As I type this, I am suffering from a mysterious (and annoying) ache in the middle finger on my left hand. In the scientific Dark Age of 2015, ‘medicine’ can do little for me. “Take paracetamol,” cackle the NHS witch doctors. “Try to avoid typing.” How much better it would be for everyone if I could simply lop off this defective hand module and screw in a cybernetic one instead. Perhaps with a machine gun in it.
That’s the future being presented in not one, but two of 2015’s biggest triple-A releases: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. Put off seeing a doctor for another 25-50 years and if that athlete’s foot hasn’t cleared up a scientist will give you a whole new leg – and not just a placcy as-good-as replacement: a better, stronger leg. Why not get two? Or replace all your weak fleshy limbs as part of a package deal? Your only limit is your imagination. And your bank balance.
But how realistic is this consumerist view of our cyborg future? Fortunately, a tonne of really smart people have been writing about human enhancement for years. So let’s take a look at both the Mankind Divided Announcement and Black Ops 3 Ember trailers and see if we can’t disassemble them like the terrifying robotic constructs that they are.
The first half or so of the Blops 3 Ember teaser pulls a Human Revolution and leaves the series’ shooty-bang business alone, showing us instead a potted history of human enhancement. There’s Francis Collins, talking about the “first draft of the human book of life” (the completion of the Human Genome Project), then a snippet from Hugh Herr’s TED Talk about fixing disability using advanced prosthetics at 0:38. The latter has a particularly weepy ending which we won’t spoil for you, but involves a Boston marathon bombing victim making a tremendous on-stage appearance. Then we see footage of what looks like a girl’s first experience hearing with a cochlear implant. Note again that we’re 45 seconds into this Call of Duty trailer and absolutely no-one has been shot or fallen out of a helicopter.
Those first 45 seconds bring us up to speed on human enhancement as it stands today. From here, things start getting murkier. “If we undermine the morals that define us, what good is our beloved progress then?” an anonymous voice asks us, gravely, at 0:47.
It’s a question pinched straight out of mainstream bioethics and one that Treyarch further plays with in a promotional quiz you can take on the Blops website: how much can we change ourselves before we stop being ‘us’ at all? At what point does human enhancement stop making better people, and start replacing people with something else altogether?
The Treyarch quiz tallies up your answers and puts you on a spectrum between strongly against and strongly pro-augmentation. And while the quiz is quite brief, it’s a good representation of the polarising nature of the real-world debate.
On the one hand, making people ‘better’ (either in the sense of curing disease and fixing disability, or ‘improving’ already healthy people) seems like something that’s intuitively good. Human history is one of self-improvement: education, changes in diet, changes in healthcare provision – we change what it means to be human all the time. A longer life, with a sharper mind and a better memory, free from the threat of disability, Alzheimer’s and so on, seems like a natural progression of modern medicine – a point on the curve.
On the other hand, that curve is steepening exponentially. Technologies like brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), genetic screening of embryos for disease and disability and the current bioethical hot topic, making edits to the human genome, might advance us too quickly. The Ember trailer makes this point about sport – if we allow physical enhancements in competitive sport, what exactly are we celebrating when we hand out the medals? If you were that female athlete from the trailer, the fastest woman in history, standing on the podium on your bionic legs, would you feel proud? Or that you had cheated?
For another example, consider this woman from the Deus Ex: Human Revolution live-action trailer who has had her hands replaced with prosthetics:
“I play the piano a million times more than I ever played it. It’s easier, I’m enjoying it more, and that’s why everybody knows me.”
Here’s the question from another angle: if someone so enhanced themselves that they became the best pianist in the world, would you pay to see them in concert? At what point would that performance stop being like watching a pianist, and start being more like watching a jukebox?
But professional performers are a small subset of the population – what would enhancements mean for the rest of us? The Ember teaser predicts that enhancement culture will be driven by consumers. Want a fancy retinal chip? Pop down to the shops, says the trailer.
There’s an obvious concern here that’s touched on by both the Black Ops 3 and Mankind Divided trailers: if augmentations take off as consumer items, then it will be the rich in society who benefit from them first. That’s true of most technologies, but there’s a concern here that’s unique to enhancements: if a rich person can buy a brain chip to enhance aspects of their thinking, that’s another advantage he or she has over those in society who can’t afford the technology. Over time, that widens the gap between rich and poor, and creates vicious loop of rich people getting better and better while the poorer parts of society have to schlep along with their sagging human bodies and fallible human brains.
The Ember trailer tackles this with the line: “biotech market skyrockets as DNA upgrades and organ replacements become the new luxury”.
That’s a pretty bold claim. The idea that people will swap out healthy limbs for prosthetics seems like a stretch, if for nothing than the problem of obsolescence. Put it this way: remember that phone you got two years ago, and how awesomely cutting edge it was? The one that’s now in a drawer, or maybe mum’s handbag? No one’s going to want to be wandering around with a set of last-gen arms grafted onto their torso – nor are they likely to want extensive surgeries to replace them with the regularity of a mobile phone upgrade.
No one’s going to want to be wandering around with a set of last-gen arms grafted onto their torso
But robot arms look badass in video games, so let’s skip over this – the idea of enhancement becoming a luxury is much more interesting, anyway. How might this happen? The problem with banning a technology as seductive as enhancement, as many will want to, is that we know people are quite happy to break or circumvent the law if the stakes are high enough. In fact, we can already see it happening.
Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is the fancy term for looking at an embryo and checking it for markers of disease and disability before deciding whether to implant it into a mother so it can grow into a baby. It’s used pretty commonly now, to check for conditions like cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s.
But, it’s not an uncontroversial technology – deciding to scrap an embryo that might produce an unhealthy baby is vulnerable to the same pro-life arguments as more common abortions. Until recently, Europe was divided on the ethics of PGD – it was legal in the UK, for instance, but illegal in Germany. Why does this matter for Call of Duty’s future? Because what that sort of haphazard prohibition does is make rich people travel abroad to receive treatment while the poor have to lump it under their country’s laws. If that happens with human ‘upgrades’, then enhancement really does become a luxury, and the gap between rich and poor widens further.
But Deus Ex’s new subtitle isn’t ‘Europe Undecided’. What would human enhancement do to us on a global scale?
An obvious concern about enhancement on a global scale is that all the rich countries invent cool new, life-enriching technology and then hoard them all for themselves – no one who can’t afford clean water is going to be replacing their eyes with telescopes. But there’s another, subtler problem with enhancement technology at this level: we don’t all think about it in the same way.
In 1995, a large-scale study was conducted to find out how people around the world felt about, among other things, genetic enhancements. The result were as polarised as you could hope for. Summed up, while we’re relatively prudish about the idea in the west, countries like India, China and Thailand (in general) think it’s brilliant (relevant section: ‘Perceptions of Enhancement, paragraphs 1-3).
That’s the sort of disparity which, if the technology were to become widely available, might create in just one or two generations countries that were measurably smarter than others. This creates a kind of soft coercion: you might not want doctors tampering with little Jane or Johnny’s brain, but you also don’t want them to grow up stupid in a world that’s making itself smarter. So which do you choose? Your principles, or your child’s future? The Mankind Divided trailer shows augmented citizens being segregated by ‘normals’ because of their enhancements - but there’s an equally Dystopian scenario to be imagined the other way round.
So, time to load up on armour-piercing and dig in for the cyborg wars, right? Yes! Well, no, probably not. So long as different cultures see enhancement differently, it seems plausible that those that aren’t crazy about upgrading themselves will slowly be pushed into doing so anyway. But the only reason to make that a scary prospect is if you’re penning the script for an explosive hard sci-fi action game. Adam Jensen’s telescoping arm-spikes are cool, but actually, hearing implants are cooler. And bionic eyes for the blind. And BCIs that let paraplegics control robotic arms. And the end of that TED Talk.
Rich Wordsworth is, among other things, a postgraduate student in Bioethics and Society at King’s College London, researching human enhancement and bioterrorism. Between Deus Ex, Black Ops 3 and The Division, it’s been a good year for him so far.