Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The most important discussion of our times has finally started

There’s been lots of blogging about double amputee Oscar Pistorius, a sprinter who uses a pair of Össur carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs called ‘Cheetahs ’ ... In case you haven’t read – he wants to be included in the Olympics and the IAAF has said no - Pistorius has run the 400 meter dash in 46.56 seconds and the 100 meters in an impressive 10.91 seconds.

This is notable, because this is the start of the public debate about the question of, ‘what-do-we-do-when …’

This debate will then certainly move towards other biotechnologies that result in increased intelligence, better memory and improved emotional control include genomics, nanotechnology and neuropharmaceuticals.

Of course, there are people alive today who are already reaping the benefits of these technologies. Paraplegics are using neural interface devices to control computers, allowing them to type, move pointers, and play games with their minds.

Synthetic neurons have been around since the early 90's (PDF), but recently research created a series that can take over the processing responsibilities of dead or dying neurons (conditions that are brought about by such diseases as Alzheimer’s); humans will soon be using cybernetic prostheses to assist in cognition.

But cognitive enhancements are also a way to alleviate the arbitrariness of the genetic lottery. Perhaps, a strong techno-ethical case can be made that the availability of such enhancements will help us work toward social justice, but I don’t see it that way. Together, with each society pushing and pulling us, we don't use our 'common sense' like individual humans would.

It is often said that common sense will be the remedy that would cancel out the need for cosmetic neurology but the bigger question that creates the fuzziness is, ‘What constitutes a person to be ‘more’ or ‘less’ human?’

The safe answer based on biology has a cognitive bias (after all, we are humans making decisions about humans, ain't we?).

Let's be honest - our definition of a ‘human’ is very arbitrary at the moment. We have a much narrower understanding of what a ‘robot’ is that we do a ‘human’. So, as much as we should debate the ‘man-machine’ question – that debate is already passed. We missed the debate and we are missing the point.

Don’t get me wrong, neurotechnologies, whether they are cybernetic or pharmaceutical, will offer grand opportunities to overcome physical and psychological disorders but I think the current discussion is being misdirected - the real ethical debate (and the real risk) should be focused on artificial intelligence.

I am getting bored with all the 'big media' discussions about social media tools and apps and how they can reduce the digital divide and how these 'tools' influence our society and new generations to come but it's only a literary debate - not an educated and informed debate.

It's clear that those pushing the vanilla envelope of Web 2.0 have to earn a buck but it's also very clear that those already at Web n+1 need to introduce a different mode of thinking.

In the coming decade, humanity will create a powerful AI. Paying homage to the almighty bottom line, business will use this 'wonder' to help manage our economies, our logistics and our information. But, without the cognitive bias that protects us (human decision making with all it's faults and frailties), we are in the midst of giving up our right to decide the rules.

Decisions will be made for us. And who do you think they will decide for?

So - FINALLY- the discussion predicted by Clarke, Heinlein and Gibson has started.

And it's about time - I could hardly wait any longer ... and neither can humanity.

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