Time recently ran a cover story titled, “Can Google Solve Death?” The wording was a bit much, as the subject of the piece, Google’s new firm Calico, has more modest ambitions, like using “tools like big data to determine what really extends lives.” But even if there won’t be an app for immortality any time soon, we’re increasingly going to have to make difficult decisions about when human limits should be pushed and how to ensure ethics keeps pace with innovation.
There’s a moment in the new documentary Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement that might make most people gasp: Bioethicist James Hughes argues that it’s immoral for parents to intentionally bring disabled children into the world just to enrich their family life. Instead of imposing disabilities on others, he insists, they should settle with getting a pet. (Disclosure: Hughes is the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, where I am a fellow.*)
Hughes has written that the clip was shown out of context. But its inclusion helps the director, Regan Brashear, explore provocative questions about how far society should go with transformative enhancement technologies, such as bionics, implanted computer chips, brain-computer interfaces, genetic engineering, and pharmacology. Where it is perhaps most powerful is in its exploration of the line between normal and abnormal, especially when it comes to the ideology of transhumanism.
Transhumanists “view human nature as a work in progress” and hope that developments in science and technology will enable us to become people “with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have”. Some of its adherents truly do believe parents are morally obliged “to have the healthiest children through all natural and artificial means available.” Brashear wants her audience to know about their controversial ideology of “procreative beneficence,” rather than remaining unaware of its existence and influence.
Brashear also wants us to question whether society has an unhealthy obsession with competitiveness. If so, we should pause and ask what will happen in the future when the skills and abilities we respect today—or even just consider typical—become obsolete?
Gregor Wolbring, a biochemist and ability studies scholar at the University of Calgary, answers this question by arguing that humans are better off accepting imperfection than striving for continuous improvement—a path, he says, that leads to a rat race without end. For dramatic effect, Brashear doesn’t show us this scene until after making sure we know Wolbring doesn’t have legs and is adamant that while this disability means he can’t get around in the same way lots of other people do, the difference is only a variation, not an impairment.
As the technologies Fixed covers become more advanced, it will become increasingly difficult to determine when society should veer off the augmentation highway and who should be deciding where lines should be drawn. But for all the clarity this documentary brings, it too quickly narrows our focus to dramatic cases. If we scratch below the surface of everyday experience, we can see that common digital technologies already significantly upgrade cognition. At least that’s what technology journalist Clive Thompson argues in his new book, Smarter Than You Think.
Let’s reconsider Google. While it can’t make us Twilight characters, it does offer Gmail, a widely used e-mail program. Since all the information saved on it—ranging from text to photos and video—is stored on the cloud, the data easily outlive the replaceable laptops, desktops, smartphones, and tablets we cycle through. And since Google’s powerful and intuitive search technology enables all of our information—including conversations with others—to be rapidly recalled, Gmail effectively functions like a technologically externalized and extended memory. As Thompson puts it, Gmail has become a “de facto lifelog,”a repository of both minutia and meaningful highlights that persists after organic memory fades.
Or, take the explosion of writing that Internet connected tools facilitate. Thompson approximates that through e-mail and social media alone “we’re composing at least 3.6 trillion words daily, or the equivalent of 36 million books every day.” As a helpful point of comparison, he reminds us that the “entire U.S. Library of Congress … holds around about 35 million books.”
The output becomes significant when we factor in additional platforms like blogs—and public writing has a special alchemy that can improve what we say and think, thanks to the “audience effect.” Public writing can lead to clearer thinking because it gives us an opportunity to test out the impressionistic ideas we’re initially jazzed about. Once our introspected insights are open to scrutiny, their luster sometimes fades: What we see as clear and brilliant, others can find muddled and banal. After enough rounds of these debates, we can start to anticipate skepticism and criticism before we hit “publish.”
Then there’s the power of social media to amp up what social scientists call “ambient awareness”—an intimate, “ESP”-like experience whereby we can “almost unconsciously” pick up on what other people are thinking, feeling, and doing simply by viewing clusters of “small observations,” like status updates, and assembling the snippets. Thompson makes a compelling case that ambient awareness can “endow us with new, sometimes startling abilities.”
Altogether, Thompson’s descriptions of enhanced cognition show that pushing the boundaries of being human doesn’t require the high-tech bio-augmentations Fixed portrays. We’re already more enhanced than we think.
*This article was updated on Oct. 4 to reflect that the author is a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, of which James Hughes is executive director.