Special Report

What is Human Enhancement, and why is it good for our society?

by Lifeboat Foundation Advisory Board member Guido Putignano.

It was one day like the others when Walter Yeo was born on October 20, 1890. He was a young guy who used to spend his days with his older sisters Adelaide and Elsie. When he was 12, he joined the marine navy until 1916 when during the battle of Jutland he sustained terrible facial injuries. After going to the hospital, he was treated by Sir Harold Gillies, the first man to transfer skin from undamaged areas on the body. After this event, Walter Yeo became the first person to benefit from advanced plastic surgery and was one of the first enhanced people.



But, what is Human Enhancement?

According to Wikipedia, we could define Human Enhancement as the natural, artificial, or technological alteration of the human body to enhance physical or mental capabilities. If someone wants to have a new face, like what happened with Walter Yeo, now you can.

The main difference between an enhancement and a therapy is that an enhancement has the aim to be there forever unlike a temporary therapy.

To understand the reason why Human Enhancement is going to become more and more important, we should consider what happened in the past.

During The Fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt, almost 5000 years ago, Egyptians used to think about themselves as the best society because they used to measure progress by thinking about the number and the dimension of their pyramids. It was the same with Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan with the dimensions of their empires.

In a broader sense, we tend to do the same with money, that’s why Forbes lists are considered important — people want to be inside that list to think about themselves as successful people.



What happened in the past also happens now. The main difference is that we find different ways to evaluate what progress means for us. From the birth of the internet, people started creating different groups to find people who are like them.

Jono Bacon is one of the most famous community managers in the world.

In his book, People Powered, he identifies 5 main reasons why communities are becoming more and more important:

  1. Access to a growing, globally-connected audience
  2. Cheap commodity tools for providing access
  3. Immediate delivery of broad information and expertise
  4. Diversified methods of online collaboration
  5. A growing desire for meaningful connected work

All those factors make people join communities and make people meet with others like them.

Communities have also been present in the transhumanistic world including Humanity+ which was originally called the World Transhumanist Association when it was founded in 1998 by Nick Bostrom and David Pearce. Their aim was that any technology to enhance humans will be available to anyone, without any differences, in a short period of time.

In other words, humanity is not the end of evolution in our current form, and we, as humans, can take part in the intelligence recreation of ourselves by taking advantage of technology. We can be more robust, happier, we can eliminate negative emotions, and we can even eliminate all diseases and fight death.


Human Enhancement Today

According to a study made by the European Parliament, the umbrella term “Human Enhancement” refers to a wide range of existing, emerging, and visionary technologies, including pharmaceutical products: neuro implants that provide replacement sight or other artificial senses, drugs that boost brain power, human germline engineering and existing reproductive technologies, nutritional supplements, new brain stimulation technologies to alleviate suffering and control mood, gene doping in sports, cosmetic surgery, growth hormones for children of short stature, anti-aging medication, and highly sophisticated prosthetic applications that may provide specialized sensory input or mechanical output. All these technologies signal the blurring of boundaries between restorative therapy and interventions that aim to bring about improvements extending beyond such therapy.

Much of those technologies are pretty new, and their side effects may be more evident than their benefits but, if we have to think about the long-term, side effects will be less and less evident, and benefits will be more and more present. An example of this is Ritalin, a nervous system stimulant that may cause nervousness, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, weight loss, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or headache and some studies show that it does not have significant benefits with healthy people.

It is this way because some products such as Ritalin are designed to cure diseases of people that have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder whose brain works in a different way than what we generally call “normal people”. For example, when precision medicine is more advanced we should be able to achieve higher performance with fewer side effects and more benefits. In general, thanks to these techniques, we will be able to boost well-being.



Generally, well-being is often reduced to economic indices, but, in reality, it goes beyond the idea of money once primary needs have been met. The theory of self-determination divides well-being into three parts:

  1. autonomy — the ability to make one’s own decisions;
  2. competence — the capacity to act and contribute to society;
  3. social relations — the network of relationships that we can count on.

As Julian Savulescu, professor at the Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University, says: “We probed the individual and collective impact of human augmentation technologies based on these three components, the aim being to alert governments to the possible abuses involved in the unrestricted use of these scientific advances.”

This situation has many implications in everyday lives.


Enhancement technologies will change how people work

Work will evolve over the next decade, with enhancement technologies potentially making a significant contribution. The widespread use of enhancements will influence an individual’s ability to learn or perform tasks and, perhaps, even to enter a profession.

Enhancement could be used to influence motivation; enable people to work in more extreme conditions or into old age, reduce work-related illness, or facilitate earlier return to work after illness.

Now, if you are a professional aircraft pilot, you should have optimal sight and can now get LASIK surgery to solve this problem. This surgery is so popular that even people that can see perfectly undergo LASIK surgeries to see even better.

Let’s imagine, instead, that a worker asks you to take a pill two times a day to stimulate some areas of your cerebral cortex to work in a better and faster way. Would you do that? Would anybody do that? What is the difference between this example and the previous one?

One of the most common questions people ask is: “Why should we enhance themselves? Aren’t we already good like we are?”

To answer this question, we should consider three main points.


Status Quo Bias

Back in 1988, two scholars, William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser found that people show a disproportionate preference for choices that maintain the status quo. This condition is called “status quo bias” to indicate the tendency of people to prefer things as they already are without thinking about how they should be. From this bias comes some sentences such as “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”

This is also why so many people are just not ambitious enough, but they are ok with what they already have. It is not a decision but it is a bias that should be cured.

This bias comes from years and years of evolution in which novelty was generally a negative feature to avoid. Now, it isn’t anymore and we need to adapt.

The second point is that compared to 100 years ago, we are far more educated than we were. If an average 30-year-old guy from that time was transported to our era, we would look down on him since he likely couldn’t read or write which would make him quite unenhanced. (The worldwide literacy rate was around 20% at the time.)

If an average 30-year-old guy of today went 100 years in the future, he would be so primitive compared to our future selves that he may be considered as we consider dogs today. (But would not be as cute!)

Enhancement is accelerating and is going incredibly faster with different features and possibilities.

The last is what we could call “Loss of Potential”. Imagine that a man dies of cancer at age 30 — we would say that he should have been able to live another 70 years and so this is a terrible loss.

Let’s imagine now if a woman died at age 80; we would say that we are happy that she lived so long. But if we had found a way to make her live until 180 (without losing any of her physical or intellectual capabilities), we would have said that this death was also a terrible loss.

When I was younger and less ambitious, I would have desired to donate my life to make Einstein alive, even for just 10 years.

Let’s imagine how the world would have been different from now if the brightest minds of our histories would have lived even 10 years more. Einstein would have probably have found the theory of everything (that we don’t know, yet). Picasso would have started a completely new artistic era. Asimov would have written hundreds of other fantastic papers, and Sigmund Freud would have written more of his theories (hoping for more scientific ones at that age).

In the field of Longevity, progress is being made. We are starting to think about aging not as something familiar but as something we can cure, and then change.

David Wood has been one the members of the Board of Directors at Humanity+, already mentioned before, and he wrote a book about “The Death of the Death” (Literally la Muerte de la Muerte”) Where he analyzes all the ways people are going to fight aging. It is really similar to another book “The Abolition of Aging”. Apart from him, there are thousands of other amazing people who are dramatically changing how we think about aging.

The Forever Healthy Foundation, for example, has the mission to enable people to vastly extend their healthy lifespan. Apart from making papers and organizing international events, they also promote some of the most important companies in this field. One of those is Elevian, a Harvard spinout developing therapeutics to stimulate regenerative capacity, the body’s ability to repair itself, that declines as we age.


3 main points on why people tend to be against Human Enhancement

The first point is because of religious reasons. Religion itself is not the problem; it is just one part of the culture.

With Christianism and secularized Western traditions, people tend not to accept Human Enhancement because they think they think they are already like God, what is called “imago Dei”, in other words, the image of God. If God is perfect, why should someone aim to be better than him? Buddhism, instead, is extremely different because there isn’t a Creator.

In LaFleur’s view: “Reasons for prudence may have other, even better, bases than assumptions made about limits with a divine origin”. In other words, the analysis of desire is at the heart of all Buddhist reflections on Human Enhancement.

It is the same also with Confucianism, too, where the negative impacts of limitless desires on society constitute a major ethnopolitical concern. In any case, the solution to any problem, can’t be found in a belief or inside us, it should be found outside us. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “many people look for meaning in life [but] you have the power to create meaning in your life rather than passively look for it”. Personally, I think It is the same also with ethics, you can understand what you really want, just acting and acquiring experience without passively listening to what others have already decided for us.

The second point is that not everyone could afford Human Enhancement.

If Human Enhancement was only for the rich this would increase the inequality between rich and poor. The truth is that any technology is just for the rich, first. But the more a technology is mature, the cheaper it is. The main focus should be on how fast will it become available to anybody.

With exponential technologies, prices quickly fall. One example is CRISPR/Cas9 that you can buy for $169.00. What once was a luxury item is now affordable to the middle class.

A solution to this problem could be spreading out the payments for an item over time. Generally, it’s what happened with mobile phones, before they were just for the rich but after a while they became available to anybody. We are going to reach what can be called “Sustainable Super Abundance”, a future in which anybody can benefit from technology.

The last point is that when a person can enhance herself so much that we can’t consider her human anymore, what should we do? Should we allow that to happen?

In Bioethics, there is a considerable distinction between a living organism, a human, and a person.

A living organism is an entity that embodies the properties of life (homeostasis, organization, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimuli, and reproduction).

A Human Being is what Carl von Linné, also known as Carl Linnaeus, called Homo Sapiens.

A person, instead, is a living organism that has the same status as us. For example, if I kill a man, I am punished for murder while if I kill a cow that is owned by someone else then I am just punished for theft of property.

When a person can be enhanced so much, should she have more benefits, the same amount of benefits, or fewer benefits (like what happens with taxes)?

The problem here is that we are touching on the very essence of humankind, and we have still to understand what will it mean to be a person. Everything that I have said about Human Enhancement can have a reason to exist only when we change our mindset.


Abundance and Cooperation

The latest century has always been characterized by a mindset of scarcity and competition where not everyone becomes rich. We need to focus more on collaborating to achieve a common objective, with a mindset of abundance and cooperation to achieve co-creation. Human Enhancement, in other words, should mostly be considered as positive when there is not only a personal benefit, but when there is also a social one.

Let’s examine, for example, the situation of an Olympic game. If one athlete wins by taking a beta-blocker, that merely transfers the benefit to the athlete using the beta-blocker from some non-using athletes. In this case, the athlete wins just because she has a concrete advantage that others don’t have. The use of the beta-blocker may seem like it is a large benefit to the individual user, but it creates a zero total benefit to the set of all people. If the other athletes respond by also taking beta-blockers, as they are likely to do if it became permissible, then all the athletes will have their accuracy improved similarly. and the beta-blockers are unlikely to alter who wins.

If so, then beta-blocker usage will provide not only zero total benefits to all athletes, but zero individual benefits to each athlete as well. Each athlete nonetheless will have incentives to take the beta blocker because the individual athlete considers only whether the benefits they personally experience from their own individual usage decision outweigh the health risks and costs to themselves. The collective result is that athletes suffer health risks and costs in return for zero total and perhaps zero individual benefits. Those health risks and costs may not be large. But suffering for zero benefits is something we should want to avoid.

In other words, the problem here is that in the case of competition, Human Enhancement should be avoided in the majority of the cases.

In classical music, by contrast, the benefits are not merely personal, but they are also transferred to the other musicians. In other words, musicians’ motivation for taking the beta-blocker is not only to improve their performance, but is also to improve their general performance. Beta-blocker usage, therefore, also creates a powerful absolute benefit, even if all musicians use them.

The group that benefits, in this case, is the audience that can have a higher quality experience. We thus can’t (and mustn’t) prevent the usage of beta-blockers by classical musicians.

When we have to consider Human Enhancement in a broader scale, the possibility to take a pill and to become more intelligent or to genetically engineer some parts of the body could not only reflect a personal benefit (such as having higher scores in a test or walking faster), but it may also have transferred benefits (such as having more patents in one year or spending fewer taxes to sustain people in difficulty).

Perhaps the future enhanced people will be able to influence even the new Marvel films and make those films (about enhanced people) better!