How will human augmentation affect sustainability?

If Facebook and Elon Musk’s ambitions to directly connect human brains to machines are any indication, it seems we will become increasingly dependent on smart devices. Less bombastic than this proposal, but already widespread, are more mundane forms of augmentation – neural prostheses allow brains to control replacement body parts, artificial organs can be designed to specific bodies, and embedded devices like insulin pumps can intelligently support their hosts. With this is mind, we asked six experts the following question: How will the technologically augmentation of humans affect sustainability?

The implications of human augmentation are so complex that it is difficult to succinctly assess what their implications will be for sustainability. There are, of course, potential benefits. Devices may improve our awareness about environmental effects on our health, spurring more popular support for sustainability. Augmentation may predictively assist with health issues, creating more efficient healthcare systems. Technological enhancements may furthermore make our bodies more efficient and improve our ability to problem-solve.

But there are also potential negatives. Technologically-lengthened human lives may stress the ability of the planetary system to support us. Developing and deploying augmentation has significant long-term costs – and we humans often ignore such costs, instead enjoying current benefits. Technological augmentation may also worsen inequality, which has myriad spillover effects for sustainability. Technological augmentation does not guarantee any improvement in sustainability. Only by bringing discussions of technology into larger debates about societal values will there be a positive relationship between augmentation and sustainability.

Braden Allenby – Professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona State University

The nexus between the human and sustainability is not neatly captured. A major thrust is enabling technological telepathy via implantable computer-brain interfaces. This has a long way to go but is already out of basic research. Scifi has explored some implications – in the short term it may change human communication patterns, and in the long term it may bring about adaptive techno-human network cognition. But the implications are vast and inchoate.

This may all nudge us towards environmentally desirable behavior. Enhanced cognition may help us prosper in a complex Anthropocene. But there are costs. Enhancement will problematize the concept of “human”. Equity questions will arise. Who gets the technology? Will it worsen inequality? Other implications are equally challenging. Sustainability discourse cannot answer such questions because it faces a tsunami of accelerating technological evolution. Right now, not just the planet but also the human are becoming “design spaces”. Sustainability discourse, though, is still based in 20th century ideologies and mental models.

Andrea Vicini – Professor of Bioethics at Boston College

How many resources will be needed to technologically augment humans? The resources invested could be quite extensive: from human resources to financial investments to biotechnological creativity and imagination. Discernment should always guide our choices. To be sustainable, any choice should account for the limited resources that are available to humankind on the planet. This pragmatic reasoning, however, is insufficient. 

We need to ask a second question: Why do we want to technologically augment humans? What is the rationale that guides this pursuit? Is this part of what we consider as human progress and evolution? To augment is neither to heal, nor to support, nor to accompany humankind in its flourishing. Moreover, to augment seems to aim at removing any human finitude and vulnerability. On the contrary, what is urgent is to promote in sustainable ways what is good for human beings, and for biotic and abiotic life.

Robert Geraci – Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College

We human beings seem innately committed to augmenting our powers through technology. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but our persistence in deferring the costs of such augmentation is a direct threat to the world on which we live. Our social, political, and economic systems all encourage individuals and, more problematically, corporations to ignore any problems which require a long-term or inclusive vision.

A simple example: clothing is cheap, despite shipping raw materials and finished products all around the globe. Existing institutions defer the costs of manufacture and transportation. Clothing is cheap but pollution is plentiful. The economic costs of the clothing affect people in developing countries now, but industrial and transportation pollution will affect everyone in the future through climate change, species extinction, and other environmental hazards. We defer those costs, making the product more expensive in the long run.

Clothing is a very simple technology for augmenting human beings, but our advanced technologies similarly offer immense benefits to select segments of society while deferring the costs. Corporate profits, which are sky-high in the tech industry, trump environmental sustainability. We need to better calculate and distribute the costs of modernity, not exacerbate existing inequalities or promote willing ignorance about the environmental damage caused through manufacture, use, and disposal of technologies that augment human bodies.

Tom Stubbs – CEO of Chronomics

Given that the current carbon footprint of global health is colossal, concerns about sustainability are now having profound effects on the future of healthcare.

While our genetic data is fixed from birth, our epigenetic data changes as we age and is directly affected by our lifestyle and environment. For the first time, epigenetic analysis can show us how environmental factors like pollution and smoke exposure are harming each of us individually. When we see jarring images of marine life entangled in plastic, the effects of pollution are tangible, yet toxic pollutants are harming humans in similar ways. But because the effects are not visible, they do not seem as pressing.

Indeed, the largest risk factors for many diseases, such as cancer, are significantly affected by our environment and life choices. So, with lung cancer, for instance, discovering epigenetic abnormalities in the early stage of the disease, such as excessive smoke exposure, is one of the easiest ways identify and, in turn, prevent, the condition from developing. Similarly, by examining a saliva sample, Chronomics has access to personalized epigenetic insights that show us the impact the environment has on our bodies. This enables us to take actionable steps to manage our own health and avoid dying from preventable diseases.

Increasing awareness on how the environment impacts our bodies reinforces the importance of understanding the consequences of our actions on the planet. The same environmental toxins that harm humans also damage the ecosystems that we depend on.

In the next decade, epigenetics will become an integral pillar of predictive medicine and will become more accessible to a wider audience. The possibilities created by epigenetic analysis have cultivated a preventative healthcare revolution far more sustainable than anything we have seen before. The ability to prevent diseases will not only minimize individual demands on healthcare systems, but importantly will reduce carbon emissions and reallocate millions of dollars to more sustainable processes.

David Lawrence – Postdoctoral Fellow at Newcastle University specializing in human enhancement technologies

In truth, we can’t know. It’s certainly possible that human enhancement could allow us to reduce our more unsustainable practices. Perhaps we could reduce our need for food with more efficient cellular mechanisms, and so reduce our need for unsustainable mass agriculture. Perhaps pharmaceutical upgrades to our cognitive capacities will allow us to solve the shortfalls in green energy technologies; or, as is advocated by some, increase our moral reasoning to overcome apathy towards environmental action.

However, these advancements will come with their own costs. Cybernetics are likely to require rare resources to manufacture. Drugs or other interventions may increase our longevity, but they can also cause worse overpopulation pressures.

I am in favor of the pursuit of human enhancement for the betterment of our lives; and part of this betterment is the pursuit of sustainability. However, it is highly unlikely that we can avoid creating new problems. A delicate regulatory balancing act will be necessary as enhancement technology becomes widespread.

James Michael MacFarlane – PhD in technological human enhancement from University of Warwick

Over the last quarter century, transhumanism has come to represent an ambitious set of optimistic ideas surrounding the future of humanity. Transhumanists strive to transcend the current limits of our bodies and minds according to a belief in science, reason, and individual freedom. While the technologies associated with the movement range from the existing and emerging to the outright speculative, all are considered in terms of their future potential to give humans power over the processes of birth, life, and death.

Yet, for all the technophilia among these circles, perhaps the most powerful “techne” of all is often overlooked: the technology of community. Without a firm grasp of the interconnectedness of all forms of life and without an agreement about humanity’s rightful place within the cosmos, the following questions have ambiguous answers: Who are we? Where should we collectively be heading? At a time of rapid environmental degradation, our future planetary sustainability will depend on our ability to form an adequate response.