How do you plug the internet directly into the human brain so the sum of internet knowledge can help us tackle everyday problems? It sounds like science fiction. But it was one of the strands of a serious conversation at an Annual Meeting of the New Champions discussion on “Enhanced Humans”.
That’s what I love about the World Economic Forum. Great minds come together for challenging conversations all with the single intent of improving the state of the world.
Unsurprisingly, the collective brains of the team went into overdrive on this topic. Science is already making a lot of progress in bioengineering, synthetic molecules, exo-skeletons. These and other spectacular advances hold the promise of proactively repairing human bodies damaged by disease, accident or conflict.
Aside from this “self-repairing” future, humans can already do amazing things. We can fly thanks to planes. We can speed across the surface of our planet at will thanks to the motor car. The knowledge to cope with just about any situation is instantly available to us via our smartphone. So in a way, we are already enhanced humans compared with the generations that came before us.
But, these devices can be used as options and require man-machine interfaces like joysticks, steering wheels and keypads. How do we do away with the interface and use machines to make the human intrinsically better?
That’s when we start talking about plugging the internet directly into the brain. We explored sending impressions directly on to our retinas, without the need for cumbersome screens and keyboards.
We imagined how, in a few years, such a connection could empower you in a business meeting or when you meet someone new that you desperately want to impress! You could adjust what you say and how you empathize with the other person based on social network profiles and other information collected in real time on the internet. Clearly the other person could be equipped with the same device. And so the outcome of the interaction could very well depend on who downloaded the latest and most efficient software upgrade.
This scenario generated a repulsed reaction from the team of Tech Pioneers assembled. They represented the very best of global, entrepreneurial innovation but all agreed on the danger of robbing us of our humanity.
So how can we make humans better without stealing humanity itself? It didn’t take long for the Pioneers to agree that advances in medicine that saved life or relieved pain was a good thing. However, performance-enhancing drugs, in the context of competitive sports, might not always be positive. There was the clear and present danger of a short-term trade of better performance for long-term poor health – not to mention the destruction of the level playing field. But what if that performance-enhancing drug allowed a surgeon to carry out longer and more complex interventions with a higher success rate?
So what if we were the executives of tomorrow’s drug regulator? How would we write the rules for what enhancements are authorized (and for what purpose) and which are forbidden? What criteria would we use? We agreed the first rule would ensure that enhancing the performance of one person is not detrimental to the freedom of another. But then some enhancement might be appropriate for some individuals but detrimental for a community, a society or the entire human race. Who can be certain that helping the human race live longer is a positive given the finite resources available to sustain a burgeoning, aged population?
The outcome of this debate will not be written into law immediately. But there is no doubt that the Forum does influence the future. The Tech Pioneers in our meeting today are likely to be part of the process tomorrow when innovators, stakeholders and regulators gather to tackle these issues “for real”. And then they will address these vital and complex subjects with “augmented wisdom”.
Jean-Marc Frangos is Managing Director of External Innovation, BT Group Plc, USA
Image: An illustration picture shows a projection of binary code on a man holding a laptop computer. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel