Talking about human augmentation the other night, we ended on a kind of down note when the subject turned to potential “augmentations” that inhibit or eliminate certain characteristics. We’re all for adding strength, mental focus, whiteness of tooth, and so forth, but what about taking things away? Generally speaking, subtraction is as good a method as addition — if not better — when it comes to achieving certain outcomes. For example, inhibiting myostatin looks like a much safer and healthier way of eliminating body fat and building muscle than the traditional “addition” approach, anabolic steroids.
For many of the changes we discussed, it’s not a matter of addition or subtraction, but a trading of one characteristic for another. RU Sirius talked about changing skin color. Even if people begin to experiment with a lot of options not provided on the original human palette, it would be kind of prissy to view such experimentation as a departure from core “humanity” rather than simply an extension of it. Even with a much more radical procedure such as a sex change operation — and we spent some time talking about the significance of coming improvements to those procedures — one state of being human is swapped for another.
But what happens if, as described in Greg Egan’s fiction and elsewhere, some people decide they don’t want the whole sex / gender thing at all? Would a completely sexless human be just as human as you or I? This one is a little bit trickier, but ultimately I think sex- and gender-free humanity would represent another extension of humanity, rather than a departure from it. They would certainly represent an unexpected variation on the human template, one that a lot of people would be uncomfortable with — but then I think there are a lot of those coming.
Then we got onto the subject of personality traits. I have suggested more than once that a great enhancement for people who want to make it in sales or show business or any number of other ventures would be the removal of the fear of rejection, along with some related forms of social anxiety. The individual who has no fear of being turned down, and who doesn’t mind asking for something any number of times, has a distinct advantage over people who shy away from being too aggressive. That person also runs the risk of being feared and despised for being so obnoxious — but then he or she wouldn’t care about that.
Is that person still human? Sure. But what happens if somebody decides to take the next step? Imagine a truly ruthless person who decides to hit the Delete key on all empathy with his or her fellow human beings. This individual has all the advantages of someone who removes fear of rejection, and then some. The lack of inhibition would go well beyond asking for things; we’re talking about someone who isn’t shy about taking things, and who doesn’t care about what happens to anyone who gets in the way.
We’re talking about a very dangerous person.
Now, surely, once we remove this trait we’re talking about a real departure from humanity, aren’t we? Well, my squishy and romanticized view of of who and what we are says yes, that’s a real departure. But reality says no. PJ Manney pointed out that we already have such people among us, that they make up a small but appreciable percentage of the population. They’re called sociopaths.
So if future technologies enable people to select in favor of sociopathy, it would not represent a departure from the human template. Needless to say, I hope we don’t see too much of that. But it won’t be a wholly new subtraction; it will be one that human evolution has already tried out and allowed. This serves as a reminder that there are risks with any new technology. Those who think the big “risk” associated with human enhancement technology is that future teenagers might opt to sport dorsal fins are missing the big picture. Look at people around you, and consider all the different qualities they possess. Any of those qualities is subject to magnification.
Still, I think a lot more people will be inclined to give themselves a brain boost or a prettier singing voice or the ability to breathe underwater (and possibly even the aforementioned dorsal fin) than will want to hack away parts of themselves that are more or less universally valued. In any case, if the future means that we will have to deal with people who have had some important human features deleted, that is a way that the future will be similar to, not different from, the present.