Since Howard McCurdy and I co-authored Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), I have been interested in the possible merger of humans and robots into a single entity to undertake space exploration. The dichotomy between humans and robots is really a product of industrial age thinking and the accompanying emphasis on machines that serve humankind. In a post-industrial age we might rethink this issue and reach a new consensus.
Studies in artificial intelligence are leading some to question whether computers that drive technologically sophisticated robots might become so intelligent in the twenty-first century as to acquire sentient qualities. Intellectuals such as Ray Kurzweil note that we are on the verge of creating a new silicon-based life form. It might even include downloading human memory into computers, and creating new and virtual forms of life.
How might we remake the human body to more effectively meet the rigors of space exploration through the adaptation of technology? The term “cyborg” was coined in 1960 by Nathan Kline and Manfred Clynes in a study for NASA. In particular, Kline and Clynes thought that through the use of electronic implants they might even be able to modify humans sufficient to survive in space’s harsh environment.
But there is much more to this than the prospects for space exploration. Indeed, there is a huge debate taking place about reengineering humans to extend life, perhaps even to defeat the aging process and gain near immortality.
Already many of us are cyborgs, certainly I am one. I had cataract surgery on both eyes and view the world through artificial lenses. Without that modification I would be blind. That problem arose because I am diabetic, and my ability to deal with that chronic condition is greatly enhanced—made essentially normal—through medications I take and technology I use to monitor my blood sugar. Without these technological enhancements I might well be dead. I have two stints in my heart, and without question, had there not been some artificial intervention I would no longer be alive. How many others have been rescued from death through science and technology, their bodies modified so they can extend their lives? I think it is more common than most people believe.
This raises the fundamental question, what possibilities for further enhancement/life extension will become possible in the twenty-first century and how will Americans respond to these possibilities?
In the last thirty-some years scientists researching human biology have altered our understanding of this possibility. These include not only the decoding of the human genome for the improvement of human life, but also the possibilities of life extension for decades and perhaps centuries. Those who advocate life extension see a “brave new world,” pun intended, in which all are healthy, happy, and wise. They view it as the next stage in human evolution. It is a heady goal, one that has consumed some billionaires and fueled a revolution in bio-technology. Public advocates in the United States range from billionaire William Haseltine to Ray Kurzweil, but include thousands more in a much less well-known subculture.
Advocacy of bio-utopian ideas opens a wide array of ethical considerations, and opposition to it has ensured a rollicking debate between the extreme positions. Bio-Luddites question the morality of altering the human body through genetics, chemicals, or technology. They recall images of Nazi eugenics and the selective breeding of humans. Those in favor, of course, emphasize the positive results of intervention in whatever form it might take.
For advocates, the advantages are obvious. Might we create babies free of genetic defects, eliminate most of the diseases that now decimate our population, and overcome the three-score and ten life-expectancy that most people in the world have to contend with?
The use of drugs, careful eugenics, technological enhancement, and biotech innovations also harbor questions and fears, as anything new and different has always done. For opponents it raises complex moral, ethical, and even religious questions. However the people of the U.S. eventually come down on this issue will dictate whether or not the nation participates in this next fundamental transformation in human history. The biotech revolution has the potential to be more significant than the Industrial Revolution that the United States embraced.
The battle lines in this debate are already being drawn, and skirmishes over stem cell research, pharmaceuticals, cloning, and related innovations are already underway. These are nothing compared to possible future controversies. What do we do once we are presented with cloned human beings? Are those individuals citizens of the United States? What rights do they have? What will prospective parents do once they have the capability through mastery of the human genome to ensure that birth defects are eliminated in their fetuses? What if they had the capability to select genes for greater intelligence for their fetuses? Would they do so? Should they be allowed to do so? These are only some of the coming challenges.
Is it possible to ignore this coming future, as the bio-Luddites would have us do? I don’t believe that will be possible in the next 100 years. The manner in which American society decides these challenges will chart the course for the future of the United States. Can we trust in democratic institutions, that through them we might reach decisions that will preserve human freedom and make possible a hopeful future? Through this process we might reach decisions on which of these potentials should be mandatory for all Americans, which should be forbidden, and which might be voluntary but carefully regulated.
Thus far, there is no consensus on either the questions or their answers. Some embrace the potential changes and look forward to having these new choices. Others oppose them, suggesting that it was “not nice to mess with Mother Nature.” Some believe we are “playing God” by even thinking about such potentialities. The diversity of responses mirror the political divisions in larger society, and future debates promise to be both difficult and trying.
Reengineering humanity may well take place, but the debate starting to emerge in modern American society promises considerable nastiness. Where will the future take humanity?
Roger Launius is a senior curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.