[Paleopsych] Technology News: Transforming Humans

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Transforming Humans

    By Sonia Arrison
    01/28/05 5:00 AM PT

    Late last year, South Korean scientists used stems cells to treat a
    woman who had been paralyzed for 20 years as a result of a back
    injury. To the amazement of many, she is now able to move about using
    a walker. Christopher Reeve would have delighted.

    William Safire bid farewell to his column at the New York Times this
    week, but not because he's retiring. Instead, this Pulitzer
    Prize-winning, former presidential speech writer is moving on to lead
    an organization concerned with what some call transhumanism.

    Transhumanism is the advocacy of using life-enhancing technology to
    improve the human condition. It is a forward-looking philosophy, and
    savvy proponents spend a good deal of time thinking about the ethics
    involved in areas such as stem-cell research, genetic engineering,
    nanotechnology, and neuropharmaceuticals, to name a few.

Fringe Issues No More

    The organization Safire will lead is called Dana, after Charles Dana,
    a New York State legislator, industrialist and philanthropist. Dana's
    core areas seem to be brain studies and immunology, but Safire
    recently wrote that he will also tackle such issues as, "Should we
    level human height with growth hormones?" and "Is cloning ever morally

    These used to be the issues of fringe sci-fi nerds, but things have
    changed. Biotechnology and related fields have advanced at an
    astounding pace. We now live in a world where what was once thought to
    be impossible is becoming reality.

    Late last year, for instance, South Korean scientists used stems cells
    to treat a woman who had been paralyzed for 20 years as a result of a
    back injury. To the amazement of many, she is now able to move about
    using a walker. Christopher Reeve would have delighted in such

    Other high-profile people are embracing the idea that if we work hard
    and smart enough at these impossible-seeming problems, we can find the
    solution. Safire is one. Another is Michael Milken. After successfully
    fighting a bout of prostrate cancer, Milken applied his efforts to
    accelerating scientific discovery.

Speed Up, Slow Down

    First, he worked on streamlining grant application processes so that
    scientists could focus on science. Paperwork and politics are both big
    problems facing researchers, especially if government is involved, so
    it was a stroke of genius to suggest that agencies such as the
    Prostate Cancer Foundation cut the wait time for grant money and hold
    researchers accountable.

    Faster Cures, a think tank Milken started, is literally trying to
    speed up the research process by focusing on weaknesses in public
    policy and other areas that might be slowing down progress. Its board
    includes Nobel laureates Gary Becker (economics) and David Baltimore
    (virology). But not everyone is interested in speeding up science.

    On both the left and right, there are factions that argue against
    scientific breakthroughs, especially if they augment or enhance
    humans. For instance, some on the left argue that it wouldn't be
    natural to use drugs to enhance someone's intelligence or happiness.
    And if it's not natural, it's bad.

    Others on the right argue that cloning and technologies that take us
    beyond the traditional human composition will compromise the moral
    importance of human life. Leon Kass, who was chairman of the
    President's Council on Bioethics, is a powerful spokesman for the
    conservative point of view.

Better Lives

    America, and indeed the world, is entering a new age where significant
    advances in bio and nanotechnology might allow humans to live better
    and longer lives. But they might also change who humans are. Imagine
    if it becomes possible, as in the film Johnny Mnemonic, to integrate
    silicon into the brain so that memory is greatly enhanced. The
    question of whether that person is still human, and whether that
    matters, will be of utmost import from both a legal and cultural point
    of view.

    The time to discuss these questions is now, so it is good to see the
    issues moving from fringe to mainstream. As Mr. Safire rightly points
    out, life expectancy for Americans has risen from 47 to 77 over the
    last century. Moore's law, that computer power doubles every two
    years, can be now combined with biotech. In the near future, we are
    all likely to be living much longer lives. [end-enn.gif]

    Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology
    Studies at the California-based [29]Pacific Research Institute.


   29. http://www.pacificresearch.org/

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