Why Humankind Isn't Ready for the Bionic Revolution

Why Humankind Isn't Ready for the Bionic Revolution

Why you should care

Because living longer comes at a price.

Michael Bess is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book is Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future.

In the coming decades — probably sooner than most people realize — the next great wave of technological change will hit us. Its impact will be similar in scope to the advent of computers, cell phones and the internet. But it won’t be our gadgets being transformed; it will be our bodies and minds.

This shift will cut even more deeply than the great industrial revolutions of the past. It will alter how we make a living, communicate and interact while giving us increasingly direct control over our physical and mental states. Sounds great, right? There’s just one problem: Humankind simply isn’t ready.

We should deliberately postpone radical forms of self-modification until society has had a chance to gauge the consequences and acclimate to them.

Through the use of pharmaceuticals, we are learning how to modulate our moods, boost our physical and mental performance and increase our longevity and vitality. With prostheses, skull caps, wearable headsets and other bioelectronic devices, we are not only healing the blind and the paralyzed but beginning to reconfigure our bodies, enhance our memories and generate entirely new ways of interacting with machines. Thanks to genetic interventions, we are neutralizing once “incurable” diseases and opening up the very real possibility of taking evolution into our own hands — and completely overhauling the human “platform.”

The results will be mixed. Some of these new bioenhanced capabilities will be splendid. People will live longer, healthier, more productive lives. They will connect in seamless webs of direct interactivity and be able to fine-tune their moods and thought processes. They will interact with machines in entirely new ways, and their augmented brains will generate staggeringly complex and subtle forms of knowledge and insight.

At the same time, the advent of these new technologies will confront our society with formidable questions:

  • Will the best enhancements be prohibitively expensive and available to just a privileged few, radically worsening the gap between haves and have-nots?
  • If these technologies raise the bar of “normal,” won’t they force us all to engage in constant upgrades — making us nothing short of Humans 95, Humans XP, Humans 7, Humans 10?
  • Will those who refuse become like obsolete technologies, hopelessly outclassed by modified humans?
  • If we can sculpt our moods at will — simply by choosing from a wide array of sophisticated pills or by using a bioelectronic skull cap to manipulate our brains — which emotional states will constitute the “real” us?
  • If people live healthy and mentally vigorous lives that span 130 to 160 years (perhaps even longer), what impact will this have on marriage and family, population levels and ecological pressures, not to mention our sense of life’s meaning and purpose?

Until recently in human history, major technological watersheds came about incrementally, spread over centuries or longer. People and social systems had time to adapt by gradually developing new values, norms and habits to accommodate the transformation. This is not the case with the current epochal shift. This time, the radical innovations are hitting us with relative suddenness — in a time frame that encompasses four or five decades, a century at most.

Some of the factors propelling this process will reflect our baser nature: greed, competition, envy and the lust for power. Others will arise from noble sentiments, like the desire to see loved ones succeed, thirst for originality and aspirations to achieve and know more. These forces will be hard enough in themselves to resist, but they will be further strengthened by the involvement of large-scale business interests, for whom these technologies will offer major profits. This nexus of impulses and ideals, economic and social forces will generate a seemingly irresistible pressure to go faster, faster, faster.

But restraint is the smarter path. We should deliberately postpone radical forms of self-modification until society has had a chance to gauge the consequences and acclimate to them. Some of these technologies will have to be banned outright, both by national governments and through international treaties. An example would be a brain-scanning machine that allows people to read the thoughts of others without their consent. All bioenhancements will need to be regulated to make sure they are safe and effective. Above all, citizens will need to be educated about the hidden dangers of these tantalizing but potentially harmful extensions of human performance. If we permit these kinds of technologies to advance too quickly, the resulting social stresses could end up destabilizing civilization. The likelihood of major unintended effects should compel us all to proceed slowly, and with great humility, as we drive down this road.

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