Last time I mentioned transhumanist Kyle Munkittrick, he was in the middle of a blog exchange regarding the ethics of designer babies, a topic I just so happened to call comic book science for several reasons. Now, he’s quite literally using comic books to describe the psychological impact of transhumanism, recruiting a quartet from The Avengers to represent four archetypes of superhuman enhancement. It’s actually a really fun read so I would definitely encourage you to take a few minutes and head on over to Science Not Fiction, but it really seems to be another instance of transhumanists talking about how creating super-humans would be a world changing event but not really narrowing things down and focusing on the practical steps to getting from thinking about enhancement and actually making it happen. So why don’t we try to cut through the futurism to take a look at what’s achievable and what will be likely to happen when humans can augment themselves on a more regular basis than they do now? By Munkittrick’s analogy, the most likely scenario for future humans is the Iron Man one, in which humans are mechanically modified and use technology to overcome the problems of failing organs, limited limbs, or just aging, and when something falls out, we’ll replace it with machinery.
Why would I confidently invoke the mechanical path? Because it’s easier. We know how our bodies work, but only to a certain degree. Technology is something that we know how to build from scratch and we already can and do customize it to work with our bodies, and there’s a very real medical need to create better and more complex interfaces between humans and machines since they could make all the difference between getting on an organ transplant wait list and receiving a mechanical substitute that will either hold you over, or let you get on with your life. Artificial neurons could heal paralyzing spinal cord injuries and restore partial function to damaged nerve clusters or parts of the brain, and wireless links to computers already help patients who are left mute or locked in to communicate with the outside world. Slowly but surely, we’re headed towards very mechanical solutions to organic problems, and with robotic limbs or organs will come new opportunities and the potential to do things we’ve only seen in science fiction. It will take many decades to get there, if not a few centuries, but all the ingredients for it are already in place, even books which worry about our future as frail shells of what we once were, utterly dependent on machinery to stay alive. Far from being a nag, they will actually help us keep in mind the balance between being in control and surrendering control to the devices of which we’re supposed to be in charge since the latter is a recipe for trouble.
And here’s the important thing to keep in mind. We need to treat all this is if it’s no big deal because when we really get down to it, it’s not. We’re just using technology to fulfill our needs, which is exactly what technology is meant to do, and the needs we’re addressing are immediate and pervasive enough to justify the trillions and trillions of dollars we’ll spend on research, development, and testing in the coming decades. Breathless talk of how we’ll change the world and live forever, or lectures on why we shouldn’t be afraid of changing how we’ll see the human species in the future miss the point by addressing abstract desires instead of what’s actually important and immediate. People’s fears of devices they don’t understand or trusting a technology which was sold to them as nearly miraculous are actually quite healthy and useful. Just like those aforementioned books detailing our potential downfall through over-reliance on technology (and I’m talking about introspective works here rather than simple scaremongering based on watching too many sci-fi movies or plain old fogeyism), skepticism about the performance, safety, and reliability of hardware that will be installed inside humans is a necessity that will lead to better, safer, and more reliable cyborg technologies. And again, it’s really not a huge deal and shouldn’t be made into one. So what if in the future we may build an Iron Man suit and have cyborgs piloting it? Why do we need to gather in meetings about the philosophical and ethical implications of this idea instead of just seeing if it could be done and addressing concerns about existing technology rather than the stuff we still only see in the comic books from which Munkittrick got his transhuman archetypes?