HUMAN+: THE FUTURE OF OUR SPECIES
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To Bilal, it is all about a demonstration of 'commitment', making the painful surgery and risk of infection worthwhile. Bilal's messy piece of DIY illustrates some of the challenges around popular perceptions of human enhancement.
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Australian artist Stelarc has grown a third ear in a lab and inserted it into his left forearm. Stelarc hopes to insert a bluetooth microphone into the ear so people all over the world can listen in to his conversations over the internet, though the completion of this aspect of the project has so far been delayed by infection.
For a small fee, body artist Steve Haworth will provide you with small magnets implanted in your fingertips so you can "feel" the presence of magnetic fields.
Warwick caused even more controversy when he reportedly suggested that an year-old girl should be "chipped" with a tracking device in the wake of the Soham murders, in a similar manner to pet dogs and cats. These stories have perennial fascination for the media, perhaps less for the "superpowers" of their protagonists, which could arguably be accomplished through less radical interventions, and more for their disturbing transgressions of the boundaries of the human body.
We seem to fantasise endlessly about cyborgs — Robocop-style human-machine hybrids — but many of the dimensions of human enhancement are far more subtle and pervasive. Humans have always been augmenting their senses, physical powers and cognitive abilities through ingenious tools and technologies. The Hubble telescope, functional magnetic resonance imaging and atomic force microscopes can be viewed as extensions of the senses, just as our newfound ability to gather "swarm intelligence" about developments in Libya or Japan instantaneously through social media is an extension of the campfire conversations of Neolithic man.
We are continually developing new ways to see the invisible, to share knowledge and conduct our social lives remotely. In attempting to defeat ageing processes, cosmetic surgery promises to extend youthful appearance as Viagra promises to extend our sexual activity into old age.
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Why shouldn't we consider contact lenses, mobile phones, watches and bicycles as human enhancements? Going back further still, the invention of writing itself, as recounted by Plato in a famous passage in the Phaedrus, was an enhancement that simultaneously extended and impaired human memory, by providing an externalised written record but diminishing people's ability to memorise by removing the necessity of learning by heart.
Plato's warning about the consequences of writing for human memory is an important lesson for contemporary discussions around human enhancement through technology. New technologies, from mechanical looms to automatic cars, are always double-edged, extending certain powers while eroding traditional skills.
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So is there anything special about enhancement of the human body that goes significantly beyond mere tool use? Any compelling reason to implant chips in our brains and limbs through surgery and risk all the messy hardware updates and unpleasant maintenance issues that come along for the ride? Can we still expect superpowers for our physical bodies, and look forward to the ability to see ultraviolet light like bees or to have canine powers of hearing and smell? Or does the future instead lie in "downloading our brains" to computers, effectively trading in our fragile flesh for more durable hardware, as imagined in Ray Kurzweil's vision of the "singularity", a neo-Cartesian negation of the body and all its fluids and leaky orifices?
Stelarc's Prosthetic Head, a simulated intelligence rather than a downloaded brain, is an experiment in what it might be like to live in Kurzweil's world, a Turing Test on humans. Interestingly it is those individuals traditionally classified as "disabled" who are currently at the vanguard of human enhancement technologies.
From cochlear implants and artificial hearts to neuro-prosthetics, these "early adopters" of assistive technologies are pioneers inhabiting an increasingly narrow boundary between a perceived "lack" and an unfair advantage in relation to the general population. Consider South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, born with the congenital absence of the fibula from both legs, with his prosthetic blade "cheetah" legs leading to his near miss from participation in the Beijing Olympics.
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