Do you ever worry that Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) wasn’t really giving informed consent when he agreed to become enhanced? Or are curious as to why someone might choose a bionic hand over a real one? The awesome Maggie Koerth-Baker of boingboing.net and I had some of the same questions. We chat about the ethics of superheroes and our perception of science in this week’s Science Saturday on bloggingheads.tv. Enjoy!
Deus Ex 3: Human Revolution is a cyberpunk video game coming out later this year. I, for one, am pretty excited. Set in the near future the game is a prequel to the original Deus Ex. For those of you who aren’t video game fanatics, the first Deus Ex is a cyberpunk conspiracy thriller that follows around a transhuman protagonist, JC Denton, as he tries to keep the world from spiraling into Armageddon. Robots, A.I., genetically modified animals, and cyborgs aplenty help and hinder him. Denton himself has several nano-augmentations that give him superhuman abilities (e.g. cloaking, super-strength). Deus Ex 3 explores the rise of general cybernetic augmentation and the corporate espionage that accompanies it. As part of the viral ad campaign you can access the website for Sarif Industries, the leading manufacturer of cybernetic prosthetics. I love the boilerplate:
No one should ever have to give up a normal life because of a random incident, or indeed, lose a dream over a physical limitation. So believes David Sarif, idealist, philanthropist, founder and CEO of Sarif Industries. Pursuing his belief, Mr. Sarif acquired a failing Detroit auto factory in 2007 and repurposed it for the automated manufacture of prosthetics.
The weirdness of the site comes from its nearness to reality. There are links for the stock price and pictures of the interior of the main headquarters. There is even an ethics statement!
A standout piece is the ad for Sarif’s products (cyber hands, eyes, and arms), which seemed like a perfect pastiche of every pharmaceutical ad I’ve seen in the past year: testimonials by attractive people in bright lighting engaging in their favorite cultural or outdoor activities, like rock climbing and football throwing (though mercifully not through a tire wing). Also interesting is the news feed which features headlines I had to research a bit to see they aren’t quite true. The “road to here” also provides a strange alt-history of augmentation and prosthetics that gives you the feeling this all might just be right around the corner. The site’s slickness and dedication to near-reality makes it an eerie predictor of what a future prosthetics company may actually look like.
Image via Sarif Industries
Hooray! I now have a Master of Arts degree from New York University. I even got to wear a bright purple robe with strange sleeves, was hooded, and topped it all off with a mortarboard that barely fit on my head.
My degree is from the John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought, which means I cobbled together a few disparate fields into my own academic Voltron of study. Critical theory, gender studies, and bioethics comprised the triumvirate of nerdiness out of which I forged my thesis, “Human Enhancement and Our Moral Responsibility to Future Generations.” My advisor was a tremendous resource, educator, and inspiration. Thanks, Greg!
Oh, and I competed in the northern hemisphere’s first ever Threesis competition. The goal: summarize your thesis in three minutes to a lay audience with nothing but a single static keynote slide for visual backup. Not easy, but quite fun.
I had the support of friends and family (my parents and partner in particular) throughout the process. They stood by me while I was pulling all-nighters, living in the library, and deliriously rambling on about Derek Parfit, Jurgen Habermas, and Julian Savulescu.
In true science nerd fashion, I spent the day with the family at the Museum of Natural History looking at the brain (there was an Ethics of Enhancement section!), giant dinosaurs, the stars, and butterflies. A fitting celebration!
I love Pixar. Who doesn’t? The stories are magnificently crafted, the characters are rich, hilarious, and unique, and the images are lovingly rendered. Without fail, John Ratzenberger’s iconic voice makes a cameo in some boisterous character. Even if you haven’t seen every film they’ve made (I refuse to watch Cars or its preposterous sequel), there is a consistency and quality to Pixar’s productions that is hard to deny.
Popular culture is often dismissed as empty “popcorn” fare. Animated films find themselves doubly-dismissed as “for the kids” and therefore nothing to take too seriously. Pixar has shattered those expectations by producing commercially successful cinematic art about the fishes in our fish tanks and the bugs in our backyards. Pixar films contain a complex, nuanced, philosophical and political essence that, when viewed across the company’s complete corpus, begins to emerge with some clarity.
Buried within that constant and complex goodness is a hidden message.
Now, this is not your standard “Disney movies hide double-entendres and sex imagery in every film” hidden message. “So,” you ask, incredulous, “What could one of the most beloved and respected teams of filmmakers in our generation possibly be hiding from us?” Before you dismiss my claim, consider what is at stake. Hundreds of millions of people have watched Pixar films. Many of those watchers are children who are forming their understanding of the world. The way in which an entire generation sees life and reality is being shaped, in part, by Pixar.
What if I told you they were preparing us for the future? What if I told you Pixar’s films will affect how we define the rights of millions, perhaps billions, in the coming century? Only by analyzing the collection as a whole can we see the subliminal concept being drilled into our collective mind. I have uncovered the skeleton key deciphering the hidden message contained within the Pixar canon. Let’s unlock it. Read More
Imagine you know everything on Wikipedia, in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the contents of every book in digital form. When someone asks you what you did twenty years ago, on demand you recall with perfect accuracy every sensation and thought from that moment. Sifting and parsing all of this information is effortless and unconscious. Any fact, instant of time, skill, technique, or data point that you’ve experienced or can access on the internet is in your mind.
Cybernetic brains might make that possible. As computing power and storage continue to plod along their 18-month doubling cycle, there is no reason to believe we won’t at least have cybernetic sub-brains within the coming century. We already offload a tremendous amount of information and communication to our computers and smartphones. Why not make the process more integrated? Of course, what I’m engaging in right now is rampant speculation. But a neuro-computer interface is a possibility. More than that: cyber-brains may be necessary. Read More
Science fiction knows how to play around with sex and gender. The free-lovin’ of A Stranger in A Strange Land, Commander Shepard’s bisexual proclivities, and William T. Riker’s seemingly universal interspecies compatibility are constant sources of entertainment.
And the fun doesn’t stop with organic entities. Androids, cyborgs, and robots make gender all the stranger. Why is Data fully functional? Isn’t it curious that, of all the characters in Ghost in the Shell the two most heavily cyberized characters, Motoko and Batou, are hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine respectively? And, my favorite: as a robot Bender has no gender, so if Bender bends his gender, what gender does Bender bend?
Sci-fi sex is fun to talk about, of course, but how can all of that help us understand the actual future of humanity? Simply put: we imagine what we hope to see. So the question is: what is it we imagine and hope for? An utter free-for-all of alien-cyborg-A.I. bacchanalia? I don’t think so. Instead, sci-fi is teaching the diversity of our own human sexuality back to us. Read More
Heads up, this article has *spoilers* about the movie Hanna.
Joe Wright’s new film, Hanna, staring Saoirse Ronan is being hailed as the anti-Sucker Punch for its portrayal of a rich, rounded, and compelling female lead. Hanna is a young woman in her late teens (her age is indeterminate) who can beat you up, break your neck, and shoot you down six ways from Sunday. Why is she able to do that? Well, that right there is an interesting question. You see, Hanna was genetically engineered to have “high intelligence, muscle mass, and no pity.” But here’s the rub: she was also raised to be a trained assassin.
So who is to credit (or perhaps, to blame) for Hanna’s ability to crush faces with naught but her hands and an emotionless grimace? Is it her genes or her training?
The film ostensibly portrays Hanna as a naive heroine striving against her draconian and demonic “mother” figure, Marissa Wiegler, with the help of her noble father, Erik Heller. But I submit that is not the case: I believe the “teaching” and “nurture” Heller gives to Hanna makes him as much a monster as Wiegler. Hanna’s battle is to be a good human being against a perfect storm of nature and nurture designed to make her a heartless killer. Read More
Philip Ball’s new book, Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People gets into the mythological underpinnings of our concerns about making people. Nature‘s Chris Mason reviews [gated] Unnatural and makes a striking observation:
Even today, Ball points out, societal and cultural debate is pervaded by the belief that technology is intrinsically perverting and thus carries certain penalty. Views that human cloning will be used for social engineering, eradicating one gender or resurrecting undesirable figures from the past, for example, all reflect age-old fears about the consequences of meddling in the ‘unnatural’. Ball warns that, as there is no global ban on human reproductive cloning, there is a strong chance that it will happen. It is thus likely to become a de facto reality without the well-informed debate it deserves.
Let’s unpack that little nugget, because it contains two very important points.
The first point is that many of our fears about advancing science and biotechnology related to the body trigger fundamental, core cultural fears. Leon Kass calls this the “Yuck” reaction, or, more eloquently, “Wisdom from Repugnance.” Kass’ argument is that we are naturally repelled by abhorrent ideas, like torturing babies and eating people. As regular readers of Science Not Fiction know, eating people isn’t always bad.
Well, as it turns out, Leon Kass’ argument that we should trust our gut when it says, “yuck!” is a pretty terrible way to do ethics. Why? Because what is “yuck” to me might be “yum” to you. And we’re back to not knowing if doing something ethically questionable, like cloning people, is morally permissible. Unnatural at least explains why so many people say “yuck” to modifying humans; it is a lesson we’ve been told over and over for millennia in myths and religion.
The second point is that we should be discussing these ideas like rational adults. Biotechnology is progressing at a rate and in ways that are so rapid as to be unpredictable. I make lots of educated guesses and suppositions, but none of what I write here is a prediction or a guarantee. My interest is in figuring out whether or not something like cloning is ethically permissible if we’re ever able to do it. As Ball notes, there is no current global ban on cloning. There is, as it stands, no global ban on most of the transhumanist issues, from eugenics to cognitive enhancers to A.I. to nano-implants. These possible technologies strain the very foundations of many of our philosophies and cultural institutions. If the lack of a global ban means the technology is likely inevitable, we better figure out how to go about things correctly.
Debate and discussion are essential to making good decisions. Recognizing our old, deep seated prejudices and biases, such as those against technology and making people, is equally essential. Simply because something is unnatural does not mean it is immoral. But that’s where the discussion starts, not where it ends ends.
Image of Book Cover via Bodley Head
The 50th Anniversary of the Pill was last year. Lots and lots of people mentioned how good, bad, unimportant, or essential the Pill has been. Our society changed the way it thought about sex, about reproduction, even about love and relationships. Women being able to take control of their reproductive abilities is one of the greatest advancements in the history of modern human biology. Even if it isn’t universally beloved, the Pill is worth defending and improving. It makes the world a better place. Female hormonal birth control is an exemplary form of human enhancement.
But, astonishingly, non-barrier birth control for men doesn’t yet exist. The current choices are condoms or vasectomies. That’s it. We are in want of a form of birth control that makes men temporarily and reversibly infertile. We don’t have it, we need it, and when it comes out, it’ll be as revolutionary as the Pill itself. It’s on my list of must-have forms of reproductive enhancement, along with artificial wombs.
Which brings us to the question at hand: where the hell is it already? Much like cold-fusion and flying cars, male birth control is always “just around the corner.” The “bright pill” is trying to inhibit the reproductive function of sperm. Ultrasound might be able to interrupt sperm production so that a man is temporarily sterile for six months at a time. Hormones might also be an option. If there are so many options, why don’t we have one that works? The problem seems to be the sheer number of sperm. Females ovulate once a month, meaning one, count ‘em, one egg is released. Men are, uh, different. To quote an expert:
“Men make 1,000 sperm every second,” said John Amory, a male reproductive specialist at the University of Washington, Seattle. “It’s proven to be a lot more difficult to turn that degree of production off compared to one egg a month.”
That is just way too many sperm. But pure biology doesn’t seem to capture the problem. Other problems include male willingness to take the pill, impact on libido, and other social and physiological side-effects.
Which brings up new questions about the male pill: Will men remember to take it? Will men want to take it? Will it emasculate men too much to be worth while? Or are men just too stupid and awful to ever be able to have that kind of responsibility? Just as all of the articles recounting the impact of the Pill on our society weren’t talking about chemical compositions or dosages, the reason male birth control is important is not the science. It’s the sociology. Male non-barrier birth control has the potential to change society as much as the female birth control pill. And that’s why we need it so badly. The male pill isn’t just about safe sex and birth control, oh no. It’s about the way we think about safe sex and birth control. Once you understand, you’ll want the male birth control pill too. Read More
Transhumanism is a big, complicated, sprawling idea. The central concept – that humans can be made better with technology – touches on a lot of hopes and fears about the future of humanity. Though I’m always going on about how great human enhancement could be, I’ve got my fair share of fears myself. But my fears are probably way different than many of your fears. But how in the world can we represent those concerns? As it turns out, I’ve found a pretty good set of archetypes that represent our hopes and fears: Marvel Comic’s Avengers.
How we frame scientific progress changes how we see individual technologies. When we think about science changing people, our minds naturally go to that group of individuals constantly being bombarded by gamma radiation, genetic mutagens, cybernetic interventions, and biological acceleration. I’m talking, of course, about superheroes. Superheroes are modern mythology. And because of that, they make great metaphors for understanding big issues. With The Avengers movie officially announced, I can’t help but notice that the four main members* of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man – are great examples of the different ways different people understand (or misunderstand) enhancement. Respectively, they are The God, The Monster, The Soldier, and The Robot.
Now, in the case of the Avengers, I don’t mean that they each represent a kind of enhancement, like cognitive enhancing pharmaceuticals or genetic engineering for athleticism. I am talking about the mindset people have around enhancement. Will transhumanism make people into monsters or Gods? Is science on the right track or out of control? The Avengers represent how you think enhancement works. Not only that, each Avenger symbolizes the hopes, fears, and problems enhancement may have. Whatever your dreams or nightmares about enhancement are, at least one member of Marvel’s wonder team has got you covered. So which Avenger represents you? Read More