On human augmentation

Today I’m at the NSSEFF meeting in Virginia. I was lucky enough to get one of these DoD Fellowships, and I thought I should show up and thank folks in person. Actually, this is a prelude of what I’ll have to be doing in future years, reporting on my own efforts to make NeoLife, programmable organisms with novel chemistries.

What catches the eye, though, is the skew of physical versus biological (or even chemical) scientists. It’s hard to touch on the military or intelligence communities at any level and not realize this: that the physical sciences and mathematics are far more important to our preparedness and response than is biology. This is as it should be: the advantages we reap from supercomputers and signal processing and new materials are huge. Even outside the military the skew is evident in our fascination with cell phones and cyberspace and robotics, which touch on biology but are very much apart from it.

Need it have been this way? I recently read a fun book, Leviathan, which is more or less an adolescent’s science fiction book (and my boys have found it a good read, as well). It is an ‘alternative history’ of World War I, to a first approximation, played out against a different technological backdrop in which the German equivalents have advanced robotics (clankers) and the ‘Darwinists’ of England have engineered every aspect of biology, creating great beasts of war and commerce.

Now, while it’s true that in our modern age we do not have the promised Gundam of yore, it is nonetheless clear which of these two extreme technological paths we are closer to. A few years ago we could see the fictional Ripley suit up in an exosuit loader to fight an Alien queen, and today we can look at something remarkably similar coming out of DARPA’s exoskeleton program. Indeed, focusing only on the last several hundred years we seem to have been better at imagining and engineering great machines rather than great beings (the prescient works of Jules Verne leap to mind).

It is possible that this skew is inherent in the nature of technology. The physical world has always been useful as a human augment, on a human timescale. It is easier to pick up a stick than to evolve claws. And precisely because evolution has occurred and occurs, unabated, to give us what advantages it can, the physical world has been and to some extent remains the high frontier, from our ancestors onward.

But it is also possible that other aspects of the human condition have argued against augmentation of the species. We were not shy to mold the animal form. Our amazing achievements in animal and plant husbandry have been almost the definition of civilization for thousands of years. The breeding of horses and dogs and plants was a science even prior to providing essential clues to Darwin, Mendel, and other researchers. And despite some resistance, genetically engineered foods have changed the world.

So, why haven’t we embraced eugenics? Why is human cloning banned by almost every government on the planet? And why do militarily expedient programs in human performance enhancement still focus almost exclusively on drugs rather than genetic engineering?

Oh come on. You know the answer.


- originally posted on Friday, July 30th, 2010