Enhancing Humans: Should We or Shouldn’t We?

An illustration of a robust human.

(© kentoh/Fotolia)

A panel of leading experts gathered this week at a sold-out event in downtown Manhattan to talk about the science and the ethics of enhancing human beings -- making people "better than well" through biomedical interventions. Here are the ten most memorable quotes from their lively discussion, which was organized by the New York Academy of Sciences, the Aspen Brain Institute, and the Hastings Center.

1) "It's okay for us to be enhanced relative to our ancestors; we are with the smallpox vaccine." —Dr. George Church, iconic genetics pioneer; professor at Harvard University and MIT

Church was more concerned with equitable access to enhancements than the morality of intervening in the first place. "We missed the last person with polio and now it's spread around the world again," he lamented.

Discussing how enhancements might become part of our species in the near-future, he mentioned the possibility of doctors slightly "overshooting" an intervention to reverse cognitive decline, for example; or younger people using such an intervention off-label. Another way might be through organ transplants, using organs that are engineered to not get cancer, or to be resistant to pain, pathogens, or senescence.

2) "All the technology we will need to fundamentally transform our species already exists. Humans are made of code, and that code is writable, readable and hackable." —Dr. Jamie Metzl, a technology futurist and geopolitical expert; Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank

The speed of change is on an exponential curve, and the world where we're going is changing at a much faster rate than we're used to, Metzl said. For example, a baby born 1000 years ago compared to one born today would be basically the same. But a baby born 1000 years in the future would seem like superman to us now, thanks to new capabilities that will become embedded in future people's genes over time. So how will we get from here to there?

"We will line up for small incremental benefits. By the time people are that changed, we will have adapted to a whole new set of social norms."

But, he asked, will well-meaning changes dangerously limit the diversity of our species?

3) "We are locked in a competitive arms race on both an individual and communal level, which will make it very difficult to put the brakes on. Everybody needs to be part of this conversation because it's a conversation about the future of our species." —Jamie Metzl

China, for one, plans to genetically sequence half of all newborns by 2020. In the U.S., it is standard to screen for 34 health conditions in newborns (though the exact number varies by state). There are no national guidelines for newborn genomic screening, though the National Institutes of Health is currently funding several research studies to explore the ethical concerns, potential benefits, and limitations of doing so on a large scale.

4) "I find freedom in not directing exactly how my child will be." —Josephine Johnston, Director of Research at the Hastings Center, the world's oldest bioethics research institute

Johnston cautioned against a full-throttled embrace of biomedical enhancements. Parents seeking to remake nature to serve their own purpose would be "like helicopter parenting on steroids," she said. "It could be a kind of felt obligation, something parents don't want to do but feel they must in order to compete." She warned this would be "one way to totally ruin the parenting experience altogether. I would hate to be the kind of parent who selects and controls her child's traits and talents."

Among other concerns, she worried about parents aiming to comply with social norms through technological intervention. Would a black mom, for example, feel pressure to make her child's skin paler to alleviate racial bias?

5) "We need to seriously consider the risks of a future if a handful of private companies own and monetize a map of our thoughts at any given moment." – Meredith Whittaker, Research Scientist, Open Research Lead at Google, and Co-Director of New York University's AI Now Institute, examining the social implications of artificial intelligence

The recent boom in AI research is the result of the consolidation of the tech industry's resources; only seven companies have the means to create artificial intelligence at scale, and one of the innovations on the horizon is brain-computer interfaces.

Facebook, for example, has a team of 60 engineers working on BCIs to let you type with your mind. Elon Musk's company Neuralink is working on technology that is aiming for "direct lag-free interactions between our brains and our devices."

But who will own this data? In the future, could the National Security Agency ask Neuralink, et al. for your thought log?

6) "The economic, political, and social contexts are as important as the tech itself. We need to look at power, who gets to define normal, and who falls outside of this category?" – Meredith Whittaker

Raising concerns about AI bias, Whittaker discussed how data is often coded by affluent white men from the Bay Area, potentially perpetuating discrimination against women and racial minorities.

Facial recognition, she said, is 30 percent less accurate for black women than for white men. And voice recognition systems don't hear women's voices as well as men's, among many other examples. The big question is: "Who gets to decide what's normal? And how do we ensure that different versions of normal can exist between cultures and communities? It is impossible not see the high stakes here, and how oppressive classifications of normal can marginalize people."

From left: George Church, Jamie Metzl, Josephine Johnston, Meredith Whittaker

7) "We might draw a red line at cloning or germline enhancements, but when you define those or think of specific cases, you realize you threw the baby out with the bathwater." —George Church, answering a question about whether society should agree on any red lines to prohibit certain interventions

"We should be focusing on outcomes," he suggested. "Could enhancement be a consequence of curing a disease like cognitive decline? That would concern me about drawing red lines."

8) "We have the technology to create Black Mirror. We could create a social credit score and it's terrifying." —Meredith Whittaker

In China, she said, the government is calculating scores to rank citizens based on aggregates of data like their educational history, their friend graphs, their employment and credit history, and their record of being critical of the government. These scores have already been used to bar 12 million people from travel.

"If we don't have the ability to make a choice," she said, "it could be a very frightening future."

9) "These tools will make all kinds of wonderful realities possible. Nobody looks at someone dying of cancer and says that's natural." —Jamie Metzl

Using biomedical interventions to restore health is an unequivocal moral good. But other experts questioned whether there should be a limit in how far these technologies are taken to achieve normalcy and beyond.

10) "Cancer's the easy one; what about deafness?" —Josephine Johnston, in retort

Could one person's disability be another person's desired state? "We should be so suspicious" of using technology to eradicate different ways of being in the world, she warned. Hubris has led us down the wrong path in the past, such as when homosexuality was considered a mental disorder.

"If we sometimes make mistakes about disease or dysfunction," she said, "we might make mistakes about what is a valid experience of the human condition."

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.
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Kidney transplant patient Robert Waddell, center, with his wife and children after being off immunosuppresants; photo aken last summer in Perdido Key, FL. Left to right: Christian, Bailey, Rob, Karen (wife), Robby and Casey.

Photo courtesy Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.

The White House in Washington, D.C.


This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.