Allenby: Lance Armstrong, killer robots and the complex politics of human enhancement
Context is more important than content when it comes to human enhancements like steroids, vaccines and artificial limbs, argues ASU’s Brad Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics and founding chair of the Consortium for Emerging Technologies, Military Operations, and National Security. Steroid and doping scandals involving athletes have led to public consternation, while more radical human enhancement in areas like warfare, physical appearance and immune response have been accepted without much controversy, writes Allenby in a Future Tense article in Slate magazine.
A specific human enhancement “will generate different responses depending on the domain in which it is introduced. If one wants to promote an enhancement, making it available and familiar to the public might be an excellent strategy. A military use that doesn’t trigger sci-fi fantasies – ‘OMG! A killer robot!’ – is a secondary path.” But sports, which are “iconic for purity, for the simplicity of an idyllic earlier America,” are sacrosanct, and attempts at human enhancement will be met with furor about cheating and losing our humanity.
Allenby suggests that any emerging technology with potent symbolic dimensions “will be very difficult to evaluate rationally and objectively.” Ultimately the context in which we learn about these new methods of enhancement shapes our reaction much more powerfully than the actual promise or peril of the technology.
Human enhancement is already in full swing, and Allenby urges us to develop “the ability to interact ethically, rationally and responsibly with the world of enhancement technologies that are already here.”
Future Tense is a collaboration among ASU, the New America Foundation and Slate magazine that explores how emerging technologies affect policy and society.