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Huge Pew study says human augmentation will be a hard sell, but it probably won’t be

There are basically two arguments against non-medical human augmentation. One is that it’s too medically dangerous to be ethical. The other is that it will have negative-enough effects on society that even medically safe procedures are unethical anyway. One is a scientific argument in need of a scientific appraisal, while the other is essentially a moral or philosophical argument that needs to be addressed in its own distinct way. The general public doesn’t seem to draw this distinction, muddying up the purely scientific question of safety with the purely personal question of social benefit, and the right (not the ability) of man to muck with nature.

That’s just one of the implications of polling data collected by the Pew Research Center, summarized in a long and involved report (make sure to read past Page 1!) published this week. It gets at not just how people feel about the future of biotechnology, but their opinions about specific initiatives and possible futures. It reveals some intriguing patterns of belief, some pretty reasonable fears, and some pretty ridiculous ones too. The study focuses most powerfully on gene editing of babies and adults, upgraded synthetic blood, and intracranial brain implants for cognitive enhancement. Each produced distinct worries from the study’s subjects.

According to the study’s results, in general people have no problem with the idea of healing the sick, of fixing a deficiency, or even acting preemptively to prevent later degeneration. But they draw the line at enhancement beyond a natural level. Many futurists and boosters of human augmentation, however, talk about certain totally normal aspects of human life as a deficiency, from the need to sleep, to the menstrual cycle, to death itself. Could we one day view the human inability to perfectly focus long-term attention at will as a deficiency? Might we one-day think of access to technology that grants such an ability as a basic human right?

If we do come to such an understanding of augmented abilities, it will likely be because augmentation becomes necessary to remain socially and economically competitive. That’s a major concern for the people polled here: that standards for performance will endlessly increase and we’ll all suffer for it. People won’t be able to keep up without investing not only their time but their bodies. “I think [synthetic blood] would sort of fundamentally change who we are. … You would have this culture of people just obsessed with being bigger, stronger, faster, and just outperforming everybody,” said one 35-year-old Atlanta man.

I’m skeptical of these sorts of worries. For one, it’s a fallacy to imply that the vast majority of first-world citizens have the slightest need of, or will experience the slightest increased success from, most physical augmentations. Being stronger and faster, or having higher endurance, or being able to see far better than 20/20… how many of us will actually be able to derive a real extra benefit from this, in a practical sense? And if we did, say by winning the local marathon or reading street signs from further away, how much will that success impact those around us? Outside of some specific areas like sports, there’s little reason to believe that physical enhancement will be a requirement for economic success.

Of course, we sedentary Westerners offset our lack of muscle-work with a whole heck of a lot of brain work, and one area of interest for this study was brain implants. These could help with memory formation or attention span or even mood. But the participants were unified in their worry of the technology. Some feared the pure medical implications, simply refusing to believe that science could insert large numbers of cranial implants at a high-enough level of safety. Others again fear the creation of super-people with super-abilities that make the modern state of social inequality look like an egalitarian paradise.

The fears do seem to embody the current social justice zeitgeist, in which unequal opportunity is seen to give rise to unequal results, which in turn produce even more unequal opportunities. If the wealthy can gene-edit their babies into a high IQ, and give them a brain implant to help focus that IQ with laser precision, what proportion of the poor will be able to compete for the highest paying jobs, or the most elite school programs?

Not all the fears are particularly reasonable, however. Much of the squeamishness seems to arise from the idea that nature is good, and that unnatural things are bad. Partly, it’s about the far less formed idea that we will lose something important as we move further from evolution’s latest beta version of human biology. A 59-year-old woman in the focus group claimed that, “You kind of … lose individuality because you have all these kind of super-people that can remember everything, [but there are] no individuals anymore. They’re all just the same robotic people.” I’d argue that there’s really no evidence of this connection between having a perfect memory and the loss of individuality.

It’s also partly about religious sentiment — the more religious someone claimed to be, the more wary of augmentation they were. Historically, highly invasive medical procedures have been mostly for dire medical need, so it was only the most dedicated sects that withheld the tech from their followers. With arguably more frivolous gains at stake, there will undoubtedly be a larger proportion of faiths directing their followers to stay away from augmentation. This could not only lead to predictably different outcomes for different populations in North America, not to mention drive people either into or out of secularism, but it could also dramatically affect the global competitiveness of mostly secular versus mostly religious nations around the world.

Let’s also remember that being wary of something is different than opposing it. People are wary of genetically modified foods, but they also buy such species by the megaton in grocery stores around the country. It’s been widely argued that the advent of the ubiquitous automobile has left us more socially disconnected, as we spend our travel time locked in soundproof boxes and zip by one another at high speeds. This hasn’t stopped the automobile from dominating virtually every culture on Earth, even those that put an emphasis on inadvertent interaction with strangers. It may be that the automobile is a net negative for the health of human societies, but if so, that fact hasn’t meaningfully slowed adoption.

Few of the concerns expressed in this study would produce a strong enough legal challenge to actually stop research. Certainly, the safety for human test subjects is an issue, but the medical research industry is more than capable of dealing with that challenge. To actually prevent this research, with its incredible potential to change the human experience and produce profit, you need something better than squeamishness — unless you’re a senator or congressperson. If a sufficiently large proportion of legislators get up in arms, they could stop progress in a stem cell-like spate of obstructionism, but that will only happen if enough voters demand it.

Will they? These are all thoroughly new technologies, getting at issues people find genuinely distressing, from DNA manipulation to chunks of metal in the brain. The fact is, you just can’t keep steroids, focus drugs, and blood oxygenating agents out of people’s hands when they have even the slightest incentive to use them — with advanced biotech research becoming so incredibly doable without much of a budget, it would take a very robust block to adequately put an end to augmentation research.

Whether these public fears are justified is to be judged on a case by case basis, and we certainly shouldn’t dismiss the idea that augmentation science could be overzealous and unethical. But there is little precedent to justify the idea that such worries will lead to a meaningful stoppages in human advancement — even the stem cell prohibitions haven’t meaningfully slowed full stem cell research, but simply driven it out of certain countries.

Human augmentation is coming. If you’re worried about it, you’re in abundant company — and your national political representatives are your only way to stall the inevitable.

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