In August of 1998 Kevin Warwick put his body on the network1. A silicon chip was implanted in his left arm. This allowed a computer at the University of Reading to track him through the Department of cybernetics, where he teaches. Over the following days, the computer greeted him each time he arrived at the main entrance. It opened his lab door for him. It turned on the lights.
Warwick’s next experiment will test an implant’s ability to send signals between his nervous system and a computer –a radical step toward linking brain and machine directly. And after that? “The potential for humans, in our present physical form, is pretty limited,” says Warwick.
“The opportunity for me to become a cyborg2 is extremely exciting. I can’t wait to get on with it.”
“The future enters into us long before it happens”, the German poet Rilke once said. This is no longer a metaphor. The future is entering us. We eat genetically modified food. We receive implanted devices3. We develop artificial bone and skin for transplantation. We are creating retinal implants to restore vision in damaged eyes. Such “smart” devices can be networked to exchange information. A subcutaneous chip, for example, will be able to send your entire medical history to a doctor living far away.
50 years ago the word “cyborg” was science fiction. Today we believe that cyborgs will be possible within 50 years or that humans will have so many artificial parts as to be virtualIy indistinguishable from cyborgs. This raises some fundamental questions: at what point do you cease to be human? One quarter? One third? What part of us is irreplaceably human, such that if we changed it we would become a different kind of being? The brain? Above all: are some kinds of knowledge so terrible they simply should not be explored? The answers to these questions require the unlikely cooperation of three domains –technology, politics and ethics.
Sometimes the best intentions can lead to brutal outcomes. In a recent article, Bill Joy, a wellknown scientist, described advances in three fields: gene therapy can bring diseases like cancer under control, nanotechnology will enable the creation of new plant species or viruses, and robotics will make intelligent and self-replicating machines possible. These three technologies depend on the continued growth in computing power, but biological and quantum computers4 of 2040 will be a million times faster than today’s machines.
Engineers tend to associate history with progress. But “technology is evolving a thousand times faster than our ability to change our social institutions,” says Joy. Do we have confidence in our ability to keep technology away from destructive uses? Unlike 20th-century technologies, which required many resources, the new technologies will be “within the reach of individuals.” The dangers to the human species are all too imaginable.
Joy’s article was an instant sensation. Scientists took it seriously, especially those working on advanced weapons programs. This will be the great decision of the next decades. One way: every possibility is welcome, no matter how dangerous, because our species loves knowledge.
The other: we don’t want to be overcome by technology. As humans, we have a choice.
(From the press. Adapted)
1 network: xarxa / red2 cyborg: ciborg3 device: enginy, peça, accessori / dispositivo, accesorio4 quantum computer: ordinador quàntic / computador cuántico
Answer the following questions according to the information in the text Building a better human.
1. Say two reasons why the writer is suspicious of new technologies.
2. What is for the writer the most important question posed by the new technologies?
3. Mention three possible results of the new technologies.
• Gene therapy can bring diseases like cancer under control
• Nanotechnology will enable the creation of new plant species or viruses
• Robotics will make intelligent and self-replicating machines possible
• By 2040 biological and quantum computers will be a million times faster than today's machines4. Which of these summaries describes the text best?a) Self-replicating machines and new viruses are an intolerable risk. It does not matter how much enthusiasm Kevin Warwick and other scientists may put into their work. The greatest danger is that the new technologies will be at the disposal of individuals and small groups. As humans, we cannot acept the risk and need to take a radical decision.b) Cyborgs will only be possible in 50 years, but the future is already with us. K. Warwick is a pioneer of machine-body communication, but somehow we are all part of technological experimentation. The new technologies promise positive results but also raise questions and create dangers. We need to decide which way to go.
c) Bill Joy’s article has opened everybody’s eyes. With implants we risk losing our human identity. What percentage of them is needed to turn us into a different being? There are two ways to go. One is to welcome all technological advances. The other one is to stop them. It is a simple ethical question. We must take a decision.