The Policy Challenges of The Techno-Human Condition

Today’s post is from Braden Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, and Professor of Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering, and of Law, at Arizona State University

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Remember the beginning of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey where, after appropriate exposure to a mysterious monolith, an ape begins to play with some bones?  At first, he’s simply an ape holding a bone; but then a fundamental change occurs: he begins to realize it’s not just a bone, it’s a weapon, a source of power that can crush skulls, and other animals.  In other words, the ape integrates with the artifact to create a technology, and in doing so, becomes the prototypic cyborg.

Yet techno-human enhancement is far from just a subject of fiction. It has become a policy question, a particularly daunting one in terms of its complexity.  We live in the Anthropocene (what many scientists are beginning to call our current geologic era – the age of humans) characterized by serious perturbations to biodiversity; the climate system; carbon and nitrogen cycles; and cultural, institutional, technological and economic systems.  There is very little in our intellectual, institutional, or social firmament that isn’t contingent to an unprecedented degree.  And the contingency that used to primarily involve the world outside humans is now firmly affecting the human itself.

Furthermore, thanks to nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, robotics, and applied cognitive science (the so-called Five Horsemen), change is occurring across the entire technological frontier.  It’s a dynamic process that calls for a dynamic response from society, its institutions and political systems.

So, naturally, our policy response to snowballing human enhancement has been appropriately sophisticated?  Well, no.  In admittedly over-general terms, there are essentially two policy frameworks.

One is what might be called the libertarian, free market framework: it’s my body, and I should be free to enhance as I want; the job of the government is to assure that the information on costs and benefits of various enhancement technologies is available so that the free market can work.

The problem with this approach is that it overlooks the fact that individual enhancements operate in a community.  If I am in a large class taking a critical exam, for example, and one student uses psychopharma, it won’t affect the grade curve, but if three-quarters of the test-takers enhance and I don’t, then I have suddenly become the new sub-normal.  Moreover, humans are not just bundles of characteristics that can be separately enhanced to everyone’s benefit; if Pol Pot or Hitler had used psychopharma that enabled them to stay awake and concentrate better for 20 out of every 24 hours, it would hardly have been a better world.

The social conservative position, on the other hand, is that human enhancement is dangerous to human “dignity,” and that a “yuck factor” should prevent any enhancement away from “human nature” (when the argument is being framed in religious terms, away from what God created, and intended).  This framing raises two fundamental issues as well.  First, as a factual matter, 2001 is right; humans seem to like to enhance.  Psychoactive materials, from caffeine to ethanol to modafinil and Ritalin, have always been popular, and the use of surgery to enhance perfectly healthy body parts from noses to breasts is popular around the world.  Kids in sports enhance; their parents take growth hormones in hopes of staying young; many people use non-human technology to stimulate their immune system (a.k.a. vaccines); and everyone googles, thus accessing a vastly more powerful memory than they are able to carry in their Cartesian selves.

These two frameworks, and their more subtle variants, fail for several basic reasons.  Most importantly, they misconstrue conditions as “problems,” and thus seek policy solutions that will solve a problem, rather than understanding that the challenge is to create policies that enable management of conditions over the long term, with the compromises necessary to living with a condition.  Additionally, they don’t work because they apply modes of thought appropriate for simple systems – the reductionism of the scientific method; the applied rationality of the Enlightenment; ideologies and worldviews that necessarily simplify a complex reality – to complex adaptive systems.  It is not that different perspectives aren’t important contributions to the policy process; it is that any single worldview or ideology that is internally coherent is necessarily partial at best in perceiving, explaining, and providing a basis for managing, a complex adaptive system.

There are a number of potential improvements to policy development and deployment that suggest themselves.  Most importantly, we need to get a lot better at creating flexible, adaptable psychological, institutional, and policy structures: when the future is unpredictable and contingent, the more fixed and rigid we are in an ever more rapidly changing environment, the more failure is built into the system.  Among other things, this means that whenever possible we should lower the amplitude and increase the frequency of policy development and deployment; policy dialogs should focus on incremental shifts, and such shifts should reflect what is being learned about the subject of the policy in real time.

We can learn from institutions such as leading global firms and successful militaries that have long recognized that they face a complex and unpredictable environment, and have developed a number of tools such as structured games and scenario exercises to help them understand and adapt appropriately.  The US EPA, for example, and local and state governments, should become just as adept as the US Department of Defense at using games to explore potential futures.  If nothing else, such activities help develop “social option spaces” – a portfolio of possible institutional and policy responses that provide flexibility in the face of the unknown.

It is not, then, that the challenges of the techno-human condition are beyond us, even now, or that we cannot develop the capacity to respond ethically, responsibly, and rationally to them.  But the inadequacy of current institutional and policy trajectories is clear, as is the concomitant need for a serious rethink of policy development and deployment.

Guest author

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