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"We need to think of our bodies as works in progress"

"We need to think of our bodies as works in progress"

News: don't let fear mongers prevent the development of technologies that make the human body perform better and last longer, says a leading bio-ethicist.

A "conservative, dystopian version of the future" is holding back the development of cyborg technology and the genetic modification of humans, said Andy Miah, chair of ethics and emerging technologies and director of the Creative Futures Institute at the University of the West of Scotland.

Speaking at the Bye Bye Homo Sapiens symposium, hosted by Central Saint Martins department of Materials Futures, Miah compared the evolution of bio-tech to modern medicine where interventions like pacemakers have become an accepted norm.

"We need to think of our bodies as works in progress: as things which can benefit from bio-technological modification," he said.

"I would argue that our commitment to longevity in life commits us inevitably to human enhancement."

"We need to think of our bodies as works in progress"
Bio-ethicist Andy Miah talking at TEDxWarwick in 2013

Miah cited laser eye surgery as an example of a technology that was initially mistrusted but is now widely used to improve patient's eyesight.

Similarly, resistance to growing body parts from stem cells or using nanotechnology to introduce disease-fighting cells into the body needs to be overcome, said Miah.

Acceptance of bio-technology techniques will accelerate, he said, once people become accustomed to seeing how they can be used to improve patient's lives by design.

Discussions around human enhancement quickly become fraught and contentious, because "at the heart is the debate about what kind of life is worth living", he said.

"The concern is that there is a loss of self that we encounter by embracing the technology... Either through behaviours or through biological transgressions, people perceive a compromise of identity. The concern is that if we do this, we somehow lose some part of our humanity."

He pointed to the world of sports where doping scandals are rife, but athletes are already using technology to enhance their performance through their equipment and clothing. Improving the human body – or even opening the door to possibilities like cryogenic suspension  – is the next step.

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Miah has previously been involved in a UK government select committee on human enhancement technologies in sport.

His current undertakings include a major collaborative project on the ethics and politics of biomedical developments for human enhancement led by the Universities of Madrid and Granada.

"There's a tendency to characterise people interested in these forms of human enhancement as being somehow radical others: that they are transgressing the norms of humanity, that they are challenging the human species by advocating that we ought to move beyond it," said Miah.

"It's a red herring to believe that these desires to reinforce ourselves or to extend the upper limits of our capacities [are somehow transgressive]: whether that's the length of our life or the length of our limbs".

"Our concerns about biological transgressions are something that we will relegate to history in due course."