Skip to main content

Good, Better, Best: The Human Quest for Enhancement

Human enhancement research and technologies offer many unprecedented opportunities and just as many unforeseen challenges to society’s view of human performance. This report is an effort to identify those opportunities and challenges as deliberations on human enhancement move forward.

Human enhancement (HE) is the concept of applying science and technologies to expand cognitive and physical human capacities. In some ways HE is a very familiar phenomenon utilizing common methods like surgical techniques and pharmaceuticals to accomplish control of human function. In others, emerging technologies offer individuals new ways to improve human function. Stem cell research, gene therapy, pharmaceuticals, cybernetics, prosthetics, nanotechnology, and computer science are just few of the technologies that may contribute to HE.

Not only are HE technologies diverse, the mechanisms driving HE development also vary. One major driver is the increasing convergence in HE related technologies. Technology convergence is a framework used to describe how a number of science and technology fields are developing rapidly and informing each other – further accelerating their development. Another HE driver is the global market place, where efforts to achieve economic superiority are in many ways a quest for technological superiority. An additional driver of HE development is the consumer, as reflected in the life style choices that create demand.

Although convergence, economic competition, and consumer demand push in the direction of rapid HE development, ethical, legal and policy concerns pull in the direction of a more cautious approach. Advances in HE should be weighed against the effort needed to develop mechanisms for assessing the quality and safety of HE products, to consider the ethical and social impacts, and to define public policy objectives and design appropriate regulatory structures.

This report examines some of the aforementioned forces at work in HE development. Examination of public opinion polls and discussions of human nature reveal that the U.S. public has a complex view of role of HE technologies. For example, polls indicate that personal interest in or aversion to using HE technologies depends on one’s perceived social status, and how HE would affect his/her competitive advantage. In addition to issues of equity and access, fundamental conceptions of what it means to be human underscore the arguments for and against HE. On one end of the spectrum, human nature includes a “natural” human instinct to improve oneself and develop technology. On the other end, it is through the “natural” human form that we perceive ourselves and others and experience the world. Thus, radical transformations in performance of the body risk undermining our identity and dignity as human beings. These polarized views are common to the HE debate and have made consensus building in the U.S. extremely difficult.

The report concludes with participant recommendations of next steps AAAS might consider in its role as an association committed to “advancing science, serving society.” Recommendations include: refining key terms the debate, facilitating discussion between stakeholders in the debate, developing HE technology forecasts, and providing input on potential policy guidelines for HE research, among others.