One of the things that comes up when people ask about my thesis (an action they soon regret-I do go on) is a sense of surprise. Not just because I managed to secure funding. More because the idea of the posthuman still has a whiff of science-fiction-with emphasis on the latter- to the general public. Almost everyone is familiar with say, Arnie’s cyborg The Terminator or the super-humans of The Avengers, but the notion that such beings might become a reality are generally dismissed as either ridiculous or thousands of years away. In fact, one of the problems any proponent of Transhumanism must face is the inability of most current humans to think beyond their own lifetime; or to think in deep time, if you like.
Of course, writers like Ray Kurzweill and others argue for an exponential development of science and technology (see here for more on ‘accelerated change’. In which case our post human future is not a question of deep time but one that requires a public debate in the present. Current developments in techno-science push us ever closer to a point beyond the existential dilemma of knowing who we are to the ethical question of knowing what we want to become. Choosing which of the qualities we have come to define as human we wish to retain. If any.
At any rate, that is a discussion for another post. What I want to do here is present a list of various governmental and parliamentary reports that relate to the development of the posthuman. This is not a complete list, I’m sure there are many more of these from various countries and research groups, so if anyone knows of any please do get in touch and pass them on. I’m sure there’s an interesting comparative study to be done of the local differences of approach. A flavour of such differences may be gleaned here. I’m going to put them in reverse chronological order because I want to end by highlighting the importance of a public debate about post/transhumanism. More importantly, I hope that this list at least provides sceptics with evidence that these issues are no longer the sole province of science-fiction. These are real governmental reports addressing real questions. And of course they are all hyper-linked for your reading and research pleasure. The search for a posthuman social policy starts here!
For those readers who are not familiar with these ideas, the philosophy of human enhancement and the progression beyond the human is predicated on the development of a number of emerging technologies. Because the study and development of these technologies is often interconnected they are often grouped under the term ‘converging technologies’. various acronyms have arisen to define them. Form Wikipedia:
NBIC, an acronym for Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science, is currently the most popular term for emerging and converging technologies…Various other acronyms have been offered for the same concept such as GNR (Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics). Journalist Joel Garreau in Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human uses “GRIN”, for Genetic, Robotic, Information, and Nano processes, while science journalist Douglas Mulhall in Our Molecular Future: How Nanotechnology, Robotics, Genetics and Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Our World uses “GRAIN”, for Genetics, Robotics,Artificial Intelligence, and Nanotechnology. Another acronym coined by the appropriate technology organization ETC Group is “BANG” for “Bits, Atoms, Neurons, Genes“.
This is worth bearing in mind. I don’t want the reader to be disappointed to find that these policy reports are not all focused on human enhancement proper, though the figure of the posthuman is somewhat unaviodable when considering the potential effects of these technologies.
So let’s begin:
2011- The Future of Identity
This report was commissioned by the UK’s Government Office for Science. It’s co-authored by Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. Bostrom and Sandberg review “some of the possible impacts on identity from three broad fields of technological advancement: biotechnology; automation and robotics; and information and communications technologies.” Considering a time horizon of 15 years, they address the potential impact of identity technologies as varied as virtual worlds, augmented reality, online identities, robotics, genomics, medical enhancements and brain-machine interfaces, the authors conclude by stating that:
Future public policy will need to take into account some of these expansions of personal identity: in a world with
technologically enhanced identities, people are likely to be as fiercely protective of their digital assets, online
reputations, “exoselves”, and biomedical enhancements as they are of physical possessions and bodily integrity
today. While there is a trend towards a high degree of openness about personal information, especially among
younger generations, the desire is still to maintain control over this information. People may freely share much
of their lives, but strongly react to attempts to exploit it or manipulate it in ways they do not approve.
Technology amplifies the many very human inconsistencies in how we treat our identities.
2009- Human Enhancement Study
This study was produced for the European parliament’s Economic and Scientific Policy Department. Here’s the abstract:
The study attempts to bridge the gap between visions on human enhancement (HE) and the relevant technoscientific developments. It outlines possible strategies of how to deal with HE in a European context, identifying a reasoned pro-enhancement approach, a reasoned restrictive approach and a case-by-case approach as viable options for the EU. The authors propose setting up a European body (temporary committee or working group) for the development of a
normative framework that guides the formulation of EU policies on HE.
This paper, prepared for, and funded by, the US National Science Foundation by the Ethics and and Emerging Sciences Group does exactly as its title suggests, with questions ranging from simply, “What is human enhancement?” to “what are the policy implications of human enhancement?”. It concludes by saying:
An impressive array of technologies is driving the urgency of this debate, from familiar drugs (e.g., steroids, modafinil, Ritalin) to fantastic visions of a cybernetic future. No one knows which visions—utopian, dystopian, or pedestrian—ultimately will be realized. But insofar as there are good reasons to think that many of these visions are plausible, it seems prudent to at least begin a conversation about the many ethical and social issues associated with human enhancement, especially since ethics seem to historically lag (far) behind technology and other quickly-evolving events. By planning ahead, we can be better prepared to enact legislation or regulation as deemed fit.
This report was commissioned by the UK government from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to assess, “current and future developments in nanoscience and nanotechnologies and their impacts”. This report only touches briefly on the notion of human enhancement, stating that:
There is speculation that a possible future convergence of nanotechnologies with biotechnology, information and cognitive sciences could be used for radical human enhancement. This currently falls into the category of the far future or science fiction, but should some of the more speculative suggestions ever be realised they would raise fundamental and possibly unique social and ethical issues. We see a need to monitor future developments of nanotechnologies to
determine whether they will raise social and ethical impacts that have not been anticipated in this report.
From the introduction:
On June 1-2, 2006, the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) convened a workshop in Washington, DC on human enhancement research and technology. This two-day invitational meeting brought together an interdisciplinary group of experts to explore cutting-edge research and emerging technologies that have the potential to contribute to the enhancement of human physical and mental abilities. The gathering was designed to allow attendees from a range of philosophical, cultural, and political views to brainstorm on the impact such research and technologies might have on society, and to reflect on possible next steps to address some of those perceived impacts. This report is a summary of the group’s deliberations. The first section is an overview of what constitutes human enhancement (HE). The second part examines the possible impact of HE on different sectors of society. The final section identifies potential next steps AAAS might take in the emerging debates on HE.
And the executive summary:
The report concludes with participant recommendations of next steps AAAS might consider in its role as an association committed to “advancing science, serving society.” Recommendations include: refining key terms the debate, facilitating discussion between stakeholders in the debate, developing HE technology forecasts, and providing input on potential policy guidelines for HE research, among others.
Also of interest in this report is the suggestion that the AAAS, “bring scientists to the table with science-fiction writers and/or Hollywood producers. Many science-fiction writers and producers have already engaged in imaginative thought experiments about what a world marked by extensive HE might look like. Feedback from such groups might help to flesh out interesting new dynamics to address.” This kind of blurring of the line between social fact and science fiction is typical of posthumanist critical theory of course.
This one comes from the European Parliament department of economic and scientific policy. Although focused on converging technologies more generally, the report does take time to address the question of Transhumanism, describing it as a political-philosophical movement which, “…has its roots in Californian libertarianism…faith in small entrepreneurs, technology and the minimum of government intervention are its characteristics”. In short, “…its dreams are grounded in the freedom to buy and- especially- freedom to sell”. The report goes on to note that within the World Transhumanist Association (now known as Humanity+) a more European style liberal democratic Transhumanism has also developed. It concludes with the following:
Our analysis shows at least three reasons why the emerging public debate on NBIC convergence is justified, timely and stimulating. First of all, the first steps towards NBIC convergence have already been taken. NBIC convergence is taking place in the laboratories and research departments of the contributing convergent disciplines. Conferences are organised that address the cross-disciplinary issues, and research results are published in scientific journals that become increasingly cross-disciplinary. The seed of NBIC convergence has thus been planted in various new fields of research. In addition, policy makers have spotted NBIC convergence as a fruitful policy model to foster research and innovation. This will likely lead to even more efforts in stimulating NBIC convergence. Third, NBIC convergence is expected to lead to a new paradigm, which blurs and challenges the current distinction between living and non-living materials and systems. Such a prospect, whether to be expected in the near or very far away future, brings up delicate ethical and political issues that need to discussed in the public sphere. Even more so, if one assumes that today’s
research shapes tomorrow’s technologies, and the political debate should be about the kind of society we want in the future.
This European commission report was put together by the HLEG (High Level Expert Group on European low dose risk research). the report was commissioned in response to the American report below, to focus on the same questions in a European context. As the authors of Technology Assessment on Converging Technologies suggest, ‘shaping the future of European societies’ differs from its US counterpart because the latter“…was predominantly compiled by technical scientists, [while, by contrast] the European expert group…mainly consisted of social scientists, ethicists and philosophers”. As such, its approach significantly deviates at certain points from the US approach to converging technologies. For example, the European report criticised the technologically deterministic approach of the US report, and instead emphasised that, “…technologies are formed in interaction with the social context”. The HLEG report also, “…criticises the individualistic philosophy behind the American report that in particular wants to deploy convergence for increasing human efficiency and production”. In short:
the European report continually emphasises that technology should be in the service of people. Whereas the American report talks about ‘engineering of the mind’ and ‘enhancing the human body’ the European report talks about ‘engineering for the mind’ and ‘engineering a healthy body’
While such an emphasis may appear admirable, it never the less, as the ETAG report noted, ‘cleverly circumnavigates the thorny issue of improving humans‘.
As stated above, the focus of this report, sponsored by the US National Science Foundation is on enhancing individuals rather than societal changes (though they are not ignored). This was also the report that gave us the NBIC acronym. From the conclusion:
A vast opportunity is created by the convergence of sciences and technologies starting with integration from t he nanoscale, having immense individual, societal, and historical implications f or human development. Therefore, the contributors to this report recommend a national research and development priority area on converging technologies focused on enhancing human performance. Advancing knowledge and transforming tools will move our activities from simple repetitions to creative, innovative acts and transfer the focus from machines to human development. Converging technologies are at the confluence of key disciplines and areas of application , and the role of government is important because no other participant can cover the breadth and level of required collective effort. Without special efforts for coordination and integration, the path of science might not lead to the fundamental unification envisioned here. Technology will increasingly dominate the world, as population, resource exploitation, and potential social conflict grow. Therefore, the success of this convergent technologies priority area is essential to the future of humanity.
1974- Changing Images of Man
We are jumping back some years now. If the reports above can be related to what I call the military-industrial posthuman body (see here for more details on these body-types) then Changing Images of Man presents a vision of what I dub the ‘cosmic’ posthuman body. Very much a product of its time Changing Images of Man bought together a number of different academics and intellectuals in order to:
identify and assess the plausibility of a truly vast number of future possibilities for society. We next followed a method of analysis that determined which sequences of possible futures (that is, which “alternate future histories”) appeared to be the most plausible in light of human history and to most usefully serve the needs of policy research and development. Lastly, we derived a variety of policy implications, some of which dealt with how best to continue this type of inquiry.
The research took place at the Stanford Research Institute and one rumour has it that Al Ron Hubbard was involved in dosing the researchers involved with the project with LSD (read about that here). Whether that’s true or not, Changing Images of Man is a fascinating historical document. In the conclusion the authors note that:
Images of humankind which are dominant in a culture are of fundamental importance because they underlie the ways in which the society shapes its institutions , educates its young, and goes about whatever it perceives its business to be. Changes in these images are of particular concern at the present time because our industrial society may be on the threshold of a transformation as profound as that which came to Europe when the Medieval Age gave way to the rise of science and the Industrial Revolution. In this study we have attempted to: 1. illuminate significant ways our society has been shaped by myths and images or the past ; 2. explore key deficiencies of current images of man and identify characteristics needed in future images ; and 3. derive guide lines for actions to facilitate the emergence of more adequate images of humankind, and of a better society.
The report offers a more holistic, ecologically ethical vision of man [sic] based on self-realisation as it highest value and an exhortation to be multiple, experimental and evolutionary. This image is opposed to the image of industrial man that they propose we currently inhabit, in which value of all kinds is solely measured in economic terms and we exist under a kind of ”friendly fascism- a managed society which rules by a faceless and widely dispersed complex of warfare -welfare – industrial – communications -police bureaucracies with a technocratic ideology. ” This ‘technocratic ideology’, it should be noted, is precisely that on display in the Converging technologies for Improving Human Performance report above. Indeed, the problem of fascism, even ‘friendly fascism’ remains of concern when considering Transhumanism.
Any further back historically in terms of policy reports for instance and we are getting into the area of eugenics, which, as I’ve pointed out before, is the specter that haunts Transhumanism. Also, since there is already plenty of wrings about the history and practice of eugenics (there’s a good bibliography here for instance) it doesn’t seem necessary here to provide a list of social policy documents dealing with those policies. This is partly a matter of laziness of course. If anyone has the links to such documents it would be fascinating to see how the language used contrasts or chimes with the language of human enhancement expressed in the documents listed here. At any rate, that there has apparently been a recent divide (read about it here) among Italian transhumanists resulting from the emergence of an internal faction of ‘overhumanists’ or ‘sovruhumanists’ who are percieved by some to be to be uncomfortably close to neofascism, strongly suggests that the links between the politics of human enhancement and fascism are still with us.