Buying into the Bionic man

Arrays of technologies — from robotics to bioengineering — are beginning to converge, and this convergence is destined to have profound effects on our future. Science and technology have done more to affect culture and collective consciousness across social divides than any other pillar of society. From the atom bomb to the Internet to iPhones: once technologies are created, society changes irreversibly. The scary but interesting thing is that, as a society, we are being forced to face some very tough questions about what we want to be, and what we value. As technologies converge there is growing potential to make of ourselves whatever we desire.

Today it is possible to literally fabricate a working synthetic organ, genetically modify a human embryo, build a primitive bionic eye and construct increasingly more intelligent and sophisticated robots. Yet these innovations are only the beginning. If you thought having a camera combined with your phone was amazing, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

In Vol. 96 Issue 15 of the Manitoban I wrote an article (“Who will you be, when they cure what ails you?”) partly inspired by the notion that in the future humanity will become increasingly capable of “improving” itself and how that may have negative effects on identity. I’ve since learned that human curiosity and drive to excel will always trump our (perhaps naive) moral concerns given enough time. A future where we can engineer children is possible, despite delays based on religious and moral concerns.

Like our need to colonize space, I’ve come to accept that, from a survival and quality of life point of view, a “transhumanist” future is probable. The perks of running faster, seeing farther and being more intelligent simply outweigh our moral and ethical concerns. While I still think that these changes will affect identity, I also believe that there will always be some limit to our ability and therefore some suffering to struggle through. However, those struggles may be far different than those we face today. Regardless, the core struggles — like the pursuit of love and friendship — will likely exist no matter what future we create for ourselves, and so my concern over human engineering affecting our identities may not be as profound as I originally believed.

That said, there are going to be some major problems to overcome as we transition toward the ability to control our own evolution. Some of them I’m sure you’ve already thought of, like reigniting the eugenics movement, or having an era where science drastically misfires with tragic outcomes. However my biggest concern is that, if not handled democratically, this shift may cause a split in the human race based on wealth.

Consider how wealth has divided our species throughout the whole of recorded history. Consider how we’ve always allowed the less fortunate to do the dirty work for the affluent, whether through slavery or global economics. Consider also our inclinations towards prejudice.

When we think about how wealth, power and ignorance have shaped our history so far, we come to a grave underlying concern when it comes to the application of “transhumanist” ideas. This concern is that if technology in its most advanced form is only accessible to those who can afford it, we may well see a division in our species along economic lines. The poor may will remain homo sapiens as the rich transform into homo evolutis. This is my core concern for this possible — in my opinion, inevitable —future.

If and when we become truly capable of controlling our own evolution, a rift in the species along economic lines would create a variant of humanity that is truly superior to traditional humans. Think of how something as transitory and artificial as money can separate and divide humanity. What will happen when that wealth is re-enforced by evolution? If slavery of the past was justified based on perceived racial superiority, and only ended when science and social upheaval proved we’re all equal, then how would actual superiority play out? My guess would be that it could create an irreversible subservience in those who remain homo sapiens in a way that makes all human oppression of the past feel like a warm up.

I’m not alone in believing that transhumanism is the next likely step for the species. However, if this is to be our future, we have a moral obligation to prevent the rift I’ve discussed. To accomplish this we must all do our part to ensure that technologies that could be used to engineer humanity are dealt with in a fair and democratic manner. Only then would technology prove to be humanity’s saving grace, as we would be closer than ever to achieving equality among all people, through the reduction of perceived physical impairments.

Some may feel that it’s too early to feel concern for this issue, yet technology is improving at speeds unparalleled in human history. We must start thinking actively about this now, for the easiest way to tame a beast is before it grows out of hand.

Corey King is a homo sapien and proud of it — in small doses — yet his grandchildren may not be . . . hmmmmm.