Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Make Way for the Super Humans - Michael Bess ****

There have been plenty of books about human enhancement - the pros, cons and possibilities - so Make Way for the Super Humans (Our Grandchildren Redesigned in the US) needed to do something quite different, and I am pleased to say that it does.

The opening section is fairly standard fare, describing the basic possibilities for pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics and genetics/epigenetics to change the nature of humans and human life, plus a bonus chapter on what Michael Bess refers to as 'wild cards': nanotechnology, AI, robotics and synthetic biology. The most original part of this section is that Bess attempts to give some structure to the concept of futurology, splitting predictions into long structural processes, short structural processes and conjectural processes. He rightly points out the difficulties of getting it right with technology prediction. Look, for instance, at how far out the movie 2001 was, despite every effort being made to get it right. For that matter, I remember being at the launch of Windows 95: when I asked Microsoft why there was nothing about the internet in their presentation, they said 'that isn't going to be commercially significant.'

Despite making it clear just how difficult futurology is to get right, Bess does fall into the trap of assuming that when someone did get it right, there was a reason for it, where in reality it was far more likely they just got lucky. It's like trying to understand why some people choose the right numbers to win the lottery. So even with this clever analysis, I can say fairly confidently that a lot we read here will simply not happen - it will be different in a way that we can't currently predict. Another slight issue with this opening section is that it's written in a rather stiff academic style, counting off arguments and generally coming across as stuffy reading. However, it's worth persevering, as when Bess reaches the next sections his writing takes off.

In sections labelled 'Justice' and 'Identity', Bess examines key issues that could arise from human enhancement and how we might deal with them. He does this by opening each chapter with a short piece of fiction, a vignette that shows the technology in action. I cringed when I read that this was going to happen, as fiction used this way is often clumsy and badly written, but in fact the vignettes are delightful - very readable and packed with useful insights. Bess then expands on what might be possible and what we need to think about in terms of implications. These two sections really make the book, giving the reader a chance to think through the nature of some potential enhancements.

The final section, 'Choices' drops back a little to the academic style, but by now we are more carried along and it's less of an obstacle. Here Bess examines whether and how much we can hold back on enhancement, what happens to human values in a world of moderate enhancements and what we as individuals can do.

Overall, this is a thought-provoking book that builds on the existing literature to help us think more about future scenarios, however unlikely some of them will be. Bess makes some genuinely interesting points - for example, how there is very little science fiction handling the implications for society of enhancement, and contrasting the impact of nuclear technology which came from a weapons direction, making us naturally wary, with the more insidious move towards enhancement, which comes from a medical direction and so is treated with less suspicion. It was also interesting reading the book at a time there is so much fuss about the Russian doping scandal leading up to the Olympic Games - Bess takes in competitive sport and whether we will eventually end up with two versions for enhanced and unenhanced athletes. 

It's a shame that the whole book hasn't got the readability of those middle two sections, but it's worth making your way through the whole to push to the forefront some thinking we are all going to have to do in a relatively short timescale.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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