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EditorialsUp Front 03/19

Up Front 03/19

I’m sure I’m not the only person who, contemplating possible technological advances twenty or thirty years ago thought, ‘yes that might happen, but not in my lifetime.’ How wrong we were. It’s a misjudgement that I’ve learned to be aware of when looking at scenarios that today might seem outlandish. When the philosopher, Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Homo Deus, touched on the potential for biological inequality due to medical advances switching from healing the sick to upgrading the healthy, I thought, ‘yes, but not in my lifetime.’ His theory is that methods used to repair medical or even cognitive problems could easily be used to enhance people who don’t have a problem but would like to improve perhaps their memory, brain power, fitness or physical strength. He suggested that initially, the research, development and implementation would be expensive, and therefore only available to the wealthy. But that this could potentially create a super race whose ability to take advantage of these advances meant that they would always be a step ahead, and consequently unstoppable. In many ways, it’s an old cyborg science fiction story, but one that is now being taken seriously. This week’s news stories included one about a lady undergoing gene therapy treatment to halt a common form of blindness. Another highlighted an International Association of Athletics Federations ruling that a female athlete should take medication to lower her testosterone level or be forced to compete with men: while another story, from Pablo Uchoa at the BBC World Service, asked whether we should be worried about hackers taking control of brain implants. He pointed out that advances in neurotechnology mean that brain implants are being investigated for treating depression, dementia, Tourette’s syndrome and other psychiatric conditions, possibly even memory loss. Laurie Pycroft, a researcher with the Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences at the University of Oxford, commented that she wouldn’t be surprised if there was a memory implant available within the next ten years. The timeframe for these human enhancement technologies is no longer measured in decades and centuries, so much so that the current debate is not if or when things might happen, it’s how can we deal with the ethical questions of human enhancement, and how can we stop them being manipulated by those with the power to do so? It’s tempting to say that those are questions that won’t be resolved in my lifetime.

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