Lecture opens talk on future technology’s influence on humans
Artificial hearts. Kidney transplants. Mood-altering drugs. Gene-mapping. Robotic arms. In vitro fertilization.
There’s no question about it. Scientists and medical researchers have come along way on the path to altering human life.
But, according to Brad Allenby, we haven’t seen anything yet.
Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering Ethics, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and a professor of law at ASU, says that changes are on the horizon that could affect how the human brain is used, what new drugs could be developed to increase intelligence, how diseases are treated, and how long – and well – humans can live.
The rate of knowledge is accelerating, Allenby says.
“But because of the unpredictable nature of technology, it is virtually impossible to predict the path technological change will take,” he says.
“Our systems have become enormously complex, and there is a lot of activity that is unregulated.”
Allenby will discuss how nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information technology and cognitive science are changing the way we think about humans in the annual Templeton Research Lecture at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 22, in the Great Hall in Armstrong Hall (Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law) on the Tempe campus.
The free lecture is titled “From Human to Transhuman: Technology and the Reconstruction of the World.”
“Within a decade or two, we will probably be able to push life well beyond 100, and have a high quality of life closer to the end,” Allenby says. “Just 50 years ago, we figured out DNA. Now, we can build polio viruses from scratch. In a year or two, we will be able to build bacteria from scratch. But once changes like these begin to happen, we have to manage them.”
Is there a core attribute that makes someone “human” that must be left untouched in the coming blitz of scientific enhancement of the body and mind?
“The more you push, the more it becomes difficult to define what is unchanging,” Allenby says. “Is there something about humans that we should make unchangeable?”
Then there is the matter of ethics. What if drugs to prolong life are expensive, and only the wealthy can afford them?
And if it’s OK to develop drugs to treat bipolar disease, for example, is it ethical to use them to enhance well-being in normal people?
Adults in 2007 have difficulty imagining the not-too-distant future when some scientists say that people will be able to download their intelligence on a computer, order a new set of lungs from the “organ store,” manage battlefields from afar through the brain implants of soldiers, and genetically engineer people to see colors that no human being has ever seen.
But Allenby says such ideas already are being worked on in research labs – and they will be part of the life experience of future generations, whether we like it or not.
Just as people living 150 years ago could not have foreseen the day when humans lived to their 70s, drove cars and had houses with air conditioning and indoor plumbing – not to mention nuclear weapons – we can scarcely imagine the “transhuman” world ahead.
“All of us tend to be uncomfortable with change,” Allenby says. “And the changes ahead promise to be completely different than anything we’ve seen before. But we have to ask ourselves, ‘By what right do we project our value structure on a future that may have very different values and capabilities?’ ”
Today’s students “need to have the ability to navigate different realities,” Allenby says, adding: “We’ve seen a lot of change, but it’s nothing compared to what these kids will see. What is going on now is already beyond science fiction.”
The Templeton Research Lectures at ASU are part of a multiyear, interdisciplinary project supported by a grant from the Metanexus Institute. The project, titled “Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism: Religion, Science, and Technology,” engages scientists, social scientists and scholars in the humanities in an exploration of the problems of “the transhuman,” the new state of human evolution brought about by the acceleration of technological knowledge in fields such as biotechnology, bioengineering, information technology and cognitive science.
Allenby was named Templeton Research Fellow in 2007. He is recognized for his innovative work in the fields of industrial ecology and sustainable engineering.
Allenby is the author of “Reconstructing Earth,” and he has long been interested in technological change and its effect on the natural world.
The Templeton Research Lectures are sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Affairs, the Biodesign Institute, the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, the Harold and Jean Grossman Chair of Jewish Studies, the departments of history, philosophy, physics and religious studies, and the Jewish studies program.
For more information, contact Carolyn Forbes at (480) 965-1096, or visit the Web site www.asu.edu/transhumanism.