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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.


The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

NIH Offers $772,500 Grant to the Study "Protecting Human Subjects in Genetic Enhancement Research"

This news release from Case Law School reflects some of the growing interest in human enhancement research... and organizations' strong desire to stay on the ethical high ground when they undertake this work.
Researchers and bioethicists have developed guidelines for therapeutic research to protect human subjects in clinical experiments involving genetic technologies. Professor Mehlman's grant, "Protecting Human Subjects in Genetic Enhancement Research," will examine whether special protection is needed for subjects in enhancement research.

"Little thought has been given to this topic so far," says Professor Mehlman. "How do we measure and value the benefits, other than examining feedback from the subjects themselves? Special protections are needed for vulnerable populations, such as military personnel, athletes, and workers, who might come under pressure to use enhancement drugs to improve job performance."

I like these comments from Professor Mehlman. Obviously feedback from people actually experiencing a modification have more direct relevance than the speculations of armchair philosophers or self-interested executives and other leaders. There is at least one nootropic on the market that greatly increases motivation and efficiency that some users have stated alters the quality of their lives -- not by making them unhappy, but by making their work more interesting and exciting to them than the parts of their lives they normally cherish.

That transformation, of course, is exactly the kind of "nightmare" many enhancement critics fear. A dedicated effort to see how an augmentation might alter a subject's personality -- from both their perspective and from whatever objective and subjective outside perspectives you can muster -- is exactly what you need so that people can embrace, reject or offer qualified acceptance to any particular modification.

Mehlman's point about protecting vulnerable populations is also extremely well taken. Ironically, many of our supposedly "privileged" or elite workers are most vulnerable to these pressures. Certainly enhancing soldiers and athletes can have a profound impact upon their performance, but imagine the consequences of dramatically increasing the intelligence of your entire scientific research base. And radically augmenting the intellect of all of your engineers, your business executives, your political leaders, etc.

So many people would find their output immeasurably improved by skyrocketing intelligence and creativity that it is almost impossible to ignore the likely consequences. Assuming workers' rights are not carefully maintained and, equally important, augmentations are not carefully assessed to see exactly which ones have side effects, be they negative in nature, or merely annoying or... different. (Like the pill-using worker who suddenly finds s/he is not simply more effective, but enraptured with their day job.)

The press release continues:
The project will identify the ethically-relevant differences between therapeutic and enhancement genetic research and analyze them in light of the ethical principles that govern human subjects research generally and genetic research in particular. Researchers will determine whether there are any conditions under which it would be ethical to conduct research on genetic enhancement using human subjects.

Based on their findings, the investigators will propose changes in existing rules and regulations to govern research on genetic enhancement using human subjects.

Professor Mehlman's grant makes up part of his work for CGREAL (Center for Genetic Research Ethics and Law), a five-year interdisciplinary project at Case. The high quality of interdisciplinary work at Case Western Reserve University led the NIH in 2003 to designate the school one of only four "centers of excellence" in the study of the ethical, legal and social implications of human genetics. Professor Mehlman was appointed Associate Director for Public Policy and Director of the Genetic Enhancement research group.

Maxwell Mehlman's research will no doubt be of great interest to those following the debate over human enhancement. One point that is particularly curious is that we seem to be moving beyond the question of whether or not we should ban certain forms of medical research -- like curing babies of the painful death of Tay-Sachs disease with gene therapy -- lest we incidentally make discoveries that promote human enhancement.

A careful, reasoned look at the pros and cons of human augmentation is more apt to create ethical guidelines that stick than a simple, broad-based ban... especially a ban that takes in unrelated therapeutic research like Tay-Sachs or cystic fibrosis. Mehlman's report may be an important step in deciding just what red lines we wish to enforce, if any.

Bio, Soc
Future Imperative


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best regards from NY! » »

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