This evening I attended The Nature Debate: Enhancing the Body at King’s Place in King’s Cross, north London.
Today’s discussion is the second of two panel events on “the risks, benefits and extent of how far research can extend our mental and physical abilities”. Chaired by Kerri Smith, Nature Podcast Editor and presenter of Nature Neuroscience’s NeuroPod, the panel comprised:
• Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading and wannabe cyborg.
• Andy Miah, Reader in New Media & Bioethics at the University of the West of Scotland, Fellow of the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology and dapper dresser.
• Aubrey de Grey, Chairman of The Methuselah Foundation, an organization committed to accelerating progress toward a cure for age-related disease, and owner of a magnificent beard.
After a brief introduction and tongue in cheek incitement to “get physical” from Nature Managing Editor Nick Campbell, the panel members lay down their views on the subject of physical enhancement.
Aubrey de Grey begins by pointing out that all three panel members are advocates for physical enhancement and questions whether the discussion will really be a debate at all, then lays down his case, arguing that being against the concept of physical enhancement is “incoherent”. Citing examples such as the beneficial effects of antibiotics and vaccines on the immune system, he illustrates that we humans have already taken measures to enhance ourselves physically.
Next up is Kevin Warwick, who compares humans to computers in order to demonstrate the limitations of our mental capacities. He cites a professor at MIT who claimed that all the memories of a 100-year-old person could fit on a single CD and states that machines can sense spectra like ultraviolet and X-rays, finally suggesting that by harnessing the power of computers in these areas we can enhance mental powers such as memory capacity and sensory perception. Warwick’s most famous experiments represent the first steps along this path – in 1998 he implanted a chip under his skin and was able to open and shut doors via a computer, then in 2002 a new chip that interfaced directly onto his median nerve permitted him to move a robot arm in synchrony with his own actions.
The third panel member, Andy Miah, spoke about the value of human enhancement in elite sports. An asthmatic, he only recently began regularly using his inhaler and feels that his running capability has increased tremendously – where do these kind of measures fall in the debate about physical enhancement? Miah also discusses the case of the South African runner Oscar Pistorius, who is a double amputee and the proud owner of very high-tech carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs. Pistorius successfully campaigned to compete with able-bodied athletes in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His case raises interesting questions about the perception of disability and the purpose of enhancements.
Chair Kerri Smith picks up on this theme and asks the panel whether there is a difference between enhancing the physical capabilities of a disabled person in order to bring them up to the the capacity of a ‘normal’ individual, and physically enhancing a healthy person to give them abilities above the norm. Harking back to the case of Oscar Pistorius, Andy Miah opines that the definition of a ‘normal’ human and, therefore, what constitutes a physical enhancement is particularly difficult, especially in the paralympics. This issue then leads into a discussion of what constitutes an acceptable physical enhancement, with Aubrey de Grey suggesting that elite sport is ‘the canary in the coalmine’ of physical enhancement and may well prove to be the litmus test of what society considers acceptable.
Finally, the panel are asked what sort of physical enhancements are possible at this moment in time and how long it will be before one of their pet projects comes to fruition. Aubrey de Grey says that the aim in his field is “to solve the problem of aging faster than it catches up with us” and that he hopes the discipline of regenerative medicine will reach this point in 25-30 years. Andy Miah thinks that the first genetically enhanced athletes might appear in the 2012 Olympic Games, and acknowledges that genetic modification is already possible in animals and it is only ethical and safety concerns that prevent such techniques being used in humans today. Kevin Warwick cites his most recent experiments – in which rat neurons are interfaced with robot ‘bodies’ – as examples that enhancing physical capabilities through computers is technologically possible at the moment, and purports that it could only be 12-18 months before scientists start doing similar experiments with the human nervous system. On the other hand, there are many concerns relating to surgery, infection, and the ethics of such undertakings, meaning that linking human brains to robot bodies – Steve Martin brain-in-a-jar style – might not happen for up to 10 years.
So what of Nature’s original question – “How should we respond to enhancement technologies?” The answer from the panel seems to be: “enthusiastically”. The last word goes to Aubrey de Grey, who states “It is intellectually bankrupt to say that any enhancement per se is wrong”.