The transhumanist movement continues to gain momentum through recognition by mainstream media and a ever-burgeoning army of empricists, free thinkers and rationalists. Recently, the Australian incarnation of 60 Minutes interviewed David Sinclair, a biologist whom has identified the potentially life-extending properties of resveratrol. All this attention has sought to swell the awareness of transhumanism within the general community, most notably due to the inherently appealing nature of anti-senescent interventions. But what of the neurological side of transhumanism, specifically the artificial augmentation of our natural mental ability with implantable neurocircuitry? Does research in this area create moral questions regarding its implementation, or should we be embracing technological upgrades with open arms? Is it morally wrong to enhance the brain without effort on the individual level (IE: are such methods just plain lazy)? These are the questions I would like to investigate in this article.
An emerging transhumanist e-zine, H+ Magazine, outlines several avenues currently under exploration by researchers, who aim to improve the cognitive ability of the human brain through artificial enhancement. The primary area of focus at present (from an empirical point of view) lies in memory enhancement. The Innerspace Foundation (IF) is a not-for-profit organisation attempting to lead the charge in this area, with two main prizes offered to researchers whom can 1) successfully create a device which can circumvent the traditional learning process and 2) create a device which facilitates the extension of natural memory.
Pete Estep, chairman of IF, was interviewed by H+ magazine in relation to the foundation’s vision as to what kind of device that satisfied their award criteria might look like. Pete believes the emergence of this industry involves ‘baby steps’ of achieving successful interfaces between biological and non-biological components. Electronic forms of learning, Pete believes, are certainly non-traditional, but still a valid possibility and stand to revolutionise the human intellect in terms of capacity and quality of retrieval.
Fortunately, we seem to already made progress on those ‘baby steps’ regarding the interface between brain and technology. Various neuroheadset products are poised to be released commercially in the coming months. For example, the EPOC headset utilises EEG technology to recognise brainwave activity that corresponds to various physical actions such as facial expression and intent to move a limb. With concentrated effort and training, the operator can reliably reproduce the necessary EEG pattern to activate individual commands within the headset. These commands can then be mapped to an external device and various tasks able to be performed remotely.
Having said this, such devices are still very much ‘baby’ in their steps. The actual stream of consciousness has not yet been decoded; the secrets of the brain are still very much a mystery. Recognisation of individual brain patterns is a superficial solution to a profound problem. Getting back to Searle’s almost cliched Chinese Room thought experiment, we seem to be merely reading the symbols and decoding them, there is no actual understanding and comprehension going on here.
Even if such a solution is possible, and a direct mind/machine interface achieved, one small part of me wonders if it really is such a good thing. I imagine such a feeling is similar to the one felt by the quintessential school teacher when handheld calculators became the norm within the educational curriculum. By condoning such neuro-shortcuts, are we simply being lazy? Are the technological upgrades promised by transhumanism removing too much of the human element?
On a broader scale, I believe these concerns are elucidated by a societal shift towards passivity. Television is the numero-uno offender with a captive audience of billions. The invasion of neurological enhancements may seek to only increase the exploitation of our attention with television programs beamed directly into brains. Rain, hail or shine, passive reception of entertainment would be accessible 24 hours a day. Likewise, augmentation of memory and circumvention of traditional learning processes may forge a society of ultimate convenience – slaves to a ‘Matrix-style’ mainframe salivating over their next neural-upload ‘hit’.
But having said all this, by examining the previous example of the humble calculator it seems that if such technological breakthroughs are used as an extensor rather than a crutch, humanity may just benefit from the transhumanist revolution. I believe any technology aiming to enhance natural neurological processing power must only be used as such; a method to raise the bar of creativity and ingenuity, not simply a new avenue for bombarding the brain with more direct modes of passive entertainment. Availability must also be society-wide, in order to allow every human being to reach their true potential.
Of course, the flow-on effects of such technology on socio-economic status, intelligence, individuality, politics; practically every facet of human society, are certainly unknown and unpredictable. If used with extension and enhancement as a philosophy, transhumanism can usher in a new explosion of human ingenuity. If a more superficial ethos is adopted, it may only succeed in ushering a new dark ages. It’s the timeless battle between good (transcendence) and evil (exploitation, laziness). Perhaps a topic for a future article, but certainly food for thought.