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The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
Jamais Cascio, 8 Nov 04

I'm pleased to be able to announce the formation of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a new organization dedicated to the responsible, constructive examination of "human enhancement technologies" -- the biological, informational, and social technologies allowing us to live happier, healthier lives. From the official announcement:

We believe that technological progress can be a catalyst for positive human development so long as we ensure that technologies are safe and equitably distributed.

As yet there has been no institutional home for the consideration of the ethical challenges of emerging human enhancement technologies free from both anti-regulatory dogmas that deny the legitimacy of democratic public policy, and technophobic red herrings such as anxieties about transgressing the boundaries of humanness. The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies intends to fill that gap.


The Institute will organize several events per year in Europe and North America. In July 2005 the IEET will co-sponsor a conference in Caracas Venezuela, focusing on human enhancement technologies and the developing world, with the World Transhumanist Association. [...] In September 2005 the IEET will co-sponsor a conference on Human Rights and Human Enhancement with the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics.

I was asked to serve as Global Health and Development Policy Fellow for IEET, and have happily accepted. Other IEET Fellows familiar to WorldChanging readers include Emerging Technologies Fellow Mike Treder and Human Rights Fellow Dale Carrico.

The Institute argues that the global discussion we must have about the use of human enhancement technologies is not just between those who would forbid them entirely and those who demand unrestricted proliferation. We must also hear from those who argue for socially responsible development, which seeks to match human desire for knowledge and improvement with society's need for equity and democracy. WorldChanging readers (and contributors!) may not agree with some of the positions and arguments adopted by IEET, but should appreciate its purpose: to promote the ethical use of technologies to expand human capabilities.

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Well, I guess this is where we part ways.

When you use language like "technophobic red herring," you lose me right away. I mean, nice try at reframing the debate, but "transgressing the boundaries of humanness" *is* the question, and merely saying it's not doesn't change matters.

To me, fundamentalism and Extropian-style transhumanism are the Scylla and Charybdis we must now navigate through if we're to maintain any sense of humanity. Not enough people yet see the threat from the former; the latter isn't even on the public's radar.

I don't think we've learned nearly enough - not by a very, very long shot - to be speaking about "enhancement" of the stock model, and I mean this in at least two ways.

Firstly, as technological artifacts like the PC and the mobile phone readily demonstrate, we are only now beginning to get a handle on how to build tools that do not drive us crazy. I quite literally shiver to think of the same development methodologies being turned inward, toward the re-engineering of our fundamental constitution. We're simply not technically adept enough yet.

The greater problem, of course, is that we're not wise enough yet. As a species, we have failed to learn even the most obvious lessons of history, and we seem to be making some particularly bad collective decisions of late.

To me, this is not a warrant to give up on being human - to throw our hand up, like children, and pout that we can't win with what we've been given. (For that, it seems to me, is what "transhumanism" is at its root.)

No. It's not sexy and glamorous, by comparison, but what we really need is to worry about adequate shelter and nutrition for the next generation; we need to work harder on universal, reality-based education; we need to rededicate ourselves to the difficult gruntwork of learning what it is to be human.

It's an uphill battle, to be sure, but it has all the integrity that transhumanism cannot and will not.

I would say I wish you luck in this endeavor, but I think it's a monumental distraction at just exactly the worst moment in history.

Posted by: Adam Greenfield on 9 Nov 04

Adam, I'm sorry you feel this way, and I do hope that you won't give up on the rest of WorldChanging, even if you no longer have any interest in my little bit of it.

I'll leave aside for now your observations that we don't have the wisdom to engage in this endeavor, and that it's a distraction; those are reasonable positions to take, even if I don't wholly agree with them.

But whether or not we're ready for these technologies, they're coming. In many ways, they've already been here for years, even if they haven't been articulated in the science-fictiony language beloved by many self-described transhumanists. Human augmentation technologies are often slipperly-slope results of otherwise uncontroversial medical research, and increasingly arises as dual-purpose treatments: a fix for those who need fixing, a boost for those who are otherwise healthy.

Unfortunately, the discussion of the longer term implications of existing and emerging human enhancement technologies has been pretty limited. The small amount of big picture debate about these technologies has, so far, generally been between the frames of the total-rejectionist fundamentalists like Frank Fukuyama (who see enhancement technologies as insults to our ineffable "human dignity") and total-acceptant extropians like Max Moore (who see these technologies as a way of shedding the vestiges of humanity). Neither of these approaches makes sense to me, as neither articulates a believable vision of what the world would look like should their perspective dominate.

The reason I agreed to participate in the IEET is that they are expressly seeking a new approach, one which neither dismisses the potential dangers of these technologies nor rejects all uses of them. I strongly believe that the only way to get closer to a world of wise consideration of both the risks and benefits of emerging technologies is through a mechanism like this. We would be far worse off if uncontrolled experimentation led to a massive backlash or if a global clampdown on research led to the proliferation of underground, black-market work. Responsibility is the best path, and IEET is a way of articulating what responsibility means in an age of transformational technologies.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 9 Nov 04

But whether or not we're ready for these technologies, they're coming.

I agree, insofar as they are not problematized and challenged. But the ethical response is not, as I see it, to accept this state of affairs. I intend to fight it every step of the way, as you know.

The reason I agreed to participate in the IEET is that they are expressly seeking a new approach

If that was truly the case, you'd think they might have used less charged and, frankly, dismissive language to characterize the humanist position.

Posted by: Adam Greenfield on 9 Nov 04

...the ethical response is not, as I see it, to accept this state of affairs.

And neither is the ethical response simply to reject it. To me, the ethical response is to examine and discuss the implications at each step, accepting and rejecting elements as warranted, always with an eye towards later reconsideration. That is, the ethical path is the path of responsibility.

charged and... dismissive language

When leading voices of the "humanist" position call for international laws declaring *any* research into human augmentation biotechnologies "crimes against humanity" (see George Annas, Lori Andrews, and Rosario Isasi in a 2002 issue of American Journal of Law and Medicine), one could say that the situation is already highly charged. Leon Kass and Frank Fukuyama (two of the best known anti-enhancement thinkers) regularly assert that such technologies would inevitably lead to the violent enslavement and destruction of the rest of humanity by the enhanced. I would agree that "technophobic red herring" is dismissive, but it is also accurately descriptive of much of the anti-enhancement literature.

But the fault there doesn't lie with Kass, et al, but with those who think that "transhumanism" is a good meme. I think the term sucks, frankly, because it immediately calls out a difference with "real" humans. In my time with IEET, one task I will definitely take on is to work on a better meme for the idea of human enhancement, one that doesn't implicitly ascribe superhuman (or non-human) qualities to those so enhanced.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 9 Nov 04

This is a debate Jamais and I have had more than a few times, and I guess I'd sum up my thoughts by saying both sides are wrong: the "transhumanist" crowd, seeing the future through the highly distorted lense of contemporary techno-libertarian individualism, assumes that all technological progress adheres to the individual and thus lifts up society (which is a pretty poor reading of the history of technology); the fundamentalists (including the humanist ones) seem to assume that technology is essentially some sort of spigot that can be turned on and off (it can't).

What we need is a third position, which recognizes the power of the trends driving technological development, but demands that research and development be devoted to the good of the greatest number, to good lives and global stability, to the kinds of questions, Adam you identify when you say

"what we really need is to worry about adequate shelter and nutrition for the next generation; we need to work harder on universal, reality-based education; we need to rededicate ourselves to the difficult gruntwork of learning what it is to be human."

rather than the vainglorious pursuit of the Singularity in the hopes that when it arrives it will wash us clean of all our conflicts and problems...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 9 Nov 04

Work has been progessing rapidly on what you can mod in humans. All debate on the subject does is limit where you can go to get it done not if it will be done.

Posted by: wintermane on 10 Nov 04

Thank you, wintermane, for exemplifying my thesis so perfectly.

Posted by: Adam Greenfield on 10 Nov 04

And mine -- that there needs to be a group that neither derides all criticism as useless nor is in kneejerk opposition. Both approaches are thoughtless.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 10 Nov 04

Sorry to arrive late to the conversation, I hope not too late.

Like Jamais I am participating in IEET as one of the research fellows. I’ll admit I did a lot of soul searching before I joined on, and that my soul searching looked quite a bit like an inner-dialogue version of the conversation I am reading here.

Definitely I am not personally a “transhumanist”-identified technophile, nor a libertarian (in either its market or social modes), nor a singularitarian triumphalist. But it seems to me the IEET effort is taking an important measure of distance from all of these things, thankfully, while maintaining the view that technological development in general, and personal practices of genetic, prosthetic, cognitive modification in particular can be profoundly emancipatory forces so long as we strive to keep them democratic, safe, and fair.

There just isn’t enough in the way of language, or frames, or even policy talking points that helps us insist we keep our eyes on that emancipatory potential without drifting into either a complacent embrace of corporate hype or a disasterbatory luddism demanding blanket bans. Everything seems to want to drift too irresistibly into oversimplifying, uncritically technophobic or technophilic positions.

I don’t think we have to buckle under to the “inevitability” thesis. Even if it is true that at some broad level technology’s developmental trajectories are taking us to radically different places, there simply is no inevitability at all about just what forms development will take, along what pathways, with what consequences.

It seems to me there needs to be a broader “tech-progressive” conversation available to us, not a doctrine, not a catechism, not a manifesto, just a conversational space -- one that accepts that (1) the ideological and normative force of terms like “nature” and “human nature” has been undermined, probably beyond redemption, by the destabilizing impact of global technological developments, and that (2) the terms and pace of development and the distribution of its costs, risks, and benefits has emerged as perhaps *the* primary space of social struggle in our time.

I worry that it is difficult to embrace the possibility of transformative technology without becoming an apologist for anti-democratic social and political forces, but it seems to me it is important to try. IEET looks to locate itself right at the heart of emerging techo-ethical discourse -– bioethics, neuroethics, roboethics, and media criticism. It wants to have a democratizing impact on technology policy, education, and in the broader cultural conversation. I don’t know where it is going, I don’t know what it can accomplish, I don’t know if it will end up being mostly talk or a neo-liberal apologia. I'm sure it *can* be more than that.

I agree with Alex that the focus of tech-progressives must be on providing shelter and nutrition and health for all. Deepening democratic participation in and accountability of governance and social administration is also crucial. Certainly apocaloid dreams of technological deliverance or disaster or transcension are mostly just distractions from the work. I expect radical development to exacerbate most cultural quandaries rather than efface them, for one thing.

But I don’t see how bio-conservative defenses of “human nature” help us much in that worthy democratizing project. I don’t mean to be dismissive of humanism, but it seems to me historically the so-called universal accomplishments celebrated under the banner of humanism from the Renaissance to the present have rarely been available to more than a privileged group of males, and occasionally some females, within fairly limited socioeconomic strata. The category of “humanity” has rarely provided much protective cover in the face of the genocidal dislocations of the modern era.

Post-humanity doesn’t have to mean posthumous humanity or a repudiation of humanism, so much as a new effort emerging *out of* humanism, moving on from that point of departure, demanding something new from it, maybe trying to get it to live up to its universalizing self-image for once.

Some claim to fear that new technologies will ”rob” us of our humanity. But the essence of our humanity, if there could be such a thing, is surely just our capacity to explore together what it means to be human. No sect, no tribe, no system of belief owns what it means to be human. Prosthetic practices are contributions to the conversation we are having about what humanity is capable of, and those who want to freeze that conversation in the image of their pet platitudes risk violating “humanity” just as surely as any reckless experimentalism would. I’m too queer and too prostheticized to be too seduced by the language of innocent “nature,” or Kassoid discussions of the “human dignity” to be found in suffering from potentially treatable diseases. We can demand democracy and fairness and sustainability from technological development without drifting into common cause with “pro-life” social conservatives.

I know this is a very abstract and general way to talk, and probably many of us would agree much more at the level of concrete proposals, but it seems to me this general level is important enough to stay and work through the intractable differences, and that a lot of abiding problems are happening at this level that sorely want addressing. I know I probably also sound a bit defensive, and as I mentioned before, that probably just registers the ambivalences I myself feel about some of this stuff. Anyway, I hope this is more like the start of the conversation than the end of it.

Posted by: Dale Carrico on 12 Nov 04

Thank you, Dale. You articulate this far better than I do.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 12 Nov 04

I guess my point of view as a conservative is a little ... different from many here. I look forward to being able to mutate myself some day into whatever the heck I want and frankly plan to tell anyone who dislikes my choice of bod to go eat worms and die.

What I do with me is my choice so long as I dont turn myself into some slobbering hell deamon bent on world wide destruction.. and in that case a 5 day waiting time for the permit should be plenty...:)

As far as turning animals and plants into slobbering monsters... I was expecting that years ago from a nuke war so as long as I get to tote a handy dandy plasma rifle and some fusion grenades ill put up with anything... At least it will be interesting and will get rid of all those creepy people wanting me to be born yet again. Thank you no if im gona be born again its gona be as a tecknomonstrosity of ungodly science! With cool hair and steel hard buns!

Posted by: wintermane on 12 Nov 04



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