Open Question: Augmented Humanity / Transhumanism, Good or Bad?

Open question: If you had the opportunity to expand your senses or your abilities via an outpatient medical procedure, would you do it? What about using a procedure like preimplantation genetic testing (PGT) to select among embryos for specific traits? What happens to evolution when individuals begin to self select for traits they consider desirable? What happens when/if human beings become a manufactured product?

These might seem like ideas from the far future, so let’s bring them into the possible present. Let’s start with Mammalian Near-Infrared Image Vision:

“Mammals cannot see light over 700 nm in wavelength. This limitation is due to the physical thermodynamic properties of the photon-detecting opsins. However, the detection of naturally invisible near-infrared (NIR) light is a desirable ability. To break this limitation, we developed ocular injectable photoreceptor-binding upconversion nanoparticles (pbUCNPs). These nanoparticles anchored on retinal photoreceptors as miniature NIR light transducers to create NIR light image vision with negligible side effects. Based on single-photoreceptor recordings, electroretinograms, cortical recordings, and visual behavioral tests, we demonstrated that mice with these nanoantennae could not only perceive NIR light, but also see NIR light patterns. Excitingly, the injected mice were also able to differentiate sophisticated NIR shape patterns. Moreover, the NIR light pattern vision was ambient-daylight compatible and existed in parallel with native daylight vision. This new method will provide unmatched opportunities for a wide variety of emerging bio-integrated nanodevice designs and applications.”

— Yuqian Ma, Jin Bao, Yuanwei Zhang, Yang Zhao,
Gang Han, and Tian Xue, “Mammalian Near-Infrared Image Vision through Injectable and Self-Powered Retinal Nanoantennae.” Cell. February 28, 2019.

Using the example of an injection of self-powered retinal nanoantennae into the eye, a few questions are raised in the abstract that have ‘negligible side effects’ for lab mice might not meet that standard for human augmentation:

  • What are the possible complications and their complication rates?
  • What are the benefits of near infrared vision for humans?
  • How does it effect other human abilities, such as our normal or night vision?

These are top of mind from issues raised by the article. I’m sure there are many more issues to take into consideration beyond these few when applied to a human augmentation context.

This is another example of social and ethical limits to testable hypotheses. While most people’s conception of science are hypotheses that lend themselves to repeated experimental testing, with the randomized clinical trial format being the gold standard in human populations, it’s a really small subset of inquiry.

Another is testing plausibility in animal models or N of 1 tests conducted by scientists on themselves, such as Barry Marshall establishing that bacteria cause peptic ulcers, the Russian scientist Anatoli Brouchkov injecting himself with ancient bacteria to see if it would extend his life, etc.

Life extension presents a particularly good example. The only two methods we have good evidence to suggest that may extend life span in humans is calorie restriction without malnutrition and for men, castration.

But, how can these be studied? It is near impossible to experimentally control diet in humans for extended periods in an ethical fashion in modern society. However, perhaps the requirements for space travel may open up some opportunities to test this kind of diet in a rigorous way. Presumably, we will either need strict rations because of limited carrying capacity in space, or we will need to master human hibernation given the requirements of space travel.

Like calorie restriction in lab animals, there are numerous studies that suggest that castration in other mammals tends to extend life span. But, again, we are in N of 1 territory because castration to extend life is unethical if we do not know what life extending benefit it may offer. It’s a chicken and egg problem. It also comes with serious social stigma.

With human augmentation, this problem becomes even more pronounced when we expand the field of action to making decisions for other people, such as selecting traits for our children with preimplantation genetic testing (PGT):

“PGT is a method of scanning embryos outside the womb to identify genetic abnormalities. After eggs and sperm are fertilized outside the body in the beginning stages of IVF, a thin needle is used to extract just a few cells from the resulting embryos. Those cells are tested for select genetic conditions, like Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome in the case of Pinarowicz and her husband. Parents can then choose which embryos they want to use, and the rest of the IVF process proceeds as usual. (The other embryos are frozen, discarded, or donated for medical research.) The technology gives families the ability to root out deadly genetic diseases like Huntington’s, cystic fibrosis, or Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome from their family tree.”

—Emily Mullin. “We’re Already Designing Babies.” February 27, 2019.

Suppose you have a dormant gene to be a tetrachromat, a person with four cones rather three cones. The additional color receptors in their eyes enable tetrachromats to see color two orders of magnitude better than the average person. But, what are the consequences of having this ability? It is believed that mammals used to have this ability, and evolution selected against it. Why? Is this something that we should be selecting for in human populations? What consequences, over the course of all of human evolutionary history, will a decision of this sort have?

Also, if we assume a technology like human hibernation or cryogenic containment, the incentives to wait for technology would be significant. However, it would mean essentially dying to all of our family and friends, and it could also include less certain possibilities, such as never awakening again or awakening in a worse circumstance, such as a dystopian society.

Of course, eliminating “birth defects” is how it starts, the question is what happens when traits can be selected? What happens when babies become a manufactured product? What are we giving up when we restrict the possibilities driven by random chance? What happens when these kinds of options start impacting other behaviors, such as choosing to hibernate for extended periods of time?