Human Enhancement. What’s human enhancement? What is the definition? What’s wrong with improving yourself, whether with technology or supplements? This is because of the impact that the actions of an individual can have on society. This offers opportunities, but also risks and dangers.
What is human enhancement?
The definition of ‘human enhancement’ is the use of biomedical technologies that have purposes other than the cure or prevention of diseases. Consider, for example, bionic components such as in the movie Ghost in the Shell (image at the top). It is to enhance the human capabilities and functions.
Researchers Almeida and Diogo analyzed the word enhance in their paper [link at the bottom]:
- The noun ‘enhancement’ comes from the verb ‘enhance’, meaning ‘to increase or improve’. The verb enhance can be traced back to the vulgar Latin inaltiare and late Latin inaltare (‘raise, exalt’), from ‘altare’ (‘make high’) and altus (‘high’), literally ‘grown tall’.
In this article you can read a couple of more definitions of the term human enhancement, for example by Etag, Savaluscu and more.
Video Human enhancement
I made a video about human enhancement: what is human enhancement, what are technologies, criteria and the arguments of proponents and critics.
Below is a summary with the most important points.
#1 Human enhancement involves the use of technological means to improve people. Unlike the use of technology in healthcare, these methods are applied to healthy individuals.
#2 Improvement technologies where I currently see the most potential are genetic modification and mechanical adaptations (in the form of bionic limbs). Pharmaceutical enhancers are currently used the most.
#3 Proponents believe that the use of technologies for improvement is something that makes us human. Opponents believe that it damages our autonomy and humanity. Our defects and mistakes make us human.
#4 Human enhancement has an enormous impact on all kinds of domains, including geopolitical relations, warfare, legislation and sport. For that reason it is complex to make independent assessments here as an individual or country.
#5 As far as I am concerned, the discussion about human enhancement remains separate from dogmas, such as “technology is by definition good or bad.” My vision is that we consider whether each technological application is in line with our principles.
In the remainder of this article these points will be discussed, with substantiation and other insights.
This is the structure of the rest of the article:
- Explanation (with a mindmap)
- Definitions (yes, there are more)
- Concepts (like biohacking, NBIC convergence and cybernetic enhancement)
- Effect (to boost cognition, physical capabilities and more)
- Criteria (when is a technology meant for enhancement?)
- Classifications (and a story about my implant)
- Impact (commercial opportunities, sports, geopolitics and even the climate crisis)
- Future (radical ideas like surviving in outer space)
- Action (what can and should we do now?)
At the end I share a list with resources, like books, articles and more.
How to explain human enhancement?
Human Enhancement explanation
There are a lot of concepts and ideas surrounding human enhancement. The basic idea is that human enhancement aims to increase human capacities and functions above normal levels. Think of pharmaceuticals to improve your cognition, genetic interventions to increase your muscle-mass and exoskeleton to aid your stamina.
As a summary I share an up-to-date mindmap with related concepts, examples, concerns, impact and principles. Some of the points (and their elaboration) are in this article. Some are in other articles on my blog, like human enhancement technologies, examples, drugs, ethics, debate, books and movies.
Take a look at the mindmap:
What are definitions of human enhancement?
Definition Human enhancement
Here you can find the best definitions of the term human enhancement. All the links to the articles and books are at the bottom of this article.
A 2008 report by Etag, a collaboration of a number of European research institutes, defines human enhancement as follows: ‘modification aimed at improving individual human performance and brought about by science-based or technology-based interventions in the human body.’
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has the following definition: ‘biomedical interventions that are used to improve human form or functioning beyond what is necessary to restore or sustain health.’
Scholar Thomas Douglas writes about ‘biomedical enhancements’ which resembles the concept of human enhancement [link at the bottom]. ‘The use of biomedical technologies to alter the characteristics of already healthy persons.’
Allan Buchanan describes human enhancement as follows: ‘any attempt to temporarily or permanently overcome the current limitations of the human body through natural or artificial means.’
Bostrom and Savalescu write in their book that ‘human enhancement aims to increase human capacities above normal levels.’
The simple definition of human enhancement is: the use of science and technology to improve your bodily functions. That is why I think about science fiction, like the game Cyberpunk 2077 (image above).
Here is a comprehensive overview of all the definitions mentioned in the previous part:
- Modification aimed at improving individual human performance and brought about by science-based or technology-based interventions in the human body (Etag, 2008);
- Biomedical interventions that are used to improve human form or functioning beyond what is necessary to restore or sustain health (Stanford, 2015);
- The use of biomedical technologies to alter the characteristics of already healthy persons (Douglas, 2008);
- Any attempt to temporarily or permanently overcome the current limitations of the human body through natural or artificial means (Buchanan, 2008)
- Human enhancement aims to increase human capacities above normal levels (Bostrom and Savalescu, 2009)
- The use of science and technology to improve your bodily functions (Joosten, 2019).
In the bundle The ethics of human enhancement: Understanding the debate the scholars Chris Gyngell and Michael Selgelid wrote an article about the different approaches to define human enhancement. These are the approaches:
- Constructivist Approach: beneficial alterations that do not treat disease (disease as a state disvalued by society).
- Normal Functioning Approach: beneficial alterations that do not treat disease (disease as a negative deviation from normal functioning).
- Beyond Species Typical Approach: alterations that take people beyond species-typical value for certain traits.
- Beyond Species Maximum Approach: alterations that take people beyond species-maximum value for certain traits.
- Welfarist Conception: alterations that improve wellbeing.
- Modified Welfarist Approach: alterations that give people abnormal biological function and improve well-being.
- Functional Approach: alterations that increase some type of functioning.
In the conclusion of their article they state it is important to be clear about which type of approach you use when discussing human enhancement technologies and methods.
What are related concepts?
Human enhancement concepts
For clarification, I provide a brief description of other terms that overlap with human enhancement:
- Biohacking is the self-improvement of the human body with (experimental) technology. This includes unconventional methods such as DIY grinders that put electronics into their bodies or bio-hackers who want to genetically modify themselves [more on biohacking];
- Transhumanism is a philosophical movement that strives to break through biological boundaries, including aging [more on transhumanism];
- Human augmentation is adding or expanding functions to the human body;
I will certainly not deny that other authors and experts interpret the terms differently, but this is the distinction that I use.
I myself notice that the difference between biohacking and human enhancement is the most diffuse. The difference that I understand is that human enhancement can also be offered by a (commercial) organization, such as the brain chips from Neuralink. Biohacking has an emphatic experimental context, which can be traced back to the ideas of computer hackers and the open source movement.
The term “human enhancement” is often used in scientific literature on human enhancement, even more so than the term “biohacking”.
The book Managing Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Innovations: Converging Technologies in Society [link at the bottom] was published in 2006 under the editorship of William Sims Bainbridge. As the title suggests, this book introduces the concept of NBIC convergence. By this they mean the coming together of a number of technological developments that mutually reinforce each other.
One of the objectives of NBIC is to maintain and improve human performance. The authors and researchers are thinking, among other things, of improving sensory capacity in aging, the use of implants and brain-computer interfaces.
Their defined objective is essentially human enhancement, which means that I see NBIC as a vision or method to achieve human improvement.
The acronym in ‘NBIC convergence’ stands for the convergence of developments in the neuro-, bio-, information and cognitive sciences. I first came across this term after reading a publication by the Rathenau Institute [link at the bottom]. The consequences of the convergence of these different fields are difficult to estimate, but it is exactly in the (re)combination of technology where the power lies.
Definition NBIC convergence
The NBIC convergence follows a similar pattern to previous ICT convergences:
- Robotics: combination of mechanics and electronics;
- ICT: combination of information and communication technologies;
- Internet of Things: combination of Internet and physical reality;
- NBIC: combination of information and biotechnology.
It’s usually not just one technology that brings about a major change, but a combination of several technological developments. A good example of this can be found in the section on prostheses and exoskeletons, where we saw the combination of electronics together with biotechnology and neurotechnology (the connection to the brain and/or nerve endings).
What are some examples of NBIC convergence? In his book, Michael Bess talks about a number of so-called ‘wild cards’. These are technological developments that, at first sight, are not directly applicable to humans or of which the application/implementation lies a bit further in the future:
- Nanotechnology is technology at the smallest possible scale, that of atoms and molecules. Futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that in the future, we will be able to send small robots through our bloodstream, right towards an infection or a specific organ [link at the bottom]. This may seem like a very long-term idea, but researchers in Zurich demonstrated at the beginning of 2019 that they could program small elastic robots that adapt their shape to the environment they’re in [link at the bottom].
- Artificial intelligence is a driving force behind the developments described above. Take genetics: algorithms can analyze an incredible number of datasets to examine DNA for connections and correlations. One possible scenario to which I referred in the section on bio-electronics, is that in the future, we will be able to link the human brain to artificial intelligence.
- At the moment, synthetic biology is the highlight of the convergence between information and biotechnology. This entails, for instance, modifying, constructing and redesigning living matter such as cells, tissues and organisms.
I also wrote a separate article on all the developments in this list [link at the bottom]. With regard to literature on this topic, the novel Nexus by Ramez Naam is an interesting read. In the book, a synthetic drug is used as a nanotechnology that acts on the brain and allows the protagonists to communicate with each other.
A term that is often used in English as a synonym of human enhancement is “cybernetic enhancements.” Cybernetics stands for science that deals with the control of biological and mechanical systems with the help of feedback.
The term is also used to indicate the physical fusion between man and machine. The human body is enriched or replaced with electronic or mechanical components.
From that description, which is shared by Alex Pearlman, I list cybernetic improvement under human augmentation [link at the bottom].
What are possible effects of human enhancement?
Human Enhancement effects
Human Enhancement is the use of technology to make a healthy person even healthier, a fit person even fitter and a smart person even smarter. This is the definition that Thomas Douglas has given to this in his article from 2008 [link at the bottom].
The use of technology to make sick people better is socially acceptable. That is not a human improvement and is not part of human enhancement.
What benefits can it bring? In my mind map there is a categorization that I briefly describe below:
- Cognition: more intelligence;
- Physical: more strength, speed, agility, etc.
- Emotional: better recognizing and expressing emotions;
- Health: better physical condition, longer life;
- Spiritual: transcendental and spiritual improvement;
- Moral: improving character and acting ethically;
- Sensory: expansion or improvement of senses such as vision, hearing, etc.
- Hive mind: mutual connection in a larger context, such as telepathy;
In my other articles on this theme, such as transhumanism and the future of man, these categories are further elaborated [link at the bottom].
What are criteria for human enhancement?
Human enhancement criteria
This is a list of criteria which you can use to decide if a certain method or technology is human enhancement:
- Cure or improvement;
- Individual or collective;
- Temporary or permanent;
- Realistic or vision.
I further explain these criteria below.
1 Cure or improvement
This is the best known distinction within (biomedical) technology. Take the implantation of electronic equipment in the human body. In the case of a pacemaker, a patient is helped. But if you, as an individual, use technology to improve yourself, like if I had a chip put into myself, then it is seen as improvement [link at the bottom].
2 Individual versus collective
Is it a choice that you make yourself or that is made for you? In the current world view, methods from above are unlikely to be imposed. This was discussed with I, professor Maartje Schermer: ‘Can you also consider vaccinations to be human enhancement?’ After all, you are born without the resistance to certain viruses.
However, I don’t think this is human enhancement. The reason for this is that it is a method that is available to everyone and is generally accepted.
In line with the previous point, our perspective of what is accepted may change over time. Where we now see some interventions as improvement, the new can be normal for future generations. Take coffee, for example. When this was introduced and the first drinkers had experienced the uplifting feeling, coffee was not as matter-of-course as it is now. In the context of that time, coffee would fall under human enhancement.
4 Temporary or permanent
This is the extent to which an improvement method is temporary or permanent. Take something like vision. Like a smart contact lens, as is currently being developed by Samsung [link at the bottom]. According to a patent application, the manufacturer wants you to take photos with the lens, information is projected onto the screen and connected to your smartphone.
You can argue whether this falls under human enhancement or not. If the technology were still experimental and not yet socially accepted, then according to the previous criteria it would fall under human enhancement. This is in contrast to regular glasses, contact lenses and clothing.
A bionic eye, such as in science-fiction films such as Terminator, can easily be classified as human enhancement in that regard. This is because it involves a permanent improvement with extra capacities such as night vision, zooming in and recording images.
The context determines when something is accepted or not. In this article I come back to top sport quite often. The reason for this is that sport is a fantastic testing ground to think about. For example, Erythropoietin (EPO) promotes the growth of red blood cells from the bone marrow. In a sport such as cycling it is forbidden, while in healthcare it is sometimes used for patients who have difficulty producing red blood cells.
6 Realistic versus vision
This is the extent to which a technique or method for human improvement is real. Take the bionic eye. As far as I am concerned, it is not yet part of human enhancement, as it is not yet technically possible. There are certainly a number of visions of human improvement within the current movement of transhumanism that are now only fantasy or in a very primitive phase of research. As far as I am concerned, a technology falls under human enhancement if it is available, even if it is for a limited group.
What are helpful classifications?
Human enhancement classifications
There are various classifications of methods for human enhancement. In this article I will highlight two:
- 1 Rathenau Instituut
- 2 Makeable Man book
Below I elaborate and explain the classifications.
Classification 1: Rathenau Instituut
The first classification comes from the Rathenau Institute (the Netherlands). The distinction that Rathenau makes is from non-invasive (out of body) to invasive (in body).
- Out of body + measuring.
- Out of body + help.
- In or on body + not permanent.
- In body + permanent.
#1 Outside body + measuring. This is sometimes classified as quantified self. Technology measures, monitors and provides feedback on our behavior. Technology works here as an extra sense organ and measuring instrument.
#2 Outside body + help. A form associated with the previous one where technology will also help us. Take Crystal, a service that provides advice on your social relationships and communication on the internet based on your personal data [link at the bottom].
#3 In or on body + not permanent. This is a fairly broad category, so I will give a few examples:
- Biohackers who wanted to develop infrared vision by taking certain supplements [link at the bottom]
- Swallowing supplements or even microdoses of LSD to improve cognition [link at the bottom];
- Placing electrodes on the skull that send a small weak current through your brain for more focus and concentration [link at the bottom];
The first two examples are in the body and the last example is technology on the body.
#4 In body + permanent. This is when you are going to implant electronics into your body. This is a separate subculture from so-called “DIY grinders”. I also did this myself, with the RFID chip in my hand.
However, the definition of when a certain technology falls under human enhancement is not entirely clear. To illustrate that, I give a few examples that, in my opinion, do not fall under human enhancement:
- In category 1 (outside + measuring): if you write in a paper booklet to keep track of your training sessions;
- In category 2 (outside + helping): if you go to school to increase your knowledge;
- In category 3 (in or on + not permanent): wearing glasses or contact lenses to improve your vision;
- In category 4 (in + permanent): a cochlear implant to hear or a pacemaker to support the heart rhythm.
The characteristic of these cases is that they are widely accepted methods or techniques. This is not the case with human enhancement, in which a technique is not used or accepted by everyone.
Classification 2: Makeable Man book
In the book Makeable Man Christoph Lüthy makes another classification:
- #1 improvement of existing functions, such as cosmetics and doping;
- #2 adjustment and selection methods in the reproduction of human individuals;
- #3 replacement or extension of natural by artificial bodily interactions, such as organ replacement or cyborg creation;
- #4 methods to adjust behavior.
Personally, I don’t think the fourth category falls under human enhancement. The reason for this is that these are non-permanent interventions that usually apply to groups. Examples of this are the government that wants to encourage citizens to smoke less with cigarette duty, companies that want to use marketing campaigns to convince consumers to buy their products and parents who want to teach their children to eat healthily.
What is the impact of human enhancement?
Human enhancement impact
What are the possible consequences of the increasing use of human enhancement technology. I will elaborate this further in this section.
- commercial and market opportunities
- social consequences, including power and morality
- climate crisis
- geopolitics and war
- laws and regulations
- institutions, such as religions
I have elaborated on a number of conceivable effects in these domains below.
When I give lectures on this subject, most participants express their concerns about safety. That is not without reason. Two examples:
- Electronic implants
- Breast implants
First, take electronic implants. In 2017, more than half a million patients in the United States were called on to update their pacemaker due to fear of hackers [link at the bottom]. For that reason, former vice-president Dick Cheney had turned off his pacemaker’s bluetooth connection, because he was afraid that the device would be hacked otherwise.
Secondly, safety can also be about the risks to the body. For example, it appeared in 2019 that certain types of silicone used for breast implants lead to an increased risk of lymph node cancer [link at the bottom].
2. Commercial opportunities
What are the commercial opportunities of human enhancement? Every year, research agency Gartner publishes a study containing the so-called hype cycle. Whereas “biohacking” first appeared in the list in 2018, in 2019 this applies to “human augmentation.” The definition that Gartner uses is that it concerns technologies that improve physical or cognitive performance [link at the bottom]. This is an explanation that overlaps with my definition of human enhancement.
In the aforementioned research by Witman into the opinion of the American public on human enhancement, she also examines the market potential of these technologies. Around 43% of the respondents were interested in improving their cognition with pharmaceuticals, of which 16% were very interested and 27% reasonably interested. This percentage drops to 34% where an implant is concerned.
Related to the commercial opportunities of human enhancement is the possibility that the human body, or parts, will be exposed to market forces. At least, even more than we know now.
Professor Michael Bess (Vandebilt University) expresses his concerns about this in his book Make Way for the Superhumans [link at the bottom]. He states that human enhancement can ensure that we look at the human body in an instrumental way. This reduces a person to a sum of modified and (not yet) modified properties. ‘In this vision, humanity becomes a kind of platform, related to software or an operating system, the performance of which can be improved, expanded and manipulated at will.’
To expand on this:
- Someone’s personality traits become features that you can upgrade;
- Skills and talents become assets, for which you can buy new versions;
- Shortcomings and struggles become disadvantages that can be solved with a quick fix.
In the Western world, the economic and therefore cultural system is based on capitalism. Are we going to treat parts of the human body or humanity in the same way as shoes or telephones?
Case study: Snapchat plastic surgery
The first signals that indicate this are already visible. In this way, appearance is increasingly regarded as something that you need to improve, certainly in the light of your image on social media.
In a 2018 study by the University of Boston (United States), the term “snapchat dysmorphy” is described for the first time. The researchers base themselves on a survey among plastic surgeons. The participants in the questionnaire saw that 55% of the patients indicated that they were undergoing treatment in order to better resemble selfies on Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms.
3. Social consequences
What are the possible social consequences of human enhancement? A striking statement is from the Belgian psychiatrist and philosopher Damiaan Denys. He is also a professor at the University of Amsterdam [link at the bottom].
In the aforementioned report from the Rathenau Institute, he says: ‘One could activate the aggression centers of soldiers and inhibit their moral awareness or decorum during battle, one could activate the pleasure center of prostitutes, strengthen the care and dedication of the cleaning lady. One can inhibit the religious beliefs of fundamentalists or foster unbelievers, make air traffic controllers and pilots more resistant to stress, make police and security services more cautious or reckless.’
He makes his statement based on the applications of deep brain stimulation (DBS), but you could also apply it to other forms of improvement technology.
What strikes me about Denys’ statement is the power and control that it implies. The examples are about positive consequences for a group or society. They do not come from an individual who seems to be making a choice independently.
The most extreme example is to promote empathy in society. A team of philosophers and ethicists, namely Matthew Liao, Rebacca Roache and Anders Sandberg, presented this in 2012 [link at the bottom]. According to them, the administration of the hormone oxytocin leads to more empathy. More empathy in society can be useful when we try to solve problems such as the climate crisis.
The aforementioned Julian Savalescu, with whom I recorded an interview, has written a book on moral improvement with Ingmar Persson. In 2014 they released Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement [link at the bottom].
In this book they write that the problems that we as humanity now have to deal with cannot be solved by physical or cognitive improvements. They work out the argument that with biomedical technology, such as pharmaceutical products, we must strive for moral improvement. If we are all stimulated to behave more morally through chemical interventions, this will lead to a better and finer world.
4. Climate crisis
The climate crisis is a speculative reason for human enhancement. In 2012, an interview with Matthew Liao, professor at New York University, led to a great deal of fuss [link at the bottom]. The interview followed a publication about the possibilities of human enhancement for solving the climate problem.
In addition to the aforementioned proposal to promote empathy, these were a few of the other striking proposals:
- Use pharmaceuticals to encourage people to dislike eating meat;
- Through IVF, ensure that people become less large;
Despite the philosophical and speculative approach of the interview, it led to much commotion and uproar. Not only are thinkers concerned with adapting people in relation to the climate problem, artists and designers also apply this in their work. For example, I held an interview with the British artist Agi Haines [link at the bottom].
Her best-known work in this area is Transfigurations. For this she made five babies with fictional adjustments, such as extra lobes to give off heat or larger cheeks to store food for longer [link at the bottom].
What is the impact of human enhancement on power relations between countries and the geopolitical balance in the world? Owen Schaefer is a bioethicist at the University of Singapore. In an interview, he stated that most Western countries are wary or averse to human improvement [link at the bottom]. I have written more about this in the Opinion section.
He estimates that the population in Japan is also largely opposed to improvement, but this is different in China and India. According to him, this is partly culturally determined, but it requires more research to be able to measure and explain this difference.
Daryl Macer of the Eubios Ethics Institute expects that Asian countries will play a leading role in the research and application of improvement technology [link at the bottom]. Other arguments that he cites are the democratic system in these countries, the pressure of performance and the urge to manifest on the international geopolitical playing field.
Even in 1983, Lee Kuan Yew, the then president of Singapore, spoke out strongly about this. He believed that human capital, in terms of inheritable factors such as intelligence, is essential for the future of the city state. Critics, such as the scientist Chan, write that such comments can be a first step towards eugenic practices [link at the bottom]. This is where reproduction and the basic condition of its inhabitants are imposed by the state.
6. Laws and regulations
After he had contributed to the development of the atomic bomb, the scientist Oppenheimer later regularly commented on his regret. This is also called “Oppenheimer’s regret”.
Does that also apply to the current time? Are we starting things in the context of improving people because we allow companies and scientists to take their course, unrestrained by laws and regulations and/or too few safety tests? This is a concern of respondents. In the American study, 70% say they expect technologies to come on the market before they are fully understood or tested.
Making adequate laws and regulations is complex. Making laws and rules in a (bio) technological world requires balancing between the caution and the driving force which a government has both. This is complex, because the purpose of the government is to protect its residents (caution), but also to stimulate innovation (boost).
This balance also makes international cooperation so complex. As I wrote about in the geopolitics section, human enhancement can also be an advantage over other countries. In the book series Nexus, Crux and Apex, author Ramez Naam describes a world in which emerging superpowers such as China and India allow more [link at the bottom]. For example, those in power in those countries want to stimulate the development of a certain neurotechnology to strengthen the intelligence and cooperation capacity of their inhabitants.
Technology versus rules
When it comes to regulation, the government soon falls behind, as the former vice-chairman of the Council of State of the Netherlands Piet Hein Donner said: “Technology is going faster than rules.”
This apparent contradiction regularly appears in sessions for which I am invited. For example, I was a guest at meetings of the Ministry of Security and Justice, the Health Council and the Public Prosecution Service to reflect on this topic.
Another category of laws and regulations are human rights. How do they change as technology increasingly affects our bodies and lives? My opinion, which is colored by the social cultural model in which I grew up and in which I now live, is that as a person you must always have the choice to stay natural. I analyzed this upgraded human rights from the book Technology vs. Humanity by Gerd Leonhard.
He believes, for example, that it should not be mandatory to change yourself biologically or to add electronics to your body. This was also reflected in the American focus groups. A basic principle must be that an upgrade is not mandatory. Not from an employer, but also from an educational institution or government. Another principle that emerged in the research was that the technology does not harm others.
Although both principles (non-compulsory and non-harmful) now seem logical, it remains important to me to stay alert to this as a society.
7. Institutional factors
Technological developments never stand alone. Although I sometimes have that feeling, the development and application of a technology is always influenced by all sorts of other factors. Consider social factors, cultural factors, beliefs, politics and power. By mixing factors that influence each other, it is difficult to predict the final effect of a technology.
A number of historical examples:
- The uprising of textile workers in England against machines in their factories was crushed by the government. The government saw the economic potential of this development. The textile workers were therefore not beaten by technology, but by government interests;
- The introduction of the contraceptive pill led to a disconnection of sex and reproduction. This removed an argument against homosexuality, which led to a strongly growing acceptance of relationships between people of the same sex;
The role of institutions and other factors is beautifully expressed by Professor Majid Tehranian. Tehranian: “Technology is always developed from an institutional need and the impact is always mediated by institutional arrangements and social forces, of which they are part.”
Religions are among the institutions with a major influence on our world. According to author Yuval Noah Harari it depends partly on political and religious leaders how fast technological progress will progress [link at the bottom].
Religion gives meaning to life and formulates answers to essential issues such as the origin and end of life. But what if we can tinker with the origin of life with genetic modification? If we can intervene in our skills and possibilities with human enhancement? Or if we can use technology to postpone the end of our lives?
Technology versus religion
According to author Don LeLillo, technology takes over the role of religion: “In the past, religion was the answer to human inability to accept one’s own mortality. That place is now slowly but surely being taken up by technology. “
Professor Lennox (University of Oxford) makes a similar comparison. He sees the pursuit of super intelligence as the story of the Tower of Babel and the pursuit of immortality as the search for heaven [link at the bottom].
End of religions?
I myself was not brought up religiously. Yet I don’t think religions will disappear soon. As social forces, religions have previously survived major scientific discoveries and technological changes. Consider the heliocentric theory of Galileo, the theory of evolution, the introduction of printing and the rise of the internet.
In fact, you could argue that religions are adaptive enough to adapt themselves to these disruptions.
During keynotes I often say that top-level sport is an ideal testing ground for thinking about human enhancement. Top-level sport is constantly trying to find the physical limits of the athletes. Think of anabolic steroids in baseball players, blood doping in cyclists or unauthorized use of amphetamine by runners.
A new direction in the constant arms race is so-called gene doping. To what extent can an athlete’s genes be changed, so that the body itself, for example, produces more EPA? Or take muscle growth. The American physiologist used gene therapy to change the DNA of muscle cells in mice. The media then called the mice “Schwarzenegger mice.” Their muscle mass increased by 15 percent and they became 27 percent stronger.
In 2008, scientists at Case Western Reserve University modified the PEPCK-C gene in certain muscles [link at the bottom]. They became hyperactive, much more aggressive and also appeared to enter the menopause much later than the control group without adjustment. At the same time, their athletic ability also increased. They could run 20 times as far as mice in the control group and at a much higher speed.
In the Netherlands, professor Hidde Haisma is conducting research at the University of Groningen into the detection of gene doping [link at the bottom]. Compared to regular forms of doping, gene doping is now even harder to find. According to him, there is still no evidence that genetic doping is being applied, but it certainly has the interest of the sports world.
What are visions of human enhancement that are a little further in time? In this I describe a number of ideas about the distant future of humans.
What is the future of human enhancement? As you could already read in the introduction, I explore the distant future of human enhancement in this section. These are visions that may seem like science fiction, or at least fictional, but that is also the reason that they stayed with me after I came into contact with it.
The visions are:
- super organism
- space travel
I elaborate on the visions below.
How far can we go? Or rather: how far do we let it get? In his book Homo Deus, author Yuval Noah Harari outlines two scenarios: techno-humanism and dataism
The purpose of techno-humanism is to expand the capabilities of humans with technology. We become cyborgs and connect ourselves to computers, where human interests and desires are still the most important. This is somewhat similar to the idea of transhumanism [link at the bottom].
The second scenario is dataism. This is still based on the idea that we are special and important as humans. Only until recently we were the best system for processing data, but that is no longer the case.
Algorithms understand our feelings, emotions, choices and desires better than you do it yourself. The consequence of this is that we become irrelevant as human beings. Our only goal is to serve artificial intelligence [link at the bottom about scenarios around this so-called super intelligence].
No more people
The first scenario of techno-humanism is in line with what you have been able to read about the possibilities within human enhancement. The second scenario is the most dramatic for us humans. In a certain sense you can no longer speak of human enhancement here, since the human factor has disappeared or is nil.
In my articles about transhumanism and artificial intelligence you can read more about the formation of super intelligence and the possible superfluity of the human race [link at the bottom].
2. Super organism
In the book Next Nature, philosopher Koert van Mensvoort introduced me to the concept of super organism [link at the bottom]. In my blog article about transhumanism I also wrote about this before [link at the bottom].
Part of his idea is in keeping with Yuval Noah Harari’s dataism. We as homo sapiens are not the end of evolution. To put this in perspective, I start with the big bang. About 13.5 billion years ago, elementary particles first appeared after the big bang. With increasing complexity, they first formed in hadrons, then atoms, molecules, cells, complex cells and finally in multicellular organisms.
Evolution does not stop
Multicellular organisms originated around 2.5 billion years ago. About 300,000 years ago we, the homo sapiens, were born. But that did not stop evolution. From the historical evolutionary steps it is to be expected that the next life form will develop again to the next level of complexity.
Researchers Smith and Szathmáry, for example, concluded that really big evolutionary transitions take place as soon as existing organisms start to work together or encapsulate each other within a larger whole.
Memes as the next step
The question then is: what does this next level look like? The level after us, as a multicellular organism? In his book, Koert van Mensvoort does a shot for the book. He writes: “Probably the next step of the evolutionary ladder is memetic.”
A meme was introduced by Richard Dawkins in the book The Selfish Gene [link at the bottom]. Memes are not just images on the internet that are widely shared and quickly spread. Memetics, according to Dawkins, are cultural phenomena that, like genes, spread through variation, mutation, competition and inheritance through the behavior they cause in their host.
Countries and companies
What are current examples of memetic organisms? Koert van Mensvoort makes a number of suggestions, such as countries or companies. You can regard these entities as organisms with their own metabolism and strategy for survival, of which we as human beings are part.
Another suggestion is technology. Certainly if we consider Smith and Szathmáry’s remark. Thanks to technology such as the internet, we work together more easily as people. In fact, we can’t live without it, at least if I speak for myself.
Are we, as humanity, gradually encapsulated by technology such as the internet and the smartphone? Is that computer and information technology the next step in evolution? Or is that super intelligence, in line with Harari’s dataism?
Human enhancement role
Perhaps this goes together with human enhancement. Because to operate as people within the super-organism of technology, we must have improved ourselves. To continue this speculative line: what if we can telepathically communicate with each other via brain chips? Then we are literally encapsulated by technology. Or perhaps crux: dependent, dominated and subject to technology.
3. Space travel
Humanity must have left the earth between now and 1 billion years in the future. Our current human body is then unsuitable for survival in space. That is why human enhancement, if there are still people, is inevitable in the long term.
This may still sound like science fiction. Jamie Metzl emphasizes in his book Hacking Darwin that it points to scientific progress in computer technology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology and genetics somewhere else. The combination and mutual reinforcement of these technologies ‘converge into a mega-trend, a big wave that engulfs our understanding of people and completely overthrows them’.
To come back to our life in space. Metzl cites in his book Christopher Mason from the Weill Cornell Medical College (New York, United States). Mason is already working on a project with NASA. The goal is the survival of humanity both on Earth, in space and on other planets. To this end, scientists are currently working on the molecular analysis of the genome, epigenome, transcriptome and metagenome of astronauts to protect them against the effects of long space flights.
Splitting of homo sapiens
Some time earlier I came across a similar statement by the British astronomer Martin Rees. He already emphasized that it is likely that a part of homo sapiens will split off as a species, precisely that part of humanity that enters space to leave the earth.
That is in line with the evolutionary path, as you could read about the super organism in the previous paragraphs. Evolution is all about the best adaptation to the environment. From an evolutionary point of view our current body is not suitable for life in the universe.
Although this seems like a bizarre vista, Christopher Mason and his colleagues are already working on this with NASA. In such cases I often think of a favorite quote from me. The statement is from science fiction author William Gibson: “The future is already here, but it is unevenly distributed.”
What can we do now when it comes to human enhancement? How can we make wise choices that help ourselves and future generations?
As with other problems, such as the climate crisis or the development of artificial intelligence, it is good to keep an eye on events and context. For this you can of course follow the scientific literature in the field of human enhancement or blogs like this.
As an interested layman, I would recommend some of the popular science books about this topic: book recommendations. 📖
In addition to reading blogs and books, there are other media that you can keep up with in this domain, such as documentaries and podcasts. In the next part I will discuss fiction about this theme, such as series, books and films.
Human enhancement documentaries
These are documentaries that I recommend:
Supersapiens (online). Documentary with Richard Dawkins, Nick Bostrom and Sam Harris, among others, about artificial intelligence.
Unnatural Selection (Netflix). Four-part series on the implications of gene therapy and CRISPR / cas9 on health care, nature and human improvement.
Darknet (Netflix) A documentary series about the dark side of the internet. Episode 2 of season 1 is specifically about human enhancement.
Human enhancement podcasts
These are my favorite podcasts about this theme [links at the bottom]:
- After On. The American author Rob Reid makes a podcast about the themes in his book, such as synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and regularly touches on human enhancement;
- Singularity FM. Show that touches more on transhumanism, such as super intelligence and blockchain. Themes are often about the distant future of humanity.
Although I am fascinated by the possibilities of human enhancement, it does not mean that I think we should allow all those improvement techniques without any restrictions. As I have written in previous related pieces, it seems to me the most ideal to compare new applications against principles and values that we consider important.
Below is a proposal of a number of principles. This list is loosely inspired by the ideas of Juan Enriquez, Steve Gullans, Yuval Noah Harari and other books that I have read on this subject [link at the bottom].
- Responsibility. With the possibilities we have, we also realize as a society that we are liable for the consequences (on ourselves, others and the planet);
- Diversity. If there is a difference between the improved and the natural or the mutually improved, it is important to respect this diversity. From an evolutionary perspective, diversity also makes us as humanity resilient and resilient.
- Freedom of choice. In line with the previous point: everyone is free to choose whether they want to improve themselves and the way in which.
- Evolution. Part of the world, for example 25%, continues to develop according to the evolution of Darwin with natural selection and random mutation. In this way we preserve the natural course and possibly serve as a back-up if we ruin human evolution.
- Education. In line with the beginning of this part, it is important to educate ourselves and future generations and to train them with the possibilities, advantages and disadvantages of human enhancement.
- Optimism. It is good that you sometimes felt anxious when reading this article, I have that too. Yet I am optimistic, especially if we are patient, creative, vigilant and tolerant as humanity.
The application and elaboration of these principles does not really have much to do with science and technology, but more with values, distribution issues and the choices of individuals and society. This is then reflected in policies, laws and regulations and in the behavior of citizens and companies.
The challenge for us as a society and the government is to develop a policy based on the right values and not to fall into dogmas such as “natural is good” and “human intervention is bad.”
What are the values? A number are obvious. For example, we should not improve or adjust people so that they harm others more. Or people change, increasing social problems and inequality.
However, these kind of doom scenarios usually appear quickly when it comes to human enhancement, such as the best viewed science fiction films. Nevertheless, I think, just like Raya Bidshari in her opinion article, that human enhancement can also ensure that we as a society make progress together.
I may be an optimistic modernist, but on the net scientific progress has helped us as a humanity. As Hans Rosling has written in his book Factfullness, in recent decades humanity has made a huge amount of progress on all kinds of indicators [link at the bottom]. Consider the decrease in child mortality, the increase in access to sewers, clean drinking water and education.
That is why I am optimistic. Scientific insights and insights, particularly in areas such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, big data and solar energy, can make the planet a better net place for humans.
Then we can live longer, eradicate hunger, help the climate, improve prosperity on a global level and achieve other goals, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals [link at the bottom].
The outcome does not depend so much on technology, but rather on political and social distribution issues. How are we going to distribute and distribute those technologies? This is a question that always plays a role in technological progress. In the case of human enhancement, it is even more exciting because these techniques directly affect us as humans.
Because human enhancement directly affects people, it seems to me that human well-being is the most important criterion for assessing new technologies.
In a publication, researchers at the University of Geneva (Switzerland) have explored the question of whether human enhancement leads to better people and better humanity [link at the bottom]. They state that both objectives are often under tension.
For example: you take doping to run faster in a race. Then you as an individual will benefit. For the collective it is a disadvantage, not everyone has access to it and also puts pressure on the autonomy of the other athletes. Next time they will probably decide faster to do doping.
Autonomy, together with competences and connectedness, are the three basic needs of self-determination theory. The core of this theory is that the satisfaction of the three basic needs leads to optimal functioning, well-being and growth of a person.
Case of nootropics
The researchers propose that governments test new improvement technologies against self-determination theory. Take the use of pharmaceuticals for better concentration and more focus, so-called nootropics.
If that is imposed by an employer, it will affect your autonomy. On the other hand, it can help you in your competencies. But if a side effect is that you shut yourself off emotionally from others, then the use of the nootropic limits your connectedness.
This short case shows that there is no ideal outcome. Or as Professor Annelien Bredenoord told me in a podcast interview: “Ethical dilemmas always leave a tragic edge” [link at the bottom].
The researchers from the University of Geneva already mentioned the role of the government when it comes to testing and allowing human enhancement applications.
A complicating factor for governments is the so-called “displacement of politics”. In the book The Makeable Man, the authors describe that ‘society in general and the development of science and technology in particular are increasingly shaped outside the political arena, for example in scientific research laboratories, in the free market of consumerism and in the activities of non-governmental organizations’.
The tricky part, at least for governments, is that technological development can therefore increasingly be steered or coordinated from one central location.
In addition to the shifting of politics, another impeding factor is geopolitics, about which I have already written in the Impact section. Because what if the Netherlands or the European Union prohibits a certain improvement technology, is it allowed in another country?
The books Nexus, Crux and Apex by Ramez Naam further elaborate on this. In the trilogy it concerns a combination of neuro and nanotechnology. Despite a worldwide agreement (Copenhagen 2039), emerging superpowers China and India see it as a method to gain economic and military benefits, with all the consequences that that entails.
The non-fiction book Moneyland also does not promise much good [link at the bottom]. The book describes how countries respond to the global demand for channeling away, hiding and spending money without paying (a lot of) tax for it. Although it is a completely different theme, I still had the feeling that we as humans (and as nation states) want to cheat if we take advantage of it ourselves.
Regardless of the complications, the role of the government is and remains essential with their legislation, enforcement and other policy measures. In their report Good, better, the Rathenau Instituut makes a number of recommendations to the Dutch government about their policy on human enhancement [link at the bottom].
The most interesting recommendation is that the government “seriously examines the social consequences of individual use and examines whether they can curb or counteract this with regulations”. The reason that I find this recommendation the most interesting is because it is extremely difficult to estimate social consequences.
In my article on technology ethics I give a number of examples of this [link at the bottom]. The introduction of the contraceptive pill, for example, led to an immense growth in the acceptance of homosexuality. The unforeseen effect was that reproduction became independent of sexuality, whereby opponents of homosexuality lost an important argument.
I therefore think the best way is to educate technology. This is what Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek writes: “Instead of opposing technology, ethics should guide technological developments. Critical, but closely linked”.
In the last part of this article I mention a number of fiction books, series and films about human enhancement. Of course, the book Frankenstein cannot be missing in this. Peter-Paul Verbeek sees an important lesson in an interview with de Volkskrant.
I think it is symbolic that the monster mainly craves for freedom and equality, while his maker runs away for fear of him and takes no responsibility for his creationProfessor Peter-Paul Verbeek about Frankenstein
“I think it is symbolic that the monster mainly craves for freedom and equality, while his maker runs away for fear of him and takes no responsibility for his creation.” In other words, a creator cannot let go of his creation or walk away from it with impunity.
Just like with children or with human enhancement technologies: we as humans are responsible for what we make, how we behave accordingly, how we shape it and how it shapes us.
What is my conclusion?
I think that using technology makes us human. Without scientific and technological progress, we as a species have come so far through our ability to work together in changing compositions and through our ingenuity to experiment, discover and make.
This is not limited to scientific discoveries and inventions outside our body. Earlier in this article I made it clear that many improvement technologies overflow from healthcare to human enhancement. It is precisely in the field of medical science and biomedical technology that developments are going extremely fast. For that reason, it is useless to close our eyes to this. If we get better, let’s use that improvement technology.
Of course, as a society, we can decide to use those technologies only in healthcare with the aim of making sick people better. However, I do not expect this to happen soon.
Both internationally and nationally, there is increasing pressure on performance, manufacturability and success. I suspect that this trend is leading to more and more people wanting to use technologies to improve themselves or their children.
Although I personally have some difficulty with this, it entails all kinds of ethical dilemmas. Take the geopolitical interest, for example. Should another country decide to improve their inhabitants, then political and economic pressure in Europe will also increase to allow it here.
Nevertheless, I believe that the geopolitical component does not mean that you must blindly follow others as an individual, as a group or as a country. No, as far as I am concerned, the considerations are of an individual, group
I think that human issues are becoming more important along with the emergence of improvement technologies. This then concerns themes such as:
- Assessing the effects of a technology, both for yourself and others;
- Identifying and weighing possible consequences;
- Consider what the important things in life are;
There are no easy, unambiguous and/or technological solutions for these types of themes. This is more about elusive concepts that require self-insight, reflection, experience, emotional balance and time to think.
But still: answers to these questions lead to a better understanding of what human well-being means to you. After this you could decide whether an improvement technology fits your life.
The line I sketch above is my ideal. That you decide on the basis of your own objectives and motives about whether you want to improve yourself as a person. In that case, human enhancement technologies serve human well-being.
I also realize that these are difficult questions. Your answers will change over time and as a person you also have shortcomings and blind spots. In addition, you do not make these types of choices as an individual. You live in a world with cultural developments, economic pressure and interpersonal relationships, in which choices may already be made for you.
Nevertheless, I hope that as a society we work as hard on these personal, political and ethical issues as we do on scientific and technological progress.
Only then can you really speak of human enhancement. Both on an individual level as well as an improvement of humanity and the planet.
Do you want to know more about this human enhancement?
Please contact me if you have any questions! Like if you want to invite me to give a lecture, presentation or webinar at your company, at your congress, symposium or meeting.
Or if you want to book a session with me as an expert consultant on this area.
I wrote these related articles about human enhancement:
- What are human enhancement technologies?
- What are examples of human enhancement?
- What is human genetic enhancement?
- What are human enhancement drugs?
- What is human enhancement research?
- What are arguments in the human enhancement debate?
- What are the ethics of human enhancement?
- What are the best human enhancement books?
- What are the best human enhancement movies?
These are other articles about improving humans with science and technology:
- What is human augmentation?
- What is the future of humans?
- What is transhumanism?
- What is biohacking?
- What is a superhuman?
I made these videos on this subject:
I used these non-fiction books for this article.
PS This is an extensive article about human enhancement books 📖
- Book Managing Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Innovations
- Book Unfit for the Future
- Book Enhancing Evolution
- Book To save everything click here
- Book Technology versus Humanity
- Book Homo Deus
- Book Hacking Darwin
- Book Next Nature
- Book The Selfish Gene
- Book Our Posthuman Future
- Book Factfullness
- Book Moneyland
These are fiction books about human enhancement:
These are external links that I used, subdivided by theme.
Definition and meaning section:
Definition and meaning section:
- Report Etag
- Definition Stanford
- Definition Thomas Douglas
- Definition Buchanan
- Book Bostrom and Savalescu
- Article smart contact lens
- Report Rathenau Institute
- Project Moon Ribas
- Website Moon Ribas
- Article nanorobots Kurzweil
- Research nanorobots
- Website Braden Allenby
Section – impact
- Research Gartner on human augmentation
- Opinion article Michael Bess
- Research about Snapchat and plastic surgery
- Article about encouraging empathy
- Article about human enhancement and climate crisis
- Website Agi Haines
- Article about genetic modification in China
- Research on human enhancement in Asia
- Article about Singapore ideas
- Article about religions and immortality
- Research on Swarzenegger mice
- Research on PEPCK-C mice
- Podcast After On
- Podcast Singularity FM
- Opinion article on Singularity Hub
- Website with sustainable development objectives
- Research University of Geneva
- Website Biohacking Meetup Nederland
These documentaries are about human enhancement
- Documentary Take Your Pills
- Documentary Supersapiens
- Documentary Unnatural Selection
- Documentary Darknet
Films, series, books and art section
- Film Ghost in the Shell
- Series The 6 Million Dollar Man
- Film Equals
- Film Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein
- Film Mary Shelly
How do you view the change and improvement of us as humans? Leave a comment!