Thursday, March 1, 2012

Brave new world coming?

Ryan Braun, one of Major League Baseball’s brightest young stars, has recently won his appeal on his drug test, making him the sport’s first player to win an appeal after a positive drug test. Braun who plays for the Milwaukee Brewers and the 2011 most valuable player of the National League now escapes a 50-game suspension.

In addition to being a first-round draft pick in 2005, Braun was rookie of the year in 2007. He has made the All-Star team four times and has helped guide the Brewers to the playoffs twice.

Not too long ago, the case against Lance Armstrong has also been closed by U.S. federal prosecutors, thus ensuring the American cyclist’s legacy as a seven-time Tour de France champion. Armstrong has steadfastly denied doping during his unparalleled career, but the possibility of criminal charges threatened to stain not only his accomplishments as the world’s most famous cyclist, but his cancer charity work as well.
Steroids and Athletes. Photo courtesy of Livusafe.
The redemption of these two sports superstars from some of the world’s comprehensive systems of monitoring performance-enhancing drugs reveals either that the system is still nowhere to perfection it has claimed or the prospect of enhancing humans, particularly in the field of sports, is improving and making the future look even more daunting.

It’s in sports that record-breaking performance of athletes is being heavily screened, and so far, this is the only human activity open to testing for use of performance enhancing drugs. Of course, we have heard of experimentation on animals but the haste in transferring success from laboratories to human applications can be very intimidating. From the genetically-modified mighty mice, we now have athletes built like bulls with huge haunches and necks wider than their heads. To clone a gene appears easier now that all the biology is here and it’s no longer a mystery that all the performance characteristics of the muscle could be changed or modulated.

This kind of development becomes scarier if we juxtapose the advances in the enhancement of human capability with the military. Who would believe that the supernatural powers of comic-book superheroes of the past like Superman and Wonder Woman could exist or are in the process of engineering?

Melding man and machine

Joel Garreau, a former reporter and editor at the Washington Post, wrote in his book Radical Evolution that the U.S. Army, together with the University of California at Berkeley, has developed a prototype exoskeleton suit that allows a soldier to carry 180 pounds as if it were only 4.4 pounds. Imagine this exoskeleton suit enabling soldiers to leap tall buildings in a single jump.

The U.S. Department of Defence is known to have a program under its Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that would create a “metabolically-dominant soldier” using technology and biology to meld man and machine and transcend the limits of the human body. DARPA is in the business of creating better humans. It has a track record – pioneering the Internet and e-mail and funding the computer mouse. Who would doubt if DARPA could eventually create human beings who are unstoppable, soldiers who can’t be slowed down in combat by pain, wounds or bleeding? Or the kind of “24/7” soldier who can easily navigate, communicate and make good decisions for a week without sleep? Perhaps there are American prototype soldiers already in combat who are being tested for their enhanced endurance and capabilities.
Supersoldiers of the 2020s will be a little bit Iron Man with HULC and XOS
exoskeletons. They will have some wall crawling (Spiderman-like) capability
from the Z-Man program (attachable pads with magnets and microsplines).
Photo courtesy of the NextBigFuture. Click link to view "How to Build the
Perfect Soldier,"
The boundary between fantasy and reality is being shattered by technology’s horrendous evolution. There are no limits to what science can break ground. Whereas before the aim of technologies was outward – toward controlling our environment – now the whole technology is aimed towards ourselves. In merging technology with “our own minds, our memories, our metabolisms, our progeny and perhaps our souls,” Garreau says, technology has focused in changing humans in what could be a kind of engineered evolution – “one that we direct for ourselves.”

The technological changes before us could be the biggest thing since the discovery of how to make fire, yet society is not minding them at all. They haven’t inspired a social upheaval of some kind like the Arab Spring that has been ousting despotic leaders one after another through people uprising with the help of social media. The media are not even reporting these changes with alarming disbelief. People are instead glued on the GOP presidential primaries, Republican Party loyalists figuring out the most electable wannabe between Romney and Santorum.

Or in a laid-back society like the Philippines with an advanced technology but with a backward culture and values system, people would rather follow the impeachment trial of the Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court and the dating pattern of President Noynoy Aquino. No upheaval of seismic proportion over there, too.

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat”

Garreau argues in his book that history seems to react always late, that change in culture and social values doesn’t arrive as rapidly as innovation. Through several decades of technological upheaval from nuclear warheads to mainframe computers, from synthetic psychedelics to birth control pills, from automobiles to the Internet and cell phones, culture and values have lagged technology. And now that the cultural revolution which has been long overdue is about to emerge, Garreau likens this awakening to a scene in the movie Jaws where Roy Scheider finally saw the shark in the water and exclaimed, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

According to Garreau, we need to adjust our attitudes toward this great human transformation in our midst, as astounding that might seem.

Garreau writes: “It’s about what parents will do when offered ways to increase their child’s SAT score by 200 points. It’s about what athletes will do when encouraged by big-buck leagues to put together medical pit crews. What fat people will do when offered a gadget that will monitor and alter their metabolisms. What the aging will do when offered memory enhancers. What fading baby boomers will do when it becomes obvious that Viagra and Botox are just the beginning of the sex-appeal industry. Imagine that technology allows us to transcend seemingly impossible physical and mental barriers, not only for ourselves but, exponentially for our clients, for our children. What happens as we muck around with the most fundamental aspects of our identity? What if the only thing that is truly irreversible is taxes? This is the transcendence of human nature we’re talking about here. What wisdom does transhuman power demand?”

Perhaps we are already witnessing the evolution of a brave new world as parodied by Aldous Huxley in his novel of the same title which he wrote in 1931. In his novel, Huxley anticipated developments in reproductive technology and sleep-learning that combined to change society. It was a utopian vision of a future society which became the basis of futurology.

Partly, the technologies today could also remind us of the dystopian novel and science fiction, We, by the Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in English in 1924.We is set in the future where the main character, D-503 lives in the One State, an urban nation constructed almost entirely of glass allowing the secret police to inform on and supervise the public more easily, almost like the Panopticon, a prison design concept developed by Jeremy Bentham.

D-503 at the end of the novel is subjected to the “Great Operation,” similar to a lobotomy that was mandated for the whole population of the One State. The operation involves the removal of the imagination by striking a region of the brain with x-rays.

False symbols for human happiness

Both novels, Brave New World and We, represent false symbols for any regime of universal happiness, where society and its inhabitants are the creations of some sort of paradise-engineering. Both were satirical pieces of fiction, but have been criticized as ill-conceived futurology. In the Brave New World in particular, Huxley conceived of transhumans being able to get rid of mental pain through biotechnology, through a drug-assisted biological paradise.

Who would think that the science fiction we were reading a century ago could be much closer to reality even before the 21st century hardly begun? Can this Cambrian explosion of intelligence which Garreau ascribed to today’s technologies represent the coming of post-humanity? What and where could be the social impact of all the changes brought about by this upheaval?

If people are capable of being enhanced, the ultimate question is whether those or the rest of us who fell farther behind could still hold a common human nature with them. Or is this just the way the history of human evolution unfolds?

In Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, the President’s Council on Bioethics has raised several questions about the use of drugs and techniques such as anabolic steroids and antidepressant as enhancement technologies in making ourselves better than well, to put it in psychiatrist Peter Kramer’s memorable phrase. Which of the biomedical interventions for the sake of superior performance, for example, are consistent with our full development as human beings? Or in a philosophical way, what do these interventions tell us about the nature of human activity and the meaning of human identity?

Virtually every question raised by new medical technologies opens a Pandora’s Box of bioethical dilemmas.

Bill McKibben in Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age cautions that we have  reached a point of diminishing returns on new developments, which means that it’s time to say “Enough.” It’s bringing us to “the moment when we stand precariously on the sharp ridge between the human past and the post human future.”

We need to slow down, as McKibben believes is necessary, because the new biotechnologies are taking away our limited opportunity to define our lives that has been left by technology’s disenchantment of the universe we live in.

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