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Human Enhancement & Nanotechnology Liveblogging Part 1
J. Hughes   Mar 28, 2009   Ethical Technology  

Today I’m live-blogging from the Human Enhancement & Nanotechnology Conference at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo. The conference is organized by the Ethics and Emerging Technologies which is headed by Patrick Lin at California State Polytechnic University.

There are about fifty folks here at the conference, with a nice mix from students to emeritus faculty, philosophers, political scientists and technologists. This is the final meeting a three year project funded by the National Science Foundation. The co-PIs on that grant with Patrick Lin are Fritz Allhoff and James Moor. Together they wrote Nanoethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology So some of the folks speaking here at the meeting have met at some of the previous events in this project, or contributed to the book.

I won’t be able to summarize all the talks, but will highlight a couple of them.

Nicole Hassoun “Nanotechnology, Enhancement, and Human Nature”

One of the speakers this morning was Nicole Hassoun, an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. Her talk, “Nanotechnology, Enhancement, and Human Nature,” started with the environmental ethics postulate that there is some intrinsic value in nature separate from its value to human beings, a postulate she is aware is not shared by many, including me. Part of the argument is what constitutes “value to humanity,” which don’t have to be simply instrumental values but can also be aesthetic, which is what Dr. Hassoun first addresses.

Perhaps, she asks, there may be an objection to enhancement, or at least posthumanity, since “Our species, like many other naturally occurring species, has aesthetic value.” She recognizes, however, that we can add aesthetic value to the world with enhancement, as with all art. Aesthetic conservationism assumes that only the natural has aesthetic value. Also as long as there are some ur-humans have we preserved their aesthetic value?  Don’t horticulturalists add beauty and value to the world by developing new species?

Another line of eco-aestheticism would argue that species have value for their role in ecosystems, and that ur-humans should be preserved for our role in ecosystems. She acknowledges that it seems perverse to argue that preserving humans 1.0 would be good for ecosystem health or beauty since we have done so much damage. It is not at all clear that preserving ur-humans is good for ecosystems, and posthumans could live much lighter on the planet. On the other hand mass extinctions are also “natural,” so if either humans or posthumans do cause extinctions of one species or the other that might be eco-beautiful as well. So, in the end, although Dr. Hassoun concludes “both arguments may show us that some nanotechnology-based human enhancements are impermissible” it seemed to me that her conclusion was that neither eco-aesthetics nor environmental ethics tell us much about permissible or impermissible enhancements.

Ron Sandler “Enhancing Justice?”

Ron Sandler, a professor of philosophy at Northeastern University, gave a talk after lunch focused on whether human enhancement technologies are likely to impair social justice. He considered “robust internal human enhancement technologies” as a qualitatively different kind of enhancements, and defined them as technologies which enhance a core human capacity, by altering the body or brain, beyond the range of capability otherwise attainable by human beings, or which enable some functionally significant capacity not otherwise had by humans.”

Many critics presume robust internal HETs will exacerbate inequality since their initial cost will restrict access to the wealthy and powerful, and provide them positional and competitive advantages. Possible responses include: (a) Kurzweilian optimism about accelerating technological innovation and diffusion, especially because of rapidly falling cost. But if technological innovation is accelerating, having any gap in diffusion of access will create an increasingly large exacerbation of inequality. (b) Ramez Naam’s suggestion that the affluent will be on the bleeding edge, but not get as much of an enhancement as the majority do when they receive the latter, refined, massified and less expensive versions of the enhancement. In effect, the wealthy are subsidizing enhancement innovation for the many without receiving compensatory advantages. But even minor positional advantages result in relatively large social inequalities.

(c) There might be large social benefits from any, even unequal, access to cognitive enhancement, including more progress towards social equality and derivative benefits to the unenhanced from the activities of the enhanced. But the cognitively advantaged are no more likely to pursue social justice, and the barriers to social justice are not the lack of capacity to see the problem and solutions. (d) Enhancing moral character might make us more egalitarian. But it is unlikely that virtue enhancement will be at the forefront of HETs for political and technological reasons. So the answer, Sandler concludes, is to make society, and access to HETs, more equal.

Linda MacDonald-Glenn and Jeanann Boyce “Not Just a Pretty Face: Legal and Ethical Issues in Regenerative Nanomedicine”

The IEET’s Linda MacDonald-Glenn spoke with her sister, Jeanann Boyce, on the research on the use of nanomaterials for neural regeneration and tissue engineering. They projected this research forward to robust Kurzweilian nano-neural networking.

Daniel Moore “Human Enhancement and the Military”

Daniel Moore, who works on nano-applications to semiconductors for IBM and has done work on nano-neural scaffolding at MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, spoke on military applications of enhancement. He started by describing the enhancing technologies of the last three thousand years, from spear, shields, swords and armor. His argument was that there was a continuity from these enhancements to those being explored by military research today. He distinguished between civilizational vs. individual technologies, defensive vs. offensive, permanent vs. temporary, and internal vs. external. A temporary external nano-enhancement would be better armor, for instance, while a chip in the head would be a permanent internal nano-enhancement. Some of the problems being addressed with nano-enhancement include carrying heavy loads, non-lethal crowd control, stamina under stress and sleeplessness, and surviving battlefield wounds. Ubiquitous nano-sensors in the battlefield and internal medical sensors can increase command and control, and allow remout triggers of nano-therapies in wounded soldiers.

I’ll post more later.

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 would love to have been a fly on the wall at that event.

Transhumanist versus bioconservative debates?




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