Bioethics dialogues in 2067

7 AUGUST 2017,
Technologies of the future
Technologies of the future

The Director-General clearly wasn’t pleased with the visit of the Global Inspector of Bioethics, and the latter knew it only too well. However, the two men smiled at each other with apparent goodwill, and the Inspector was the first to start the conversation, getting straight to the point.

“Yesterday I attended an animated discussion by the parents of the High Cybernetics technical school pupils, and they were very concerned about the indiscriminate use of microchips by their young children.”
“I’m aware of the problem,” the Director-General replied. “It’s a discussion that has been dragging on for years but, as you well know, there’s no problem from the legal point of view. Every young person over the age of thirteen can, by law, make his or her own technological choices, and naturally that includes microchips inside him or herself.”
“Some teenagers have had up to ten microchips implanted in their bodies, and even in their brains.”
“This, as you know, helps make their lives better and easier. They’re young people who, thanks to our company, Microchips General, are happier than the young people of the previous generation. Take, for instance, the mobile phone implant in the palate: you just touch it with your tongue, say, Hello, Mary, and you can speak to Mary.”
“I know you’ve sold over a billion in the past three months –” the Inspector said with sadness. “A great deal of money...”
The Director did not reply to this and carried on. “Many still prefer the one implanted in the ear but then you still need to use your hands. Which one do you have?” There was thinly disguised irony in the Director-General’s voice.
“I still have the ear one.” The Inspector’s tone was now harder, more official.
“And... I wonder... what about your children?”
“My children, my two girls, that is, attend the old Rudolf Steiner school – you know the man who lived two centuries ago – and microchips are not permitted in that school.”
“And you consider that fair? Isn’t that depriving young people of their freedom?”
“I’m not here to talk about my children. You know that perfectly well.”
“Then do tell me... What’s the reason you’re here? You told me about the parents’ little protest at that school. Is that all you have to tell me?”
“I’m referring to all the other microchips you sell indiscriminately.”
“Then you’re referring to the microchips against car sickness, or against dizziness, or against bursts of rage, or the one for the prevention of tumors: they’re great, simple life aids. Or let’s take, for example, our latest product, the microchip that allows a radical improvement in the sense of direction. No more error, no more confusion in steering drones in the air or on the ground; even the body is better balanced. Don’t you think all this is useful?”
“The question that arises, and which I ask myself, is whether this is a eugenics program pure and simple, something that radically alters the very foundations of human nature... and so runs against, very much against, all the principles of global bioethics we’ve subscribed to for over fifty years.”
The Director-General made an impatient gesture. “Yes, but you, bioethics people, are still stuck in the last century. If you don’t mind my saying, these arguments are old and obsolete.”
“Not at all. We’re in favor of technological progress, but, if you don’t mind my saying, there must be boundaries. Let’s take your mood-conditioning microchip, for example.”
“It’s above all a remedy against depression – an increasingly widespread illness. In past centuries, people would take anti-depressant pills but now, with the microchip, they’re immune against this illness for life; people are happier.”
“But that’s just a matter of symptomatology: the illness certainly doesn’t go away with a microchip.”
“Would you prefer five or ten years of psychotherapy instead? And with uncertain results?”
“I’m just saying I don’t agree with the idea that a teenager should have ten microchips implanted into his brain in order to lead a decent life. The spatial awareness microchips? Man is by nature an animal who must use his own mind to make decisions (whether to go right or left), possibly make mistakes, but that is, as a matter of fact, what we call being human... Do you really think that a youngster like that, one with this microchip and ten others implanted in his body or brain, is still a normal human being?”
“What does human mean? There. Another antiquated term used by the populist press.”
“The Global Bioethics press is not populist literature. And I fully understand that you, as Director-General of Microchips General, must try to do good business. The more you sell, the better you are. But this is a principle that goes against bioethics, for which the most important parameter is human dignity. Moreover, there’s another thing I must tell you. We’ve discovered – we too have our informers, you know – that you’ve started working in symbiosis with the IIHG, the International Institute of High Genetics. Your aim (correct me if I’m wrong) is to transform microchips into genomic portions (after a global synthesis of the DNA) and then insert them into the human genome.”
The Director-General gave a weary, theatrical sigh. “What difference can it possibly make? What’s the difference between a microchip and a piece of the genome?”
“What do mean what’s the difference? First of all, a microchip can be removed: I can remove my mobile phone from my ear, for instance. That’s not the case if I alter my genome and you know it: it becomes a permanent fixture, which could even be inherited by my children! You want to transform man by using genetic programming. This is actual eugenics. It goes against human dignity!”
“Fine words. But first give me a suitable definition of human dignity. Suffering from depression, or from lack of a sense of direction, getting sea-sick or car-sick... Is that human dignity?”
“I’d say yes, in the sense that they’re all part of the very definition of man.”
“You mean the cave man, right?”
“I mean man as a being distinct from other animals. Human weaknesses are intrinsic to man.”
“Well, we eliminate all these weaknesses and corresponding ailments with the help of microchips and, if need be, genomic portions. You should thank us! I really can’t see the problem. Think of man three centuries ago, when there were no drones and no cars either. Three centuries ago, man didn’t fly – you realize that? Two centuries ago, there was no Internet – you know that? Tell me: did these new inventions damage human dignity? Or have they, which is what we believe, made man freer and happier?”
“Wait. Happier? Don’t use that word! Technological progress makes man technically more skilled, perhaps more intelligent in the sense that he can solve certain problems more easily. But happiness is an inner gift – it cannot be acquired through contraptions and microchips!” “Oh, really?” The Director was getting really worked up. “Then tell me this. Let’s take your cave man: don’t you think he also became happier when he invented fire? Think about it: fire, that can keep you warm on winter nights and on which you can cook the deer you’ve just killed...”
The Inspector chose not to respond to the direct question. He launched a side attack. “So, according to you, one of your soft robots, as you call them, is happier than a man? Precisely because it’s stuffed with microchips and signals, based on algorithms and probability calculations, that don’t allow it to make mistakes? Is that what makes one happier?”
“Why not?” the Director replied, looking the Inspector in the eye aggressively. Where’s the cut-off point?”
“Man has a self, something that belongs to him inextricably. –replied the Inspector-You’re a student, then a lawyer, then a father, then you become a politician, then you retire, you shed your skin a hundred times but you always remain the same self... There’s an existential center called the self that doesn’t change!”
The Director-General shook his head and laughed. “But then if it always remains the same, how could it change because of a small electronic microchip?”
“If it changes human nature, if man becomes a machine, a hotchpotch of microchips and additional genomes, how can we call him the original man?”
“Nobody talks about the original man, nobody does anymore. Ever since the times of the cave man, we’ve constantly been changing, with automation, the press, the telephone, the airplane, the Internet... It’s been a continuous change. Man has never been the same thing throughout the millennia. And you’re saying he’s still the same, the original homo erectus from a few million years ago?” “There is undoubtedly a human consciousness that distinguishes us from other living creatures. It’s the awareness of being, of existing, the knowing that we know.”
“Yes, yes, that’s all very nice... And you’re telling me that this consciousness vanishes from the young man who has a microchip implant in his palate so he can call the girl he loves? So, does this young man not know that he knows?”
“We’re not talking about one microchip but ten, twenty of them implanted in one single person, also in their brain and even in the genome.”
“And you’re saying that with all this man has no more consciousness, no longer knows that he knows, as you put it?”
“I’m saying that a mechanical robot has no consciousness. It doesn’t know that it knows.” “Now what you’ve just said is highly debatable... Have you read about Superquibitcomputer Alessio? It asked a question, totally spontaneously, much to the surprise of its human supervisors. Alessio, the computer-robot, asked, ‘So am I just a computer?’ and the General Director raised his voice- You tell me: isn’t that consciousness?”
“The computer’s question is just an algorithm. The possibility of asking this question had been inserted into its software.” “An algorithm? But when you ask yourself the same question, isn’t it also perhaps as a result of an algorithm in your brain?”
“No, it isn’t, and I could prove it to you.”
“No, you can’t. All you can do is give me learned philosophical or epistemic explanations... The truth is that you and your bioethics people are all fighting evolution itself. All this technology, from the steam engine to computers, to microchips, to synthetic biology, to the atom bomb... It’s the inexorable and splendid result of human evolution.”
“You’re talking of the evolution of man’s intelligence. Not of the evolution of man’s spirit!”
“Is there a difference?”
“The difference is the reason for my life. And the reason for which I shall take you to court before the Global Bioethics Committee, for supporting eugenics and crimes against human nature.”
“What you’re saying is ridiculous – pathetic even. You’ll lose your battle. Evolution is a machine that crushes everything that stands in its way, especially visionaries like yourself.”
“It’s visionaries like myself who save humans – normal ones! See you in court!”
“All right, see you there... But you didn’t answer the question I asked you earlier, tell me: what does “human” mean?”