Previously the preserve of science fiction, the concept of human augmentation gains currency as digital technology becomes second nature to us.
A transhumanist future where humans develop technology to transcend their biological limitations is not in the realm of science fiction any longer. As artificial intelligence and machine learning continue to accelerate at an exponential pace, the question now is: are we ready for that future?
Human augmentation – a field that uses technology to replicate or enhance a person’s body and mind – has been making great strides, as engineers, entrepreneurs and policymakers are rapidly exploring new and marketable applications across the globe.
There are three different levels to human augmentation: replication, supplementation and exceeding human ability.
Replication is augmentation that imitates something a typical person can already do. The most common examples in use are prosthetics, glasses and hearing aids.
The next phase of replication augmentation is implanting or hosting different technology elements in a person’s body, such as wearable devices, which is already used to gather biometric data or to interact with devices.
There are already a number of examples, from a 3D thumb that augments dexterity; an interactive digital skin tattoo that can control devices and monitor your health; super protective headgear that inflates into a helmet upon sensing impact; glasses that allow people who are colourblind to see the full spectrum of light; and gloves that allow people who don’t have control of their hand to grip and pinch objects.
The second level of augmentation is supplementation, which takes replication one step further by enhancing intellectual and physical limitations to redefine the human experience.
Examples include exoskeletons– wearable mechanical devices that provide the wearer with artificial strength and endurance; earbuds that can translate conversations in real time; Google glass; and Neuralink, a project by Elon Musk with the goal of creating a brain-computer interface.
The final level of augmentation allows humans to exceed normal abilities. While among the most exciting, it is also the most far off. Some in their formative stages include turbine-powered hoverboards, invisibility cloaks, artificial blood cells, nanobots, and synthetic memory chips.
Rewards and risks
According to a new study, there appears to be growing support for human augmentation.
Commissioned by cybersecurity firm Kasperksy in partnership with research group Opinium, 14,500 people in 16 countries across Europe and North Africa were canvassed between 9–27 July to reveal widely contrasting views on what people would enhance, ethical and security dilemmas, and government regulation.
The survey found that 92 percent of respondents say they would improve themselves if they could, while just under two-thirds would consider augmenting their body either temporarily or permanently.
Interestingly, respondents from southern Europe along with Morocco were far more enthusiastic about the prospect of human augmentation than their (more technologically advanced) northern neighbours.
An overwhelming 81 percent of Italians would consider augmentation, compared with just 33 percent of UK respondents. People in the Iberian nations of Spain and Portugal are the most open to the idea, with 60 percent of each country believing it is acceptable.
Overall, the UK and France are the most sceptical, with 36 percent of Brits and 30 percent of French adults against the concept, and more than half (52 percent and 53 percent) considering it a danger to society.
Moroccans, the only non-Europeans polled in the survey, are the most optimistic (49 percent) for human augmentation’s potential to level the playing field and encourage equality, while Brits (19 percent) and the Swiss (20 percent) are the least optimistic. 58 percent of Moroccans believe it will allow humans to express themselves more creatively.
Across the board, those who agree with human augmentation placed overall physical health (40 percent) as their number one priority and cited it’s potential to improve the quality of life (53 percent) and reduce suffering (39 percent) as the primary reasons for their support.
Age and gender also played a role in respondents’ desires and expectations.
Older people had more support for augmentation that would improve their health, while younger respondents were more focused on enhancing their appearance and sporting abilities.
48 percent of men felt it was acceptable to augment their body with technology compared to 38 percent of women. While men were more likely to desire greater strength (23 percent compared to 18 percent of women), women were keener on getting a more attractive body (36 percent versus 25 percent).
Only 2 percent of women said they would enhance their genitals, compared with 11 percent of men. Women (21 percent) were also slightly more likely than men (15 percent) to be concerned than excited by augmentation.
Nearly half (47 percent) of those interviewed believe governments should regulate human augmentation. The UK is most in favour of government intervention (77 percent) and Greece the most resistant (17 percent).
Some doubts still remain.
69 percent of those interviewed believe augmentation would be limited to the wealthy, while 88 percent fear their bodies could be hacked by cyber criminals. Devices malfunctioning (86 percent) and causing permanent damage to the body (85 percent) are key concerns as well.
Marco Preuss, Director of the Global Research and Analysis Team for Kaspersky said:
“Human augmentation is one of the most significant technology trends today. We’re already seeing a wide range of practical applications being deployed across the everyday areas of our lives like health and social care, sport, education and transport.”
“But people are right to be wary. Augmentation enthusiasts are already testing the limits of what’s possible, but we need commonly agreed standards to ensure augmentation reaches its full potential while minimising the risks.”
The study found that people were more likely to support existing human augmentation, such as pacemakers, than potential future augmentation.
But Professor Julian Savulescu of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University believes that could rapidly change.
“With human augmentation, we’ll need a few pioneers and some success stories,” he said. “Once it’s proven to work, people will vote with their feet.”
We are at the very beginning of the human augmentation journey. Debates around the potential benefits and challenges will emerge and develop over the coming decades.
As human enhancement technologies open up tremendous new possibilities, they will raise important questions about what it means to be human.