Human enhancement refers to any attempt to temporarily or permanently overcome the current limitations of the human body through natural or artificial means. The term is sometimes applied to the use of technological means to select or alter human characteristics and capacities, whether or not the alteration results in characteristics and capacities that lie beyond the existing human range. Here, the test is whether the technology is used for non-therapeutic purposes. Some bioethicists restrict the term to the non-therapeutic application of specific technologies — neuro-, cyber-, gene-, and nano-technologies — to human biology.
Human enhancement technologies (HET) are techniques that can be used not simply for treating illness and disability, but also for enhancing human characteristics and capacities. In some circles, the expression "human enhancement technologies" is synonymous with emerging technologies or converging technologies. In other circles, the expression "human enhancement" is roughly synonymous with human genetic engineering, it is used most often to refer to the general application of the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (NBIC) to improve human performance.
- Reproductive technology
- Nootropics, drugs, neurostimulation devices, supplements, nutraceuticals, and functional foods that improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration.
- Computers, cell phones, Internet, and any pieces of technology that enhance the human condition in ways that make it more efficient. For example, making schedules, keeping a list of phone numbers, communication with others, general information storage, etc.
- Mind uploading, the hypothetical process of "transferring"/"uploading" or copying a conscious mind from a brain to a non-biological substrate by scanning and mapping a biological brain in detail and copying its state into a computer system or another computational device.
- Exocortex, a theoretical artificial external information processing system that would augment a brain's biological high-level cognitive processes.
- Endogenous artificial nutrition, such as having a radioisotope generator that resynthesizes glucose (similarly to photosynthesis), amino acids and vitamins from their degradation products, theoretically availing for weeks without food if necessary.
While in some circles the expression "human enhancement" is roughly synonymous with human genetic engineering, it is used most often to refer to the general application of the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (NBIC) to improve human performance.
Since the 1990s, several academics (such as some of the fellows of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) have risen to become cogent advocates of the case for human enhancement while other academics (such as the members of President Bush's Council on Bioethics) have become its most outspoken critics.
Advocacy of the case for human enhancement is increasingly becoming synonymous with “transhumanism”, a controversial ideology and movement which has emerged to support the recognition and protection of the right of citizens to either maintain or modify their own minds and bodies; so as to guarantee them the freedom of choice and informed consent of using human enhancement technologies on themselves and their children.
Neuromarketing consultant Zack Lynch argues that neurotechnologies will have a more immediate effect on society than gene therapy and will face less resistance as a pathway of radical human enhancement. He also argues that the concept of "enablement" needs to be added to the debate over "therapy" versus "enhancement".
Many critics argue that "human enhancement" is a loaded term which has eugenic overtones because it may imply the improvement of human hereditary traits to attain a universally accepted norm of biological fitness (at the possible expense of human biodiversity and neurodiversity), and therefore can evoke negative reactions far beyond the specific meaning of the term. Furthermore, they conclude that enhancements which are self-evidently good, like "fewer diseases", are more the exception than the norm and even these may involve ethical tradeoffs, as the controversy about ADHD arguably demonstrates.
However, the most common criticism of human enhancement is that it is or will often be practiced with a reckless and selfish short-term perspective that is ignorant of the long-term consequences on individuals and the rest of society, such as the fear that some enhancements will create unfair physical or mental advantages to those who can and will use them, or unequal access to such enhancements can and will further the gulf between the "haves" and "have-nots".
Accordingly, some advocates, who want to use more neutral language, and advance the public interest in so-called "human enhancement technologies", prefer the term "enablement" over "enhancement"; defend and promote rigorous, independent safety testing of enabling technologies; as well as affordable, universal access to these technologies.
The ability to enhance one's self or one's child would reflect the overall goal of human life: to improve fitness and survivability. It is in human nature to want to better ourselves via increase life expectancy, become stronger and/or smarter, become less fearful and more independent. In today’s world, however, there are stratification among socioeconomic classes that prevent some from accessing these enhancements. The advantage gained by one person’s enhancements implies a disadvantage to an unenhanced person. Human enhancements present a great debate on the equality between the haves and the have-nots. A modern day example of this would be LASIK eye surgery, which only the wealthy can afford.
The enhancement of the human body could have profound changes to everyday situations. Sports, for instance, would change dramatically if enhanced people were allowed to compete; there would be a clear disadvantage for those who are not enhanced. In regards to economic programs, human enhancements would greatly increase life expectancy which would require employers to either adjust their pension programs to compensate for a longer retirement term, or delay retirement age another ten years or so. When considering birth rates into this equation, if there is no decline with increased longevity, this could put more pressure on resources like energy and food availability. A job candidate enhanced with a neural transplant that heightens their ability to compute and retain information, would outcompete someone who is not enhanced. Another scenario might be a person with a hearing or sight enhancement could intrude on privacy laws or expectations in an environment like a classroom or workplace. These enhancements could go undetected and give individuals an overall advantage. Human enhancements have profound ability to benefit fitness and survivability; but at too high of a cost, enhancements could widen the gap between socioeconomic classes.
Effects on identity
Human enhancement technologies can impact human identity by affecting one's self-conception. This is problematic because enhancement technologies threaten to alter the self fundamentally to the point where the result is a different and inauthentic person. For example, extreme changes in personality may affect the individual's relationships because others can no longer relate to the new person.
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- Enhancement Technologies Group
- Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
- RTÉ’s Big Science Debate 2007
- Human Enhancement Study (European Parliament STOA 2009)
- Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group (Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo)
- "Ethics of Human Enhancement: 25 Questions & Answers" (an NSF-funded report), August 31, 2009