Debating Extreme Human Enhancement

There Are Some Places Our "Wetware" Bodies Just Can't Go
What's to come?
Sept. 16 2011 7:18 AM

Debating Extreme Human Enhancement


What is the next frontier of human enhancement?

Image by Hemera/Thinkstock Images.

So many interesting directions here! Before we sign off, let me offer a few comments on Nick's thoughts. First, while I like the Capt. Kirk model as well as anyone, I have to think there's got to be a point when our attachment to our physical selves simply becomes too inefficient. As biological organisms—"wetware"—we're just bad fits with certain environments, such as combat or space. As you know, we've been working on computer-brain interfaces, in the form of chips implanted in brains, that enable smooth coupling between an individual and their (properly instrumented) environment. Experiments that began here at Arizona State University and have been continued at Duke and elsewhere have involved monkeys learning to move mechanical arms to which they are wirelessly connected as if they were part of themselves, using them effectively even when the arms (but not the monkey) are shifted up to MIT and elsewhere. More recently, monkeys with chips implanted in their brains at Duke University have kept a robot wirelessly connected to their chip running in Japan. Similar technologies are being explored to enable paraplegics and other injured people to interact with their environments and to communicate effectively, as well. The upshot is that "the body" is becoming more than just a spatial presence; rather, it becomes a designed extended cognitive network. It is conceptually a simple step to build body extensions that are wired directly into our brains, but, because they are not wetware, but hardened mechanical systems, can easily and far more efficiently go where no body part has gone before: space.

This is a bemusing prospect because it raises a number of interesting questions. How does it affect our brain, for example, if the time lag between sensory perception and core brain reception of the information is not fractions of a second, as with our current bodies, but, because our "body" is, in fact, on Mars, a lag of between three and 20-plus minutes? But perhaps more fundamental, what happens to our definition of "the human" when it begins to include remote functionality that may or may not be biological, but might increasingly be mixed (as in the existing robot with guidance provided by rat brain tissue, rather than silicon)? Is humanity on Mars when my robot extension is? What about when cognition is mixed, partially onboard the Martian Brad, and partially in my wetware brain here in Phoenix? And, something that perhaps offends our sense of specialness, what happens when it becomes clear that our robotic selves, and not our biological Cartesian selves, are the real inheritors of Space, the Final Frontier?


I also appreciate your question about Heidegger (who was, for those of you unfortunate enough to have escaped philosophy in university, deeply involved in National Socialism, although the extent to which he was active as opposed to a fellow traveler is somewhat unclear). It is always a problem with brilliant, but seriously flawed, individuals as to whether one should appropriate the thinking and the contributions, and ignore the imperfections in the vessel from whence it comes. In general, I favor the appropriation model: Let people at least contribute some good if they can. Wonderful discussion. I am going off to practice remote time-lagged cognition.


Brad Allenby is President’s Professor of Sustainable Engineering, and Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, at Arizona State University.


Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?


Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 3:53 PM Smash and Grab Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 20 2014 3:40 PM Keeping It in the Family Why are so many of the world’s oldest companies in Japan?
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 5:03 PM Marcel the Shell Is Back and as Endearing as Ever
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.