Transforming Ourselves: NYAS Panel Examines Human Enhancement

Guest post by science writer Carl Sherman

Human Enhancement.jpg

Image: Shutterstock

This was the premise of a public symposium at New York Academy of Sciences, presented by the Aspen Brain Institute, the Hastings Center, and the Academy.

While the prospect demands sound scientific policy, its associated moral, social, and political issues require a broader base of expertise. The symposium accordingly brought together a genetics researcher, a futurist and author, and experts on bioethics and artificial intelligence to explore the promise and perils of human enhancement.

“All the technologies we need to fundamentally transform our species already exist,” said futurist and sci-fi novelist Jamie Metzl. “With the mapping of the genome, we could read the code of life; with gene editing technology, we can write it.”

Genomic advances are making reproductive technology transformative, he said. With preimplantation embryo screening, parents can select, among a dozen IVF embryos, one free of certain genetic diseases and with preferred eye color and gender. As personal genotyping spreads, accumulating data will clarify genetic patterns underlying personality, intelligence, physical prowess, appearance, and other traits to give parents a broader spectrum of options.

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Neurotechnology and the Military

“Every generation has been trying to figure out how to use brain-related technology to improve security,” from caffeine to computer enhancement, bioethicist Jonathan Moreno, Ph.D., said at the Capitol Hill briefing “Neurotechnology and the Military” last week. Moreno and neuroscientist Leigh Hochberg, M.D., Ph.D., had teamed up to give a similar presentation at a luncheon six years ago, and on Friday the two brought us up to date.

Hochberg

Leigh Hochberg used video clips to show how BrainGate works (photo courtesy of The Society for Neuroscience).

Thanks to a half-century of federally funded basic research, researchers have developed a chip carrying 144 electrodes that can be inserted into people’s skulls (over the motor cortex) and send impulses to computers to drive a cursor or a mechanical object, said Hochberg, the director of the Center for Neurotechnology and Neurorecovery at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Brown University and Harvard Medical School.

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Your Brain in 2050: Closing the Gap Between Sci-Fi and Reality

wsf panel

Panel from left to right: Michael Maharbiz, Sheila Nireberg, John Donoghue, Gary Marcus, Robert Krulwich

I am a huge fan of the sci-fi genre. I have read Cat’s Cradle, Ender’s Game, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and seen movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix more times than I care to say. I am drawn to these fantastical visions of the future because I love predicting what our world and our species may look like in 50 or 100 years. As I discovered last night at a World Science Festival panel discussion, “Cells to Silicon: Your Brain in 2050,” science fiction’s vision of our future is often closer to reality than we may realize.

The discussion, moderated by radio and TV journalist Robert Krulwich, included neuroscientists John P. Donoghue and Sheila Nirenberg as well as research psychologist Gary Marcus and electrical engineer and computer scientist Michael M. Maharbiz. Each of these experts is helping to close the gap between science fiction and reality.

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