There’s another way of looking at the robot situation. Instead of making machines more like people, why not make people more like machines? That seems to be the subtext when you read about human enhancement and, like yesterday’s discussion about robots, you find yourself talking to a transhumanist or two.
Tracy Picha writing in Flare magazine’s August 2009 issue (The Future of Our Body) starts her article with an anecdote about Aimee Mullins, a record-breaking paralympian (and double amputee), wearing prosthetic legs to an event that boosted her standard height from 5’8″ to 6’1″.
As the story goes, Mullins reconnected with an old friend who had known her only at her shorter height. “Her mouth dropped when she saw me,” recalls Mullins, “and she said, ‘But you’re so tall!’”
“I know, isn’t it fun?” was Mullins’ reply.
“But, Aimee, that’s not fair.”
Picha finishes off the anecdote after a discussion of augmentation and enhancement that includes the story of a guy in Finland needing a prosthetic to replace part of a severed finger and choosing one that has a USB port in its tip. She goes on to discuss a subculture of people who embed magnetic chips into their bodies so they can sense magnetic and electromagnetic fields thereby giving themselves a sixth sense. There’s also a discussion with a transhumanist and a contrasting view from Susie Orbach, author of Bodies. Orbach has this to say,
… the body has become a casing for fantasy rather than a place from which to live.
It’s all becoming a metaphysical question. What is it to be human? I have misgivings about all this talk about enhancement and, as mentioned yesterday, improving the human genome.
Meanwhile, Picha’s article is thought-provoking and it’s in a fashion magazine, which bears out my belief that a lot science communication takes place outside its usual channels. In one of my papers, I likened science communication to a conversation with several threads taking place.
Government studies such as the one from the UK (July 27, 2009 ETA this should read European Parliament not UK) that Michael Berger on Nanowerk Spotlight recently featured are definitely part of this conversation. From Berger’s article,
The authors of the study do not rely on the still widespread conceptual distinction between “therapy” and “enhancement”, but instead, in line with recent political statements on the issue, adopt a notion of human enhancement that includes non-therapeutic as well as some therapeutic measures. Defining human enhancement as any “modification aimed at improving individual human performance and brought about by science-based or technology-based interventions in the human body”, they distinguish between 1) restorative or preventive, non-enhancing interventions,
2) therapeutic enhancements, and
3) non-therapeutic enhancements.
Faced with the often highly visionary and strongly ideological character of the debate on human enhancement, one must strive for a balance between advancing a rational discussion through critical analysis of the relevant visions and normative stances, and taking a close look at the diversity of HE technology and their actual social, technological and political significance
Berger’s article is well worth reading and links to the report itself and other articles that he’s written on the topic. Monday, July 27, 2009, I should be wrapping up this series.
In keeping with today’s ‘fashionable theme, I leave you with something musical from Manolo’s Shoe Blog. The writer who is not The Manolo, recently posted on one of his favourite rock songs (and one I’ve always loved), Runaway by Del Shannon. The posting is poignant and touching. Manolo has included two versions of the song, one sung by Shannon in the 1960s and again in the 1980s (this one includes part of an interview about the song Shannon wrote so many years before). Both are well worth checking out as you can see how an artist matures and develops over time. Seeing both enhances the experience of listening to each one. Go here.