It’s a problem when philosophers of human enhancement follow the money

18 Aug 2022

Nootropics — drugs that purport to enhance cognitive functions — have come to the Amazon Marketplace. Claims made on behalf of some nootropics are likely to be exaggerated or are outright false. But there is scientific support for some of them as enhancers of human memory or powers of concentration.

The huge profits that could be made from commercialising increasingly powerful human enhancement technologies suggest that there is a dire need for the ethically unbiased analyses of those technologies by universities. (Massonstock / iStock / Getty Images)

Modafinil, a pharmaceutical licensed to treat narcolepsy, was in 2016 acclaimed as “the world’s first safe smart drug”. It’s certainly worth a look if you aspire to win the multiday World Series of Poker tournament in Paradise, Nevada.

The effects of today’s enhancers are modest. But the arrival of enhancement tech that works has attracted businesses with an eye to the future value of the market in human enhancement. One report published in June 2022 estimated a global value of nootropics in 2026 at US$6.61 billion. If you are a canny investor seeking advice about precisely which smart drugs to invest in, then you can purchase the full 175-page report for a price starting at US$4,000.

Nootropics are likely only the beginning. We are now able to edit genes that influence human cognitive abilities. In November 2018 the biophysicist He Jiankui announced the births of twin sisters as the world’s first gene edited humans. His stated purpose was to protect the twins against HIV, but then speculation emerged that the gene edit may also have cognitively enhanced them. There are also experiments being conducted on cybernetic brain implants and enhanced replacements for human body parts.

These suggest a future in which enhancement techs have the power to remake human nature. Now is the time, then, to be especially alert to the distorting effect of money on our ethical evaluation of enhancement tech.

Irrational exuberance over enhancement technology

There are no certainties in human enhancement tech. The Nobel Laureate economist Robert Shiller has written about an irrational exuberance when people “place too much confidence in the markets and have too strong a belief that paying attention to the gyrations in their investments will someday make them rich”. These days there are tech versions of Shiller’s irrational exuberance in which we place too much confidence in the pronouncements of charismatic tech leaders like Tesla’s Elon Musk. Even Musk’s falsified forecasts of the arrival of fully driverless cars seem to have little effect on the market value of his companies.

Philosophers of human enhancement shouldn’t succumb to a Wall Street epistemology in which we base our claims about the future on pitches of today’s most successful technology entrepreneurs. But we mustn’t be naïve about how the commercialisation of enhancement technologies can influence our ethical assessment of them.

The huge revenues that could come from commercialising increasingly powerful enhancement technologies suggest a dire need for the ethically unbiased analyses of the academy. But investment dollars in enhancement tech come at a time when budgets to university ethics programs are being slashed. There are signs that businesses seeking huge potential returns from enhancement techs that are proven safe and effective, are taking the opportunity to influence the rules for ethical evaluation.

The interactions between universities and business

I recently saw a pitch to collaborate with industry from an Australian public university that I shall not name. The university was doing exactly what it should be doing at this cash strapped time — seeking to collaborate with an industry partner. But notice how it tries to make the partnership appealing:

This unique collaboration will fast-track and adapt emerging technologies to preserve, prolong and enhance human function and address fundamental questions around adoption, ethics, and privacy. Industry driven projects from sectors that share the need to augment human function, such as aged and disability care, defence, mining and manufacturing, will deliver high-impact outputs to improve performance, health, and safety.

Talk of “fast-track[ing] ... emerging technologies” certainly works as a pitch to industry, notwithstanding the provisos about addressing “fundamental questions around adoption, ethics, and privacy”. But those who worry that mistakes will be made when it comes to the likely irreversible application of enhancement technologies to our natures should be concerned.

I don’t mean to gainsay the benefits that could come from the successful development of enhancement technologies. But if we have a serious interest in developing and applying enhancement tech to human beings, then we should be alert to the potential dangers when an impoverished academy must go cap-in-hand to companies developing tech that could have a powerful and irreversible effect on the human species.

This plea comes at a time of increasing awareness of the distorting effects of money on ethical evaluation. Its advocates present nuclear power as a safe and clean alternative to burning coal. Perhaps that’s true. But the 2022 documentary Meltdown describes how commercial interests recklessly hurried the clean-up of the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, damaging the American public’s trust in nuclear power. Avoiding a loss of trust in enhancement technologies requires an academy empowered to seriously evaluate them. With so much money at stake, it’s too easy to turn ethical gamekeepers into human enhancement poachers.

Nicholas Agar, Professor of Philosophy. His book “Dialogues on Human Enhancement” is forthcoming with Routledge.

This article was originally published on the ABC on Monday, 15 August 2022. Read the original article.

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