Information from the Human Enhancement & Nanotechnology Conference

The Human Enhancement & Nanotechnology Conference was at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo on March 28-29, 2009. The conference is organized by the Ethics and Emerging Technologies which is headed by Patrick Lin at California State Polytechnic University. There were about fifty folks here at the conference.

Nicole Hassoun, an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. Her talk was “Nanotechnology, Enhancement, and Human Nature,”. Here discussion centered around eco-aesthetics and environmental ethics. Neither eco-aesthetics and environmental ethics tell us much about permissible or impermissible enhancements.

Ron Sandler, a professor of philosophy at Northeastern University, focused on whether human enhancement technologies are likely to impair social justice. His conclusion boils down to making access to enhancements more equal.

Daniel Moore, who works on nano-applications to semiconductors for IBM and has done work on nano-neural scaffolding at MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, spoke on military applications of enhancement. He started by describing the enhancing technologies of the last three thousand years, from spear, shields, swords and armor. His argument was that there was a continuity from these enhancements to those being explored by military research today. He distinguished between civilizational vs. individual technologies, defensive vs. offensive, permanent vs. temporary, and internal vs. external. A temporary external nano-enhancement would be better armor, for instance, while a chip in the head would be a permanent internal nano-enhancement. Some of the problems being addressed with nano-enhancement include carrying heavy loads, non-lethal crowd control, stamina under stress and sleeplessness, and surviving battlefield wounds. Ubiquitous nano-sensors in the battlefield and internal medical sensors can increase command and control, and allow remout triggers of nano-therapies in wounded soldiers.

The Human Enhancement & Nanotechnology conference site has abstracts of the talks.

Colin Allen: Goggles vs. Implants: Why Cognitive Nanoethics Just Ain’t in the Head

For under $5,000 one can already purchase a computer the size of a cigarette pack that is 10-15 times more powerful than the average desktop machine and can be worn on one’s belt. When combined with a heads-up VR display, these systems are being used to serve up a virtually-enhanced reality — a capability that the U.S. military is already developing in order to train soldiers by blending virtual combatants into real physical environments. Networks of these wearable supercomputers will enhance humans in ways that we can barely imagine, and nanoscale computing will further extend the possibilities for enhancing ordinary sensory input with computer-mediated and computer-generated information. Because these augmented reality devices use (at least three of) the familiar five senses, they don’t depend on the development of new neural-technological interfaces that are required by implants. Implants will continue to be developed, especially for people whose medical conditions mean that standard sensory routes are impaired. But because of the technological hurdles facing neural implants I surmise that goggles will deliver nanocomputer-based cognitive enhancements to most humans sooner than implants. Although the idea of embedding nanocomputers into our bodies has captured the imaginations of many futurists and nanoethicists, I will suggest that the actual issues for cognitive nanoethics may be somewhat different from what they’ve imagined.

Tee Toth-Fejel
Nanotechnology and Productive Nanosystems for the U.S. Military: Progress and Implications

A survey of recent and ongoing nanoscale research at government defense contractors shows continual improvements that will lead to high-performance equipment for warfighters. Continued progress in nanoscale structures, devices, machines, and systems will lead to Productive Systems, and this direction is most notable in DARPA’s Tip-Based Nanofabrication program. Defense-oriented research in nanotechnology, while currently aimed at clothing and other external gear, will eventually end up inside the bodies of warfighters, with a wide variety of implications. The ethical evaluation of these implications depends on non-provable assumptions about reality, and the most important relevant issues have been discussed by philosophers for millennia: the nature of the human person and the ethics of war.