"" Welcome to my thoughts: August 2009

Saturday, August 8, 2009

You gotta lift...


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Life after human or Modified version... but still called "Human"

In the light of Adrian Stuart,

Today, we are modifying and augmenting our bodies and abilities in ways which were not only impossible 100 years ago, but unfathomable.

If at this point in time, you happen to be young and a city-dwelling citizen of a rich, technologically advanced country, it’s unlikely that you will appreciate how truly distant the world of your grandparents is to your current existence. In some cases, your grandparents may have lived in homes with mud floors, without electricity, running water, antibiotics and of course, no internet. Not too long ago, your relatives may have grown their own food and made their own clothes. Many of the grandparents of which we speak, born around the World War II era, are currently engaged in knee and hip replacement surgery, cataract operations, organ transplants - and with an access to pharmaceuticals with properties that would have been astonishing not too long ago.

What will the future hold for someone who is 10 years old today? One possible vision of life after the next hundred years is described by a group of people who believe that the concept of being ‘human’ is about to become a cloudy issue. These are the posthumanists. The basic idea of a posthuman is someone who once was a human – or one of their ancestors was a human – but this future person has now modified themselves to the point where they are not quite the same as we are today.

What would such a person be like? In which ways could an individual modify themselves so that they would become ‘different’ than human?

Some of the ways in which the idea of human-ness is changing are already with us: moving slowly but present nonetheless. For example, knee and hip surgery and artificial organs – these are clearly not ‘parts of us’, yet we use them as replacements for organs that have been damaged or failed. In the future, replacement parts grown through nanotechnology may lead to even better mechanical replacements that we can produce at this time. Further in the future, biology and nanotechnology together may produce replacement organs which are indistinguishable from the original – but young and healthy. Continuing on further, there is no necessity to stop at the elements of the body which we currently view as ‘hardware’ – parts of the brain as they are fail or are injured can be replaced.

This, of course, opens up a very interesting debate. At what point does a person stop being a ‘human’ – or even, at which point does a person stop being ‘themselves?’

Stephen Pinker, a cognitive neuroscientist presents this question within a very old story told by the Greek, Plutarch, in the 1st century CE.

"The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same."

Pinker takes The Ship of Theseus paradox a step further. What if, asks Pinker, a nanomachine could be produced that could perfectly duplicate the process of an actual neuron. Surgeons would replace one of your neurons with this tiny device – and you notice no difference. They then replace a second, then a third and so on. You feel no different, your perceptions and memory remain the same.

What would you feel if the new neurons had the ability to recall anything that you had ever perceived – which of course, felt just as you were thinking it with your own brain? Is it not, still, your own brain?

Ultimately, every cell in the body could be replaced by the new nano-cell. This cell, of course, would function at least as well as the one it replaced, and it would have the additional benefit that it too could be replaced in case of damage – in effect, a kind of immortality. Pinker has described a possible surgical technique that would lead to a posthuman state.

Still, we must remind ourselves that the potential posthuman reality as described in this article will arrive in series of small steps. Again, some of these can already be observed in their infancy. Science and technology is giving us the ability to manipulate our cells by genetic engineering; psychoactive drugs enable us to have enhanced memory or cognitive abilities, even items as innocuous as a mobile phone are essentially ‘external memory storage’ devices, replacing what we could keep in our own memory.

What is certain, is that the arrival of any new technology will have deep and far reaching effects - and it is obvious that whatever the future holds, taking the time now to discuss, debate and help shape the way forward is an investment opportunity not to be lost.