as many of the talks have said.  The difference will be made by whether we transhumanists and others who are our allies fight for the importance of cognitive liberty.  That’s what will make the difference.  It’s not the technologies that will make the difference, because as I pointed out there are many technologies already being used, which have the potentials for the negatives and the potentials for the positives.  It’s not the technologies that will make the difference, the difference will be made by whether we create the kinds of societies that will protect people’s rights to use these technologies in self-chosen ways and to give them the messages about the kinds of people we think people should become. We do not want a purely liberal society in this regard.  A purely liberal society might end up in dead ends that we wouldn’t want to have.  We want to tell people “liberal, but there are boundaries.”  Thank you very much.

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)


I think you make a really important point, that, just as we have the responsibility not to use technologies that could cause us to harm others, we are responsible for doing everything we can to be the best humans we can be.

When it comes to using oxytocin to be more open and connected with others, it’s likely that “practicing” with oxytocin could lead to permanent, beneficial changes in the brain. When researchers at Mt. Sinai gave adults with autism spectrum disorder oxytocin, not only were the adults better able to pick up the emotional tone of speech, but the effects lasted for a couple of weeks.

We could practice opening up to love on the neurochemical level with oxytocin and learn to do it unconsciously. see “Oxytocin Therapy for Autism Gets Closer” for more on this:

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