Elon Musk's brain-chip startup Neuralink has received approval from an independent review board to begin recruitment for the first human trial of its brain implant for paralysis patients. With that, we have the next amazing development in a trend that has been ongoing for some time - transhumanism.
The company is seeking people with paralysis due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to test its experimental device in a six-year study. The initial goal is to enable participants to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone.
What Is Transhumanism?
Click around the web and you’ll find a few different sounding definitions of transhumanism that tip toe around the same concepts.
The definition I like the most is the one I found at CARM.org. They define transhumanism as “…the idea that human beings, as a whole, can be drastically improved in physical and mental areas with technologies, such as cloning, genetic modification, bionics, nanotechnology, drugs, etc.”
The concept reminds me of an old TV show called “The Six Million Dollar Man.” In the show, an astronaut crashes to Earth and scientists rebuild his body with bionic parts enabling him to run faster, see great distances and lift tons of weight.
If you have 3 minutes and 28 seconds to spare, check out the video clip below. It was one of my favorite childhood pleasures.
The Six Million Dollar Man was science fiction from the 1970’s. The progress of technology is such that implanting technology inside of our bodies is not just easy to imagine, but commonplace. I mean, what are pacemakers?
But pacemakers don’t give someone a competitive advantage in the workplace. What happens when the technology implanted inside someone does give them a competitive edge in the office? Would they be seen as the most qualified people as far as recruiters and hiring managers are concerned?
More Than A Six Million Dollar Question
If the answer to that last question is yes, how is that fair to all the other workers who don’t have that implanted technology? And if they discovered that they were at a disadvantage, how would they likely react? Well, I have a case study for you.
Oscar Pistorius could run a quarter mile in 45.07 seconds — fast enough to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games. What made it more impressive is that he did it without feet.
Oscar was born without the bones that attach ankles to knees, so the South African had to have his legs amputated halfway down his calves as a baby. Years later as an adult, Pistorius runs on specialized prosthetics: crescent blades made of carbon fiber that attach to his knees called “Cheetah Flex-Feet.”
As a double-amputee, Oscar holds world records for the 100, 200 and 400-meter dashes. In 2007, he began competing against — and beating — world-class, able-bodied athletes. But amid his incredible success, some of Pistorius’ opponents objected.
Here’s an excerpt from a 2012 article on Oscar Pistorious…
“Late in 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that [Oscar Pistorious’] artificial limbs were actually giving him an unfair advantage — that their springiness allowed him to push off the ground more efficiently than does a normal human ankle, letting him coast along at higher speeds using less exertion than other sprinters. [As a result] He was banned from able-bodied competition.
However, thanks to subsequent research and testimony led by biophysicist Hugh Herr, head of the Biomechatronics Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the IAAF overturned the previous ruling.”
In the near-future, arguments similar to this will be had at a workplace near you. Someone will have a perceived technological advantage and those without it will protest. In the end, whatever brings more profit to the company will win out (I’ve grown cynical in my old age).
Consider this, a number of car companies have their assembly line workers wearing exoskeletons which help them lift and hold car parts overhead. The exoskeletons reduce wear and tear on employee’s bodies.
As of August 2018, when I made this video, Ford alone had 15 factories in seven countries where employees wore exoskeleton vests to reduce fatigue and injury. What is the long term impact of this you might ask.
In the future, when it comes to hiring more assembly line workers for a car factory, experience with exoskeletons may be a requirement. If so, would someone with prosthetic limbs be the better hire?
A careful analysis of data proves that people with prosthetic limbs are cheaper for a company to insure because, in the event of an accident, artificial limbs are easily replaced.
As such, candidates with artificial limbs represent a lower risk to an enterprise than someone with natural, fully formed limbs. So, is it discrimination to hire those with artificial limbs or a logical business action based on data?
Where Are All The Human Jobs?
In 2017, scientists were using electro-ence-pha-lography (EEG) sensors to pick up and monitor brain activity. A company called Neurosky used that technology to take pictures and post them to Facebook and Twitter just by thinking about it.
Taking that into consideration, who is more qualified to be a Social Media Manager? A human with EEG brain implants who can post to social media at the speed of thought or someone without that technology implanted inside them?
Given advancements in AI and what it will be able to do without human intervention in the next 5-10 years, will embracing transhumanism be the only way for human beings to compete for jobs?
In a fast-paced political era and short news cycles, candidates with EEG brain implants who can keep up with the pace of AI may be preferred by companies seeking every competitive edge they can get.
At this stage, all of this is hypothetical, but not unrealistic. So it begs the question: Is it discrimination for companies to give preference to candidates with EEG brain implants over those without it?
In 2014, researchers from Harvard University were able to send a simple mental message from one person in India to another person in France, essentially proving “brain to brain” communication is possible.
When it comes to hiring programmers in the future, companies may prefer to hire programmers that can work telepathically because they are more efficient. As a result, candidates without telepathic implants that empower brain to brain communication may not be hired as much.
Is this a discriminatory practice or simply the most efficient way to work?
Is This Legal?
I’ve cited ethical challenges, what about the legal ones? I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but I have an idea of what will likely happen next.
- Violation of essential human rights: Transhumanist technologies, if not regulated properly, can lead to violations of essential human rights such as physical and mental integrity, freedom of thought and even life itself.
Some forward-thinking countries are already all over this. For example, on October 25, 2021, Chile passed a constitutional amendment to protect brain activity and information, becoming the first country in the world to legislate on "brain rights" or "neurorights." To quote Unesco: “The aim is to give personal brain data the same status as an organ, so that it cannot be bought or sold, trafficked or manipulated.”
- Shift in the scope of personhood: Transhumanism is strongly implicated in a shift in the scope of one's 'personhood'. This can lead to new legal challenges in defining and protecting the rights and responsibilities of individuals who have undergone aspects of transhumanism. Take for example, the “Six Million Dollar Man.” His legs, right arm, and left eye were all bionic and cost six million dollars in the 1970’s to modify.
Adjusted for inflation, that comes to $47,596,237.11 today. So, who owns the technology inside of Steve Austin’s body? Steve Austin or the U.S. government? If the U.S. government owns it then, who has the ultimate say over what Steve Austin can do with his body?
Now imagine that a company offers you gene therapy as a company benefit so you can have the designer baby of your dreams or neural implants for your parents so they can escape Alzheimer’s or some other disease. Who has the ultimate influence in those circumstances?
I could go on, but I’ve already given enough inspiration for a new season of Black Mirror. And that alone should give future companies reason enough to pause.
Yet, for those enterprises that will surely ignore the warnings, there are situations where transhumanism in the workplace could be a great thing. Transhumanist technologies, such as neurostimulation devices or cognitive enhancements, could potentially improve employee focus and increase the speed of acquiring new skills. This could lead to higher productivity and innovation in the workplace.
Augmented bodies and enhanced cognitive abilities could enable workers to perform tasks more efficiently, leading to better job performance and job satisfaction and the ability to compete with artificial intelligence.
The latter could be an important development in avoiding great social upheaval and greater wealth stratification that is going to come from AI’s increased role in the workplace.
And if nothing else, transhumanist technologies could create new job opportunities in fields such as bioengineering, data analysis and cybersecurity, which could help drive economic growth and innovation.
Let’s take a deep breath. The possibilities, good, bad and ugly, are enough to freak you out if you let it. Don’t let it.