Our Branching Path

Recently, Dr. Stephen hawking suggested that this was “an exciting time to be alive”. It bears noting that he did not say “good” or “bad”. Merely, “exciting.”

There’s an old curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times”.

Based on everything we see and hear every day, on how our society is developing, how our planet is changing, how rapidly technology is progressing, it’s safe to say that we live in interesting times. Today, such concepts as interplanetary travel and energy weapons, longtime staples of science fiction, are slowly entering the realm of reality. It could be argued that not since the dawn of the twentieth century have we sat poised on the verge of such great technological leaps forward. Those leaps are coming, whether or not we are ready. And while many emerging technologies promise to permanently transform the way we live, others may ultimately change humanity itself.

The course of human transformation (dare I say, human evolution) is being influenced by two major fields of study: cybernetics and genetics. Researchers in both fields are hard at work as we speak, using powerful new tools in an attempt to solve some of our greatest problems in medicine. Both fields hold vast potential. Both present unprecedented ethical dilemmas. Both could ultimately force us to change the very definition of “human”.

So, as we stand at the fork in the road, which path do we take?

Cybernetics has long been a staple of science fiction, from the rather unimaginatively named Cyborg of DC Comics to The Six Million Dollar Man to Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk masterpiece Ghost in the Shell, the idea of combining man and machine has captured the imagination, and spurred innovation. Today, that innovation has begun to yield tangible results. Over the past decade, scientists in the field of cybernetics have produced working bionic arms and eyes. Just recently, researchers at UCLA announced the successful test of a device capable of restoring sensory and motor function in quadriplegics.

As we continue learning to integrate technology into our bodies, we may be approaching a point at which the distinction between man and machine becomes meaningless. This idea lies at the heart of the transhumanist movement, whose adherents seek to use technology to permanently transform humanity. These individuals hope to use technology to transcend human limitations, creating a new race of posthumans.

While the benefits of cybernetic medicine – and enhancement – are vast, the field also raises difficult questions. Are we truly willing to sacrifice our humanity? Could human society survive the existential dilemma? If we continue to introduce more technology into our bodies, there might come a point where rather than becoming posthumans, we simply cease to be human altogether. Should we reach that point, we would surely gain much, yet the care of our being, the fleeting and fragile nature of our existence that truly makes us human, could be forever lost.

The other path to posthumanism leads to genetics. It’s hard to believe that it’s been just over a decade since the Human Genome Project concluded thirteen years of tireless work with the first map of our DNA. Today, genetic testing has become almost commonplace, and though we have so much more to learn, each day we know a little more about the double helix that defines us on the most basic level.

More recently, the growing field of epigenetics has begun to unravel the minute workings of our genome, which have proved to be far more complex than once believed. What’s more, the emergence of gene editing offers hope for the eventual eradication of all genetic disorders.

Of course, this too poses burning moral questions.  The advent of prenatal genetic testing has proven controversial, as parents of special needs children fear that their children’s uniqueness could be rebranded as a disease.  The possibility of creating “designer babies” raises fears of humanity playing god.  While these applications would surely alleviate a great deal of human suffering, some would argue that in eradicating such disorders as severe autism and Downs Syndrome, we would lose valuable diversity in our society.

And if we can alter our genome to eliminate genetic disorders, why stop there? Gene editing also holds the potential to increase our resistance to all diseases, genetic or not. It could cure not only blindness, my near and farsightedness as well. Genetic engineering could allow us to overcome all of our natural limitations, greatly boosting intelligence, strength, stamina, and more.

What could this mean for humanity? Through genetics, we could greatly enhance our species without using technology. We could remain fully organic while still transcending the boundaries of our humanity. But would we still be human? It could be argued that our limitations constitute an invaluable piece of the human experience. After all, part of the joy of sporting events like the Olympic Games lies in watching our fellow humans fight their limitations and win. Struggle against adversity defines us.

We are entering a bold new era. These new technologies could usher in an age in which limits are meaningless, suffering nonexistent. But if science fiction has fought us anything, it is that missteps at this pivotal moment could carry grave repercussions.  In the end, it is our struggle against adversity, against our own limitations, that defines humanity.  It is this struggle that makes all of our greatest accomplishments worthwhile.  Feats of science and athleticism are celebrated not only for the value of the accomplishments themselves, but because they break accepted boundaries, and through each such feat we advance as a whole.
The value of science fiction has always been its ability to teach us by presenting one possible future, one defined by the choices we make today. As Isaac Asimov once said,

 

Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today – but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.

 

Those words have never rang so true as they do now.  For years, writers of science fiction, who themselves have crossed boundaries and pushed limits, have prophesied and opined on the dangers of using machines or genetics as shortcuts to some vague notion of “perfection.”

We can only hope we’ve learned our lessons well.

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