Made in Whose Image?

The Moral Implications of Human Augmentation

Writer: Nicholas Santiago
Editor: Isabella Boyne
Artist: Patrick Marenda

Science fiction posits that the future will be swathed with intelligent beings beyond our reasoning and comprehension. We see this in films like The Matrix, Blade Runner and The Terminator, while literature like Brave New World and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? evoke the inevitable convergence of man and machine. Popular media like Westworld have offered fantastical ways of reprogramming people to be the ‘best’ version of themselves through brain modification, enhanced reasoning and genetic alteration.

Altering our bodies is not a new concept. Vaccines modify immunological predispositions; plastic surgery grants a physical and cosmetic change; and people who have lost a limb may be given a prosthesis or bio-prosthesis, programmed to synapse with their nerves and tissues. Use of synthetic organs or limbs is encouraged as they are meant to preserve natural life rather than bolster it. One can question the use of antidepressants and their effects on the brain’s chemistry to alter a patient’s personality, though they do not confer any particular advantage.

Dr Kevin Warwick, Emeritus Professor at Coventry and Reading Universities and an expert in cybernetics – the study of natural and robotic control systems – defends the practice of manipulating and augmenting the human body. In an interview with the Guardian, he asked “What is wrong with replacing imperfect bits of your body with artificial parts that will allow you to perform better – or which might allow you to live longer?”. Warwick argues that the merging of human and machine is an inevitable trajectory of human evolution, even if it carries a risk of brain damage. According to his contested theories, those who reject the merge would be branded a ‘subspecies’, which would spawn a new style of racism. However, ethical concerns are borne from Warwick’s desire to create a new human with supreme technological prowess. If an athlete without arms is fitted with carbon-fibre prosthetics, it would be considered preservation of quality of life; if an athlete voluntarily removes their arms to gain prosthetics that grant a competitive advantage, it shakes the border of ethics.

Transhumanism intersects cybernetics with the understanding that humans can transcend natural selection using advanced technologies to establish a new ‘preset’ human. One example is biophysicist He Jiankui’s infamous experiment of 2018, in which he used CRISPR technology to remove the CCR5 gene from twin embryos in an attempt to prevent the contraction of HIV-1. The initial excitement was followed by grave international condemnation for discovering his solo and stealthy alterations to two young babies, codenamed Lulu and Nana, without consulting the medical community, and therefore experimenting on pre-birth life without permission. He gambled dangerously by intervening in the gestational period and coercing volunteers to join the trials without fully informing them of the risks to their children, which included a shortened lifespan. His trial sparked legitimate fear that, if conducted legally and globally, genetic engineering using CRISPR technology may spiral into eugenics outside of the public eye and without government regulation. 

He Jiankui has since been imprisoned for his radical, unethical and underdeveloped methodology. Still, many believe that his research goals were well-intentioned; we seek to live happily, without disease or pain. Bioethicist Dr Arthur Caplan of New York University argues that engineering human genes is inevitable ‒ the debate should focus on how, not whether, the technology should be deployed and regulated. 

Warwick and He’s examples of augmentation ‒ both overt with limbs and organs, and covert with genes ‒ make it clear that we are inclined to reject the ‘unnatural’ on both ends of the spectrum. Even so, it is not entirely unjustified to desire to manipulate our bodies with technology. To move forward, we must consider three dominant implications of cybernetics that raise pressing moral and ethical questions. 

Human identity. Without the risk of injury, fear of death, or affliction of heart disease, cancer and hereditary illness, humanity could, in theory, become sedentary. There would be no impetus to work toward a goal. Editing one’s body would be no different to making changes to the robots that we fear will ‘take over someday’. As man and technology merge, where would we draw the line of where humanity stops and robotics begins? We would become that which Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick have taught us to fear; what would make us human without natural ailment and mortality?

Political tension. Nations which openly condone mass genetic and physical alterations of their peoples would likely be met with protest and backlash, since governments could decide who would have access to the technology and who would not. Should nations condone, social systems must have funds and resources evenly distributed to ensure affordable access for all, or risk further entrenching social and class divides. The technology may also be made available to foreign nations, though will likely be auctioned off as a product rather than a life-changing innovation. 

Personal privatisation. Powerful technologies with the potential to improve well-being could be subverted by the scheme of prohibitive expense, making them solely available to the wealthy. Underprivileged communities whose health is already compromised by their living conditions would be left without treatment, privy to disease and further marginalisation, exacerbating racial and class divides. 

         Robotics, cybernetics and transhumanism, once romanticised concepts from science fiction, are now being practised under the radar on unsuspecting civilians to artificially evolve humanity. In truth, although augmentation is lauded in literature for its unknown and exciting philosophical concepts, it may not abide ethical guidelines. Re-engineering our genes and bodies is exciting and perhaps noble in pursuit, but drawing the line to preserve healthy moral boundaries is key. What would we be if not without persistence and peril, we who fight and work everyday to live life to the fullest because we know our lifespans and bodies are limited?

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