Better Together: Amplifying Human Potential with Tech Tools

4 min read

We worry about technology getting too advanced and out of control, maybe taking our jobs or even taking over the world, but we forget that as individuals and as a species, we are also advancing. Technology is not the only thing that is improving and changing, we are too.

Think of yourself as an information processor. As individuals, we sense information, process it, and then act. [1] For instance, if you see that the hallway is dark, you might decide to turn on the light. Your actions change the information coming to your senses—now you see that the hallway is light and you move forward until you see something that requires a new action—and the loop continues. This is called a closed-loop system.

We can improve human performance anywhere along the continuum of this closed-loop system by amplifying the information to our senses, boosting our cognitive processing, or improving our ability to act. This is called human enhancement.

In 2018, I chaired the World Economic Forum’s Global Futures Council on Human Enhancement and we issued a report in conjunction with the AARP. [2] The AARP worked with the University of Chicago to survey a representative sample of 2,025 Americans aged 18 and up. First, the survey defined human enhancement as “technologies that enhance certain aspects of human performance with the aim of improving quality of life at all ages and stages of life.” Once the definition of human enhancement was explained, participants were then asked to consider existing technologies that already do this, such as pacemakers, medications, prosthetics, and joint replacements. Next, they were asked to think about enhancement technologies a little differently. The survey presented a framework, which places enhancement technologies on a continuum (see figure below). At one end is therapeutic use, for restoring what we’d consider normal ability. At the other end is technology that enhances ability far beyond what is considered normal.

C. Lathan

Continuum of Human Enhancement Technologies

Source: C. Lathan

We wanted to know what they’d consider an appropriate level of human enhancement for various situations including three that parallel the model of the human as an information processor: vision enhancements to improve sensory information; cognitive enhancements for processing information, including medications and implantable devices; and joint replacements for acting on information.

For the two physical health–related issues, vision and joint problems, there was almost universal agreement (over 95 percent) that enhancements are appropriate for restoring what we’d consider normal function or preventing loss of function. Interestingly, fewer respondents (88 percent) supported enhancements to improve therapeutic cognitive function.

In contrast, far fewer respondents supported enhancements where no need is evident or where they would go beyond what is considered normal human capabilities. Support for joint replacements dropped to 33 percent. Support for cognitive enhancements was close to that, with 35 percent supporting cognitive medication and 31 percent supporting cognitive implants. There was a bit more support for vision enhancements—44 percent thought those were fine even beyond normal therapeutic levels.

Interestingly, despite this generally low support for enhancements beyond normal, when asked if they were interested in human enhancement technologies to improve their own cognitive abilities beyond normal, 43 percent approved of a medication that could provide that—almost 10 percent more than had approved of it for others.

In the five years since this study was published, a range of products have come on the market that essentially give us superhuman abilities. For example, advanced acoustic filters are regularly being applied to consumer earbuds to enhance our hearing and listening experience [4], and micro-LEDs are being developed that will allow us to have enhanced vision with displays embedded into contact lenses [5]. Wearable orthotics are being used not only to restore physical ability but also to enhance the ability to reduce things like workplace injury [6]. And finally, efforts to improve our cognition already include non-invasive biofeedback methods, neurostimulation, pharmaceuticals, supplements, and even the potential for neural implants. [7]

If these trends continue, our future is as a species of human cyborgs. Our performance will likely surpass the performance of any technology as the capabilities of humans plus technology will always be greater than either alone.

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