Human enhancement: Is it good for society?

February 12, 2019, University of Geneva
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Human enhancement technologies are opening up tremendous new possibilities. But they're also raising important questions about what it means to be human, and what is good or bad for our individual and collective well-being. These technologies are currently geared toward upgrading or restoring physical and psychological abilities for medical purposes. An application is surfacing, however, that is designed with another goal in mind: embellishing performance. Although using this technology is very much an individual choice, it nevertheless has an impact on society as a whole. An international team of researchers headed by the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, and Oxford University has been examining the ethical issues arising from these experiments. The research, published in Nature Human Behaviour, questions and highlights the conflict between individual and collective well-being, together with the important role governments have to play.

Currently, human enhancement technologies are mainly used restoratively following an accident, illness or genetic defect. A recent U.S. study led by Debra Whitman and published in Scientific American reported that these restorative technologies receive near-universal approval from the general public—95 percent of respondents support physical restorative applications and 88 percent cognitive restorative applications. This percentage drops to 35 percent, however, when the subject turns to interventions intended to upgrade a physical or cognitive ability with the sole aim of boosting performance. Why? "Because you're touching on the very essence of humankind, and that raises an avalanche of ethical questions," says Daphné Bavelier, professor in the Psychology Section in UNIGE's Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE). An international team of researchers, mandated by the World Economic Forum (WEF), has been looking into the factors that need to be taken into consideration to ensure a fair society and collective well-being when developing and distributing these new human improvement technologies.

Well-being is seen in terms of independence, competence and social relations

Although well-being is often reduced to economic indices, it actually goes beyond the idea of money once primary needs have been met. The theory of self-determination divides well-being into three parts: autonomy—the ability to make one's own decisions; competence—the capacity to act and contribute to society; and social relations—the network of relationships that we can count on. "We probed the individual and collective impact of human augmentation technologies based on these three components, the aim being to alert governments to the possible abuses involved in the unrestricted use of these scientific advances," says Julian Savulescu, professor at the Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University.

Autonomy is making individual life choices without coercion by another person. It follows that an individual may choose whether or not to upgrade his or her faculties. "But," says Professor Bavelier, "that can quickly lead to certain aberrations. If a military pilot has their eyesight enhanced, it's possible that this improved visual acuity may become obligatory to do the job. So someone who wants to become a pilot but doesn't want to be operated on would automatically be eliminated from the profession."

Take another example: "If parents were able to choose certain traits for their baby, such as muscle strength, eye color or intelligence, this could have a severe impact on human diversity," says Simone Schürle, a professor in the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zurich. "Certain trends might favour particular traits, while others might disappear, and that would tend to reduce genetic variability." And yet, each set of parents would only be choosing traits of a single baby. "Each individual modification has consequences for society," points out Professor Bavelier.

The same applies to competence. What will happen if some people have the resources to buy new skills while others do not? How will companies manage to stay competitive if these advantages become a bargaining tool? How will we be able to compete against someone who has been enhanced? "Doping in sport is an excellent example of how individual enhancement impacts on the collective," argues Professor Savulescu. "When an athlete takes a substance that improves their results, they push others to imitate them for the sake of performance. To be competitive, individuals are no longer free to say no to performance enhancement. This requires new approaches. Perhaps the key question is not about the effectiveness of the regulations, but rather about a new transparency that would allow everyone to take enhancements or refuse, but to be open about it and to factor use into the results."

The steady increase in the use of drugs with the aim of facilitating social relations underlines the importance of this aspect in human well-being. Although new technologies are emerging in this field, their use raises genuine ethical questions at the collective level. "We can already reverse relationships based on domination in mice by stimulating specific parts of the brain," says Professor Bavelier. "Influencing someone else's behaviour—by eliminating the feeling of loneliness often linked to depression, for instance—is within reach."

Every good idea, however, has a downside, as demonstrated by the sad trepanning practices of the 20th century that were supposed to cure "female hysteria." Removing a behavioural problem does not solve it.

"A study that reinforced people's empathy in order to eradicate racism showed that individuals in the same group were more united through empathy—but that their rejection of other groups rose dramatically," says Professor Savulescu. What works for one individual does not have the same effect on a group as a whole.

Following their comprehensive investigations, the international team—consisting of geneticists, ethicists, philosophers, engineers and neuroscientists—recognised the importance of thinking through the consequences on society of each individual change. The experts also reported the urgent need to introduce unified regulations among different governments before the use of these new technologies degenerates. This concern is illustrated by the recent case of Chinese twins who were genetically modified to resist the AIDS virus—a disease that they might well never have contracted.

"One of the great unresolved ethical enigmas is how to reconcile the interests of the individual and those of society in the event of conflict. Human improvement technologies require policymakers to find a certain balance. Collective effects are important and we can't just let the market decide," says Julian Savulescu. "Our remarks are a call to action before it's too late," concludes Professor Bavelier.

Explore further: What smart bees can teach humans about collective intelligence

More information: Daphne Bavelier et al, Rethinking human enhancement as collective welfarism, Nature Human Behaviour (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0545-2

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5 / 5 (1) Feb 12, 2019
The question is irrelevant.
not rated yet Feb 12, 2019
Yeah, it really doesn't matter if "super-duper" enhancements are good for society or not.

Some rich egotist is going to insist on gaining a bigger dick.
& there are always the quacks & fakirs willing to sell "miracles" to the gullible.
not rated yet Feb 12, 2019
Some rich egotist is going to insist on gaining a
The rich have been telling us since the dawn of agriculture that they're smarter, more attractive, better and more deserving people than the rest of us. Now we are developing the technology to allow them to make all that literally true. Does anyone seriously think that's not what they'll do?
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Feb 13, 2019
Yeah, it really doesn't matter if "super-duper" enhancements are good for society or not.

Some rich egotist is going to insist on gaining a bigger dick.

Mine's big enuff already... I want a vagina, too.. :-)
Of course, I ain't rich, so...
not rated yet Feb 13, 2019
"Human enhancement technologies are raising important questions about what it means to be human"

-Humans have been enhancing themselves for a million years in a process called domestication. This resulted in an unnaturally large, fragile, energy-hungry brain at the expense of the health and survivability of the rest of the body.

The brain is rarely born without significant genetic deficit and defect. Often injured in the womb, it continues to accrue damage as we age, adding to its dysfunction and leading to a wide disparity in cognitive acuity and intellectual capacity.

Most human institutions are contrived to compensate for the compulsive, neurotic, irrational natures of the human brain.

Luckily we are beginning to outsource those functions that we pushed them to perform for so long. Memory, reasoning, calculating, conjecturing can all be relegated to our peripherals, allowing our brains to shrink back to their former stable, robust, dependable size and configuration.
not rated yet Feb 13, 2019
I want a vagina, too.. :-)
Why dont you just rent one?
not rated yet Feb 13, 2019
as for wg, RME. Thats just a nip & a tuck from a cooperative surgeon.

Otto, fyi to improve your blame game. "Batter Up!"
here's an update in what to expect frpm the genetic crapshoot of sexual reproduction.

not rated yet Feb 15, 2019
How can you all be so short sighted? I am 72 years old and even I can see the writing on the wall. We are going to be a extinct species if we don't do somthing about global warming, AI, and a few other dangers immediately. It is to late to do anything, there is ONLY one way out at this point.
The only way out is to enhance the IQ of everyone.
You choose Enhanced IQ or extinction. (There are no other alternatives)
not rated yet Feb 16, 2019
1st assumpt is that people are making any use of what intelligence they already have?

2nd assumpt is that if general Humanity's IQ was enhanced they would make the effort to actually use it in a useful manner such as improve their lives.

I apologize for my incredulous laughter , But it is a lot more likely they would devote those artificial smarts to figuring the spread for their favorite sports. Or amassing piles of iron pyrite coins in their favorite video-games.

3rd assumpt, that people would actually thank you for meddling with their brains... I'd bet they will reward you with hot tar & feathers & dragging you around tied to the bumper of a car!

Consider this depressing fact. This site is an excellent outlet to pop science articles & press releases from corporate & academic research programs.

Yet see deniershills & woomongering looney-tunes use this forum to agitprop gibberish & stuporstition.
Swine incapable of learning from these pearls of wisdom!
not rated yet Feb 16, 2019
1st assumpt is that people are making any use of what intelligence they already have?

So you in your advanced wisdom and intelligence will choose extinction for the human race?
Or perhaps you feel humor and jokes will solve global warming?
Most of you remarks validate the need for IQ enhancement.
If we boost YOUR IQ 10X fold, you personally could solve global warming and the rest of our current problems. As to how you would feel and think after that boost, you or no one else has the slightest idea, anymore than a dog could understand thermodynamics.
As to whether IQ enhancement is possible. The little girls in china that recently received gene therapy to prevent aids got a very small IQ boost from the gean editing. It is starting to happen NOW.
not rated yet Feb 17, 2019
rderjis, thanks for your vote of confidence. & no, I do not believe that we can prevent Anthropospecific Augmentation to Climate Change.

Your suggestion of mass extinction of the Human Race is reasonable if you consider that we would no longer be putting such a determined effort into causing the extinction of the entire Biosphere.

The best I hope for is that at least a substantial portion of the Human Race makes the effort to slow down AACC.

Enough so that after our extinction? Enough of the biology remains to eventually rehabilitate & restore the Earth to once again achieve the status of a Living World.

I am a cynic. I believe that the pessimists are being way too optimistic.

Commedia dell'Arte -
"If you cannot laugh at Mankind's follies?"
"You must weep at Mankind's failures!"
not rated yet Feb 17, 2019
I am a cynic. I believe that the pessimists are being way too optimistic.

You just don't get it. We don't have enough time to reverse climate change let alone stop it before we go extinct, even if we ALL cooperated.
We need to gain a LOT of intelligence fast if we are to come up with a viable working solution to halt and then reverse climate change, before we ALL go extinct.
not rated yet 17 hours ago
rderkis, your last comment is an accurate assessment of imminent crisis. & I agree that boosting intelligence may or may not be a useful tool for attempting to fix our failures.
This is among all the other actions that need to be undertaken to impede catastrophe.

However, it does not matter whether or not we agree to the necessary tasks. That would entail convincing the rest of the Human Race for what needs to be done.

At least two of the major groups, who will never agree.
They lack the moral character to ever admit they were wrong about everything they believe in to avoid the hard work of intellectual effort.

The fascists with their idolizing the ideology of Dying Wealthy.
& the evangelists worshiping at the altar of Mammon, dreaming of eternal existence as a mindless fetus.

The best I hope for is that we might protect enough biology in hidden enclaves? That those "precious few" might rejuvenate the Biosphere after we are gone.
not rated yet 10 hours ago
Sorry guy, I label no one, not even the ones I disagree with. (Except conspiracy theorists, which is a chemical imbalance in the brain).
As far as significant (10X) genetic enhancement or even nootropic enhancement of everyone that wants it. If someone doesn't want it that will be fine, they can be our most loved and cared for pets.
At 10X IQ you personally could quickly solve the climate change problem. Plus show us the way to both fusion and quantum computers. No one can possibly foresee what a 10X IQ enhancement would be like for themselves or others anymore than my dog could understand thermodynamics. You will hear many people who think they know but it is impossible to have even the slightest idea of the thought process of someone that far ahead of our current IQ. Other people will argue the moral or ideological implications but that has never stood for long in the way of progress. Especially when the alternative is extinction.

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