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HOW HE SEES IT Uncertain future for enhanced humanity



Published: Fri, July 22, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By JOEL GARREAU

LOS ANGELES TIMES

In the next few years, your child will come home from school in tears. He'll say, once again, that he is unable to compete with the children who are brighter, better behaved and physically more capable than he is because their parents have bought them technological enhancements and you have not. What will you do?

You could say, "That's all right dear, we don't care what other parents do with their children's minds and bodies, we love you just the way you are."

Or:

You could remortgage the house, again, to try to allow your child to keep up with the human enhancements that ever so rapidly are coming onto the market.

Or:

You could try to get the enhanced kids thrown out of your school, widening the chasms that already will be separating "enhanced" humans from the "naturals" who could adopt such enhancements but, for aesthetic or political reasons, choose to abstain, like today's vegetarians or fundamentalists.

What you and your children can't do is ignore the enhancement products that are already realigning our concept of what it means to be human.

We are at a turning point in history. For millenniums our technologies -- fire, clothes, agriculture, cities, space travel -- have been aimed outward at modifying our environment. Now, for the first time, our technologies are increasingly aimed inward -- at altering our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities and progeny.

This is not some science fiction future. Such innovations are in the labs and hitting the market on our watch. Inexorable increases in ingenuity are opening vistas, especially in what we may call GRIN -- genetic, robotic, information and nano -- technologies.

The curve of innovation is rising exponentially. The significance of all this is not the gee-whiz gear. It is in how we will wrestle with what this means to relationships, loves and lives as we enter a period of engineered evolution that we create and adopt ourselves.

The scientists, engineers and philosophers pondering the reshaping of humankind see three scenarios.

There are those who think we're bound for a near-future technological "heaven" in which we conquer suffering, stupidity, ugliness, even death.

Then there are those who think powers of such scope could be used for supreme evil in the next 25 years, threatening the very existence of our species -- the "hell" scenario.

Finally, there are those who have sufficient faith in human cussedness that they think we will be able to control our futures rather than be the pawns of technology -- the "prevail" scenario.

Ethically, intellectually, technologically -- it won't be an easy for us to choose. Yet we must.

Genetic temptations

Consider the genetic temptations you and your budding young scholar-athlete will face. Scientists' understandings of the human genome and the proteins that control all cellular processes in the body are leading to the creation of remarkable pharmaceuticals. One example is the pain vaccine being tested by a San Francisco Bay Area company. It would cancel acute suffering for a month. Ready for that marathon, son?

Five companies in the U.S. alone are competing to bring memory pills to market. No wonder. They could be a bigger commercial blockbuster than Viagra. They promise not only to ban the senior moments of the baby boomers but to revolutionize education of the young. Think of what it will do to language acquisition alone. Some analysts believe that it could increase our kids' SAT scores by 200 points or more.

Robotics is allowing unprecedented connections between the human brain and our machine creations, blurring the distinction between the made and the born. Matthew Nagel, a paralyzed young Boston man, last summer became the first human to send an e-mail with his thoughts. A computer device implanted into his brain by a company called Cyberkinetics can read his neurons as they fire. This also allows him to control a robotic arm. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- the research arm of the Pentagon -- is funding similar research because an F-22 is a difficult machine to fly with a joystick. How much simpler it would be, they reason, if a pilot could control it directly with his brain.

Nanotechnology refers to building objects and substances one atom or molecule at a time. The results can be amazing, including forms of carbon that exist by the beaker-full that are 60 times stronger than steel, have the weight of plastic, sport the clean electrical conductivity of diamond and display the precision of DNA.

Nanotechnology is projected to be a trillion-dollar industry by 2015 -- comparable to the GNP of Canada. Some say it will revolutionize everything: warfare, energy use, medicine.

'Gene doping'

These GRIN technologies, in short, mean that every power of our comic-book superheroes from the 1930s and '40s either exists or is now in active development. A technique called "gene doping," for example, produces such muscle strength in rodents that some University of Pennsylvania researchers flatly doubt we'll ever have an Olympics again that does not involve genetically altered humans. The 2004 Athens Olympics may have been the last one.

Brain-scanning devices at Temple University, meanwhile, offer tantalizing hope of lie-detection so meticulous that, like the Shadow, we may indeed know what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

Already we see people living much longer, healthier lives than in the past. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health think that the first human to robustly live 150 years is already alive today. What will it mean to marriage and parenting -- not to mention Social Security -- if this curve of increased vigor continues?

What will it mean to your family if your kids are greatly more capable mentally than you are?

And what does it mean to the institutions we cherish -- like democracy -- if it is no longer clear that all men and women are created equal?

X Garreau, a Washington Post reporter and editor, is the author of "Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human."




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