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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.

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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.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Charles Krauthammer in "Beer? Hot Dogs? Steroids?"

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Charles Krauthammer has recently returned to the issue of human enhancement in the Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post. His latest piece is interesting in that Mr. Krauthammer seems to be taking a less rigid position against human enhancement than those held by many official "bio-conservatives." He begins:

Leave it to the good people of Philadelphia, whose football fans once famously booed and threw snowballs at Santa Claus, to come up with the perfect takedown of the most inflated (in more ways than one) superstar in contemporary sport. With the visiting Barry Bonds at the plate and needing just two home runs to tie Babe Ruth's iconic 714 lifetime homers, the banner was raised: "Ruth did it on hot dogs & beer."

Bond's alleged, substantial use of steroids and other performance enhancers needs no introduction. But I think Krauthammer is zeroing in on one of the key emotional objections to human enhancement by bringing up the long-standing home runs of a revered sports figure who did it "honestly." He comments:

The idea that an athlete of Bonds's stature, for whom the body is both temple and bank vault, would be mistakenly ingesting substances is implausible, made all the more so by the evidence dredged up by two San Francisco sportswriters detailing Bonds's (alleged) gargantuan consumption of every performance-enhancing drug from steroids to human growth hormone.

But why should we care? What is really wrong with performance enhancement? We say we are against it because it diminishes striving, devalues achievement, produces a shortcut to greatness, etc. But in many endeavors we don't really care about any of that. Medical residents at hospitals have been known to take Ritalin to keep themselves alert on overnight shifts. If it enhances their thinking in the emergency room, what's the objection?

Many public speakers, performers and even some surgeons take beta-blockers to literally still their hearts and steady their hands. I've never seen a banner at the opera complaining: "Pavarotti does it on pasta." And what about the military, which pioneered some of these performance-enhancing studies to see how they could help soldiers survive the most extreme stresses? Isn't that an unqualified good?

Performance enhancement turns out to be disturbing only in the narrow context of competition, most commonly in sports. And the objection is not cheating nature but cheating competitors. It's basically a fairness issue.

I think we're seeing in editorials like this one that some formerly stringent opponents of human enhancement are rethinking their positions. Instead of calling for an outright ban of all such technology, Krauthammer seems to be looking at whether a particular form of enhancement is appropriate for a particular field. In the case of sports, where not everyone can or will avail themselves of treatments that can damage a player's long-term health, there seems to be more of an issue of fairness than there is when a doctor uses a stimulant or nootropic to maintain concentration during a four-hour surgery.

I suspect that as commentators become more familiar with enhancement technologies, debates will shift to the specifics of their use, rather than questions of absolute bans versus total acceptance. I doubt most members of the existing elite wish to handicap themselves or their children, so arguments over such technologies will probably focus more and more on matters such as availability, public subsidization versus private acquisition, government regulation and general health risks. And, of course, on whether or not we are creating some kind of elite caste that doesn't just think it's superior to everyone else, but actually is.


Bio, Noo, Soc
Future Imperative

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