This House argues…
During the APM 2023 annual convention in Nantes, France, I had the opportunity to participate in a classic debate, using the cross-examination debate format, otherwise known as a team debate or political debate. In any case, although we didn’t actually have teams, the concept was to debate the two opposing sides of a proposition in a civic and timely way, with a moderator to ensure a proper process. I had the task of arguing in favor of the House’s proposition: The augmented man is a scourge. I was up against the stalwart Vincent Tessier, a fellow expert from the APM network. Here are the arguments that I proposed (in the two phases of the debate).
Before debating whether the augmented human being is a scourge, it is relevant to understand our biases. For example, do you have a positive or negative point of view about artificial intelligence? Are you afraid of or excited about the prospects of AI? Secondly, do you see Man as a machine? In essence, a machine is a collection of interconnected components, arranged to transmit or modify force in order to perform useful work. In this respect, one could thus consider Man as a machine. Or else you reject this notion? If you have a positive point of view on AI and you consider humans to be machines, then you will have a hard time agreeing with the House’s proposition. On the other hand, if you hold the opposite position, it is to you in particular that I address my comments. And there are five themes that concern us.
When we consider the augmented man (of course I am talking about men and women), we will very quickly talk about some of the remarkable health benefits. Admittedly, there have been fantastic inventions, such as the pacemaker, the insulin pump for diabetics, or prosthetics for missing limbs. But, as we can see around us, as a society, we are not content to just ‘augment’ the critical health issues. We are now looking for solutions to make healthy people better and to ‘cure’ death, as if it were a disease, to make us immortal. Without forgetting to talk about solutions to measure and verify each step or effort we make, we have become a society in search of eternal youth and/or a more beautiful body. To wit, the $90 billion anti-aging beauty business. With the instrumentalization of our body, are we in fact confident that the long-lasting implications or side-effects are not going to harm our civilization?
2/ MENTAL HEALTH
While related to the previous point, I am particularly concerned about the impact of augmented services on our mental health. With these artifices to improve our life, as if we could or should eliminate all misfortune, what life would we have left to live? Shouldn’t we think about the potential harmful impact of using machines in our bodies to rid us of all our problems? How do we create resilience without experiencing real difficulties? What about the reward of making a significant, even superhuman, effort with the talents we were born with? Moreover, just like cosmetic surgery or tattooing, we see how quickly these ‘adjustments’ to our body can become addictive. And that smacks of allowing in other mental health issues.
3/ SECURITY RISKS AND OUR FREEDOM ARE AT STAKE
Then comes the sensitive question of who is behind these augmentations? How autonomous and safe will these machines within our body be? What is the business model for manufacturers and what would be the possible role of the State (oversight, tracking, taxation…). For example, will there be a way to control the instrument from the outside, like a Tesla car that can be updated remotely without wires. What will be the risk of a hacker or an evil element infiltrating it? And how will all this be regulated? We can already see how difficult it is for regulators and governments in the West to stay up to date with tech news.
Apart from the example of Estonia (in the west) and China (in the east), we know how much private data about our health remains a sensitive subject for populations in the west. How can we ensure that we will remain owners of our health? If we have a way to measure our heartbeat, stress level, or even our hormone levels, would we want to allow this data to be transmitted to our doctor, our employer, our insurer or even our government? I highlight the case of insurance systems that penalize people with pre-existing conditions. How to deal equitably with insurance premiums given all this potential data?
When we deploy tools and mechanisms that allow us to be more than we are, to be stronger, more beautiful, and younger, the underlying desire is to defy nature. Joël de Rosnay decried transhumanism — a philosophy or movement that seeks to strengthen and perpetuate man — as being a symptom of selfishness, narcissism, and elitism. How far are we to go? Who and how are we going to regulate these ‘augmentations’? How far do we want to increase our military capabilities with super-human men? At what age can we begin to increase (cf. the debate on gender identification)? Many unresolved quandaries that should be discussed before we blunderbuss into the flawless future.
The transformation of human beings into augmented humans presents concerns and challenges that we are far from mastering. When we see the complicated results of people who have gone through gender reassignment, we should ask ourselves the question: is it because we can that we should? Moreover, when we see the setbacks of the South African, Oscar Pistorius, and his athletic prowess with two prosthetic legs, who turns into a convicted murderer, we understand how difficult it is to comprehend everything going on in our heads. We cannot overlook the impact on our psyche of living in an augmented body. The denaturalization of our body through magic chips takes us away from our reality. Of course there are use cases that are great; but, should we allow people to perfectly edit our genes? What about the natural challenges of life: pain, risk, imperfection and death? Aren’t they an integral part of the human condition? Whether it’s against policing, surveillance and control of our bodies, or a reclaiming of our humanity, let’s be hyper-vigilant about the wish to augment us all. As de Rosnay says: let us first advocate hyper-humanism.