March 2010 Archives

Still Human

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Documntarian Rob Spence wants a camera where his mother put an eye. Aimee Mullins' parents weren't able to provide her legs - or, in any event, not all of them - and, as a result, she has more square inches of leg than just about anyone else. Alex Tabarrok - who, as far as I know, still has both the eyes and legs he came with - thinks that Aimee's talk at TED is "notable in so clearly marking the point at which post-humanity has begun".

Unless we place the "post-human" point so that its mile-marker is already distant in our rear view, it is one we have not yet passed. Many of the legs Aimee proudly displays (such as the beautiful hand-carved ash set) would certainly have been possible in an earlier time. Perhaps the society that would allow her to display them is a bit newer. The true "post-human" age, however, will not arise until people begin maiming themselves on purpose to have faster legs, or cameras in their eyes - and until such actions are seen as normal.

Mr. Spence's eye will have to not just record his vision, but send it to his brain, and more, before many will choose to replace their peepers. It seems likely, that some - filmmakers, like he, perhaps - will desire this sort of change before the rest of us. Even before the technology improves, that much. Speculation on this topic hit the mainstream when Oscar Pistorius was allowed to tryout for the Olympics in 2008. Should prosthetic-legged sprinters be allowed to compete with naturally-shanked ones, the former will begin to win, and a non-zero number of the victory-at-any-cost latter will become interested in trading up.

Medical ethics - still saddled with "First, do no harm" - is unlikely to adapt to these desires, quickly. The first brave pioneers of these technologies may actually have to injure themselves in order to get surgeons to repair (and improve) them. Putting one's eye out is an unpleasant business, though possible enough to do "accidentally" - and without further accident. Self-double amputation will be more ill-starred.

These ethical concerns will obviously not stop the truly motivated (or insane) from improving their bodies, as technology eventually begins to beat evolution in feature-set. Some people already feel that truly nothing would be better than the limbs they have, now. Applying Moore's Law to the human body (and mind) will be a long-term good. The ethical tangle between here and there will be nearly as impressive as the technology we'll create. More impressive still is how quickly we'll be caught in it.

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