Friday, May 15, 2009

will designer brains divide humanity

NewScientist | Today, our minds are even more fluid and open to enhancement due to what Merlin Donald of Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, calls "superplasticity", the ability of each mind to plug into the minds and experiences of countless others through culture or technology. "I'm not saying it's a 'group mind', as each mind is sealed," he says. "But cognition can be distributed, embedded in a huge cultural system, and technology has produced a huge multiplier effect." In other words, humans already have minds evolving beyond anything seen before in history.

The next stage of brainpower enhancement could be technological - through genetic engineering or brain prostheses. Because the gene variants pivotal to intellectual brilliance have yet to be discovered, boosting brainpower by altering genes may still be some way off, or even impossible. Prostheses are much closer, especially as the technology for wiring brains into computers is already being tested (see "Dawn of the cyborgs"). Indeed, futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil believes the time when humans merge with machines will arrive as early as 2045 (New Scientist, 9 May, p 26).

It won't be long before "clip-on" computer aids become available for everybody, says Andy Clark, a pro-enhancement philosopher at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. These could be anything from memory aids to the ability to "search" for information stored in your brain. "We'll get a flowering of brain augmentations, some seeping through from the disabled community," he says. "I see them becoming fashion items, a bit like choosing clothing." Clark says that even today, devices such as head-up displays on spectacles or simply being adept at using computer programs like Photoshop come close to being physical extensions of people's minds.

Malafouris also believes such augmentation is the next logical stage in human development. "If we accept that tool use was part of the reason we came to develop language, then why should we perceive neuro-engineering as a threat rather than as the new stone industry of the 21st century?"

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea, however. Dieter Birnbacher, a philosopher at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany, says there are risks in technological self-improvement that could jeopardise human dignity. One potential problem arises from altering what we consider to be "normal": the dangers are similar to the social pressure to conform to idealised forms of beauty, physique or sporting ability that we see today.

People without enhancement could come to see themselves as failures, have lower self-esteem or even be discriminated against by those whose brains have been enhanced, Birnbacher says. He stops short of saying that enhancement could "split" the human race, pointing out that society already tolerates huge inequity in access to existing enhancement tools such as books and education.

The perception that some people are giving themselves an unfair advantage over everyone else by "enhancing" their brains would be socially divisive, says John Dupré at the University of Exeter, UK. "Anyone can read to their kids or play them music, but put a piece of software in their heads, and that's seen as unfair," he says. As Dupré sees it, the possibility of two completely different human species eventually developing is "a legitimate worry".