Enhancement – Has the focus moved from biotechnology to external devices?

I recently checked the publications section in the future of humanity institute, which has been knwon as a hotbed of the human enhancement debate. To my utter surprise there were extremely few articles on the topic listed for the last, say, five years. The activity of the institute seems to have been directed at AI-topics nearly exclusively. And this is just one example in the shift of attention.

Some authors have built a bridge between the topics of human enhancement and AI. The building material is the extended mind hypothesis, the thesis that extra-bodily hardware, our diverse gadgets and devices for example, can co-constitute our cognition or even our mind. This thesis has been discussed in some detail by José Hernández-Orallo and Karina Vold in an aaai paper called ‘AI Extenders: The Ethical and Societal Implications of Humans Cognitivley Extended by AI‘. Given that some of our gadgets can co-constitute our cognition and some of them run AI-based services, AI can co-constitute a part of our cognition, to put the core thesis in a nutshell. I have discussed the very same thesis in the beginning of this year in a conference in Berlin, which will be published early next year: Technology, Anthropology, and Dimensions of Responsibility.

However, I took the possibility of weirdly nested forms of cognition to be a significantly counterintuitive result of the extended mind thesis and its application to AI-based gadgets. Here is an example: You start a citizen-science project about the development of biodiversity in urban environments. The task of citizens will be to collect sample of local flora and fauna. In order to manage the project you use a project management AI and leave the selection of citizens and a major part of the communication to the system. The other day you find an invitation to take part in a cizizen science project about the development of biodiversity in urban environments in your mailbox. If you apply the extended mind hypothesis, you have engaged in an extended mind with you project management AI and the project management AI has then engaged in an extended mind with you (as a sample collecting citizen). That seems to imply that you are a part of the extended mind which extends your mind. To me this looks like a theoretical result one might want to avoid.

At the same time, the more successful cases of human performance enhancement seem to cluster around body-external technologies, be it computational tools or body support-systems like exosceletons, prosthetics, wearables etc. The current products in the biomedical route to human performance enhancement on the other hand seem to be either of limited efficiency (there are a number of studies of the effects by Repantis, Lieb, Ilieva and others), fraud with adverse effects, or (and this is an inclusive ‘or’) illegal. This might be one reason for a less enthusiastic debate about these types of enhancement (possibly with the exception of research into lifespan extension).

Enhancement and the virtues

Human enhancement – roughly: the use of biotechnological means to improve specific human functions beyond the normal healthy level – has in many publications been considered a danger to the character of its users. On the opposite, some authors claim, that human enhancement can support character development. I’m currently reading up on contributions to the literature, which go beyond general references to character or character traits by providing details, which traits exactly are in danger or might be improved.

As of now I have found much less literature than I would have hoped for. There is a detailed article by B. Fröding in Neuroethics and a complementing little book of hers. There are articles focusing on epistemic virtues in particular by Walsh. And then there is an extremely interesting book by Shannon Vallor, which however turns the question upside down: not: which character traits exactly can or should be targeted by enhancement, but which character traits should we develop in order to reasonably engage in enhancement.

Most other authors either concentrate on alleged general means functions such as increased memory or faster information processing if they want to show the valid goals of enhancement (e.g. Bostrom, Harris). Or they refer to such fairly unspecific traits as effort, discipline, refinement, which people might not be motivated to develop once they have the opportunity to enhance (e.g. Kass). Both might be valid points, but I would love to read more on the specific traits to be developed.

One reason, why this bothers me, is the discrepancy between the local ontologies – the ways to individuate traits – used by the different disciplines involved in the whole debate. In particular, many ethical arguments seem to work best, if one talks about potential support or obstacles to normatively relevant character traits, i.e. virtues. It is prima facie plausible that an increase in courage or kindness is a good thing, an obstacle to developing them a bad thing. On the other hand, it has advantages to describe possible targets of enhancement in the terminology of psychology or neurosciences. Not just, because this is the language, people who will (possibly) generate real options for enhancement speak. Also, because it avoids the normative load of the thicker terms, such as ‘virtue’. Nevertheless, this mismatch makes it hard to really put arguments into perspective, which warn against the dangers and those which highlight the potential of human enhancement.