Technology

Enhancement technology raises disturbing ethical issues

By Amanda Wilson | Last updated: Oct 17, 2011 - 11:42:29 PM

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (IPS/GIN) - Imagine a class of 24 children, three of whom take performance enhancing medicines that increase their chances of scoring high on standardized tests. Now quadruple that number, with one-half of the pupils popping pills and the other pushing their pencils med free.

Arizona State University (ASU) professors Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz, co-authors of the book “The Techno-Human Condition,” use this hypothetical scenario to illustrate the implications of enhancing, or the practice of interfacing humans and technologies to augment human capacities.

Though the classroom example is just one hypothetical scenario, enhancement technologies are already very real, the authors said, arguing that the human body is a “design space for bioscience” in a society already engaging technology on a highly personal level.

“How many of you outsource your memory to Google?” they posed, referring to relying on a search engine to retrieve forgotten information.

New technologies, they said, are “changing the ethical space” of society and presenting new questions about right and wrong, ethical and unethical, and natural and unnatural. Furthermore, the choice to enhance matters on a social scale much broader than individual choice

“These technologies all have ripple effects. … If one person in my SAT class enhances, that's one thing, but if it is 25 percent, it begins to skew the curve,” Prof. Allenby said at the forum, “Is Our Techo-Human Marriage in Need of Counseling,” held in September at the New America Foundation and co-sponsored by Slate Magazine and ASU.

“Enhancements are not free of implications for everybody else in the society that is playing with enhancements.”

The authors pointed to new computer-human relationships, such as the use of Facebook and more extreme phenomena, such as ‘deaths by gaming' caused by video-gaming so intense that gamers neglect to eat or drink and finally die. Other examples come from the field of biotechnology, such as life-extending treatments.

“Everyone wants to live to be 150, but what (would) a world where everyone can live to 150 be like?” Prof. Sarewitz asked. “We need to talk about what that would be like.”

The technologies the authors highlight hold overwhelming potential to improve human physical or mental capacities in the near future and promise breakthroughs that challenge long-held ideas of what is humanly possible.

Two main arguments currently dominate the discourse about enhancements, Prof. Allenby and Prof. Sarewitz said. The conservative approach to technology promotes state regulatory intervention, whereas the libertarian approach sees individuals as having free rein on how, when and if they choose to enhance.

After all, the authors argued, people like to enhance, especially if they believe they might give their children a “competitive advantage in life.”

On the other hand, “sometimes people rise up and reject certain technologies for certain reasons,” Prof. Sarewitz said, pointing out broad rejections of genetically modified foods in Europe and a push away from nuclear energy in the United States.

Either way, the authors suggested that technology is evolving faster than society's ability to grapple with it. They say discussion should focus on which technologies society will have to deal with and which ones should be challenged.

Others disagree. A broader discussion on technology and society should not only confront the “accept” or “reject” dilemma, according to Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), a non-profit that analyzes technology's impacts on society.

He said it should also examine the promises, hype, and sensationalism that accompany breakthroughs and advances. “What we are finding that with biotechnology is that there has been very little accomplished compared to the promises,” Freese told IPS.

While Freese said the biotech sector has successfully been able to engineer bacteria and cell cultures to produce drugs, other decades—long biotech research on gene therapy, which promises to cure rare diseases using genes inserted into the human body, has yet to produce a successful breakthrough.

“It is really important to understand that a lot of this is hype, and very carefully calibrated hype,” Mr. Freese said, pointing out that much of the publicity surrounding biotechnology in particular is strategically created to attract funding, with many start-ups ultimately going bankrupt without ever fulfilling their promises.

Mr. Freese suggested that a broader discussion on technology and society could start with greater transparency surrounding government institutions and their funding of private companies conducting medical research, such as in genetic engineering.

He questioned whether government institutions such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should give funding to biotech companies working on research in human genetic engineering.

“The NIH could throw open this whole issue to debate,” Mr. Freese said.

In addition to ICTA, which was formed after the U.S. Congress shut down the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995, another non-governmental organization working in society and technology is the ETC Group, a group researching broader socio-economic issues related to new technologies.

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