Drawing A Line - The Difference Between Medicine and Transhumanism

I think I am writing this for myself. I hear about advancements in science that can stimulate and re-activate neurons and I think, Amazing! I listen to Tom Gruber talk about memory technology linked directly to your head and I think, no way Big Brother to the nth degree. Are these very different? Should I have such extreme views? Or am I just nuts? (N-V-T-S for the Mel Brooks fans out there).

I seem to be drawing a line between augmentation and stimulation. Between technology and medicine. Maybe that’s not a fair line, but I do. I recognize that my line is not the line for everyone, so please don’t take this as some edict or law, that I suggest. I know that transhumanism will prevail and people will put tech in their body.

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So why do a draw a line between drug, chemical and external stimulus versus internal, permanent implantation? And where does that line stop/start.

One differentiation that may be key is that medicine is an isolated interaction versus ongoing connectivity. Let me try to explain.

When I take medication or medical treatment that is not implanted, it is a finite decision. Once it enters in my body, it either works or it doesn’t work, but regardless, the medication is done interacting with the outside world. It is me and the after effects, positive or negative. With augmentation/implantation, that device is permanent and it is permanently connected to the outside world. Those are vastly different ongoing relationships. One is distinctly private, the other is inherently public.

This makes a big impact on your value judgement, I suspect. When you take a drug, medication or course of treatment, it’s a one-time interaction with the dosage. One-time interaction with the outside world, essentially invading your body. There is no need for ongoing communications (outside of results-based measurements). It’s between you and your body. Any information obtained by the outside world would have to be granted.

The introduction of tech, whether implanted or nanotechnology designed to treat disease results in a diagnostic relationship between you and the outside world that is no longer controlled by your brains and five senses, in fact that communication is completely out of your control. I believe that is the key distinction and exactly where my discomfort lies — control.

Now the purveyors of these technologies will argue that you have control, but it can never be guaranteed. The only way to guarantee it, would be to 100% eliminate the communication protocol from within your body and the outside world. Nothing is perfectly secure when it comes to technology.

But I also said that it effects your value judgement. This is not a black or white issue. I agree with Tom Gruber and Hugh Herr, if I had a disability and the best way to be restored to full human capability was via augmentation or implantation, I suspect I would choose the tech. Sacrificing the risk that my tech could be compromised to my detriment, simply because my immediate need has been met. I have never had a debilitating disability, but I believe that is the choice I would make and that many people would agree. In the end this is about choice and I believe that all should have the right to choose in this matter. But this particular choice is a value judgment focused on rehabilitation. I think the equation changes, when we are talking about creating super-human traits.

To be clear, super-human traits are those senses or bodily functions that surpass human norms of that sense or function. So in the pursuit of super-human traits, I am happy to accept the introduction of artificial medicines into my body, because they do not create an ongoing communications vehicle with the outside world that may be hijacked. If that medicine can increase my longevity, clear up cloudiness in my brain, make my blood vessels more flexible, then I will take the risk of side effects in order to be super-human in that respect.

But pacemakers present an interesting gray-area. Traditionally a pacemaker would be returning me to traditional human level function. But what if we could each receive a pacemaker at birth that perfectly handled cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart function, completely eliminating heart-related death. Would that be a tech I would accept? I would be making my cardiac functions super-human, but exposing myself to the risk that the device could be hijacked or damaged in it’s communication with the outside world.

A few distinctions, first, such a device probably doesn’t directly tie into my communication control between my body and the outside world. Second, the risk of nefarious interaction with the device probably only limits me to natural human performance, taking away my super-human heart or movement. So it would appear that the risk may be worth the potential reward. However that risk of hijacking is already increased. Could my heart be stopped? That’s a serious consequence.

Now, let’s put that tech in our brains, or any of our fives sense or our mobility. Now the rewards have been espoused by many already. Personally I can see the benefits, but now the risk is just too high. The constant communication between my senses or my brain without outside world opens me up to hacking. It has the potential to change me, to change how I perceive the world. I can be manipulated, I can be controlled. It places my sense of self at risk. In fact, the positive operations of the augmentations themselves changes who I am at my core. And thus, I draw my line…

By drawing this line, I create consequences for myself. Transhumans will pass me by, maybe not in my lifetime, but these consequences apply to all who share my line in the sand. I will struggle to compete for jobs. I will not have a perfect memory. Fortunately, those things don’t define who I am, nor where I derive happiness and I hope that others will remember that when the immense peer pressure to implant technology enters your life.

In the end, I find humanity, with our flaws and failings to be perfect as is, beautifully chaotic. So this concept of weakness and fear being played upon by advancing technology feels sad and contrived, sort of like the carnival huckster. Playing on your fear that you aren’t smart enough, that your memory has some blank spots, that you struggle to remember people’s names when you meet them. Its through our personal chaos, our personal challenges and our personal foibles that we find our greatest victories and our most important lessons learned. I see a path for technology that would aim for Utopia and leave us dull, dreary and bored, automatons searching for the next source of pleasure. I see implanted brain and sense technology — controlling us. Not delivering great joy and happiness in our lives.

I guess that is the problem with all of the “intelligence chasing”. The implication is that none of us are smart enough. Professor Hugh Herr thinks that we all should have bionic limbs, why not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Elon Musk sees it as obvious that we won’t be able to compete with machines because our analog senses are too slow. So he aims to increase the data extraction capabilities of our brains.

What is all this crap for? If we have a single goal in life, isn’t it something akin to happiness, or joy or peace or love? Please explain to me how being smarter gives your peace? Or how being able to jump higher or run faster gives you joy?

Some will try to answer those questions as follows: If you are smarter and have a better memory, you can get a better job and make more money. If you have stronger legs you can run faster, jump higher, be better at sports or manual labor. But let’s take the sports example, if you have “bionic” legs and win a long jumping contest, will that be gratifying at all? Especially if the competitors are not augmented? My reaction is, “who cares”, you should have won… boring.

Regardless of my view there will be people who find happiness in beating others. There is a distinct difference in the joy of victory in a friendly competition versus the joy you feel when you are taking the last job available because you have an augmented brain and the other applicants do not. Quite honestly, I would find the latter shameful, but we live in a society that rewards and cheers the person willing to “invest” in their future. This last point is the reason that transhumanism advance mostly unfettered. Humans are competitive, ruthless and self-centered enough that some people will choose augmentation in order to be superior. Society will laud people who do so because we are convinced that more technology, more brains, more assets and and more skills will lead to happiness. I support the right to augment your brain, to make yourself superior to others and I support your right to make bad choices, I believe this will be one of them.