Healthier, smarter, happier?

We stand on the brink of a disease-free utopia where our technology has overcome aging and given us vastly increased intelligence, physical prowess and psychological stability. Sound good?

It might be, says Southern Oregon University sociologist Echo Fields, who will give a presentation Wednesday on the "transhuman" movement — or it could be, as one scientist called it, "the world's most dangerous idea." Transhumanism, or H+, as it is symbolized, goes by the slogan "healthier, smarter, happier" and envisions "tiny, tiny, tiny" nanotechnology devices implanted in our bodies to remove cancer, disease and effects of aging.

"This raises ethical issues in the distinction between treatment and enhancement. It's easy to support treatment, but when you start talking enhancement of healthy people to make them smarter, stronger and more attractive and extending life significantly," says Fields, then you're in the middle of an emerging debate, with "technological dystopians" raising concerns about where science is taking us.

"Being healthier, smarter and happier is one set of motives. There's also the profit motive. Technological utopians are unabashed capitalists who see nothing wrong with making lots of money. Then there's the issues of military uses and political power," says Fields, pointing out that one possible biological use of nanotechnology is to "grow" body armor for combat.

As a sociologist, Fields will discuss the impact on society of cloning and genetic engineering, as well as the ethic that believes science must explore what it can explore, then try to regulate it for the common good afterwards — what she calls "the inescapable logic of the technological imperative." Fields notes the view among scientists that "it's going to happen anyway," so "we'd better have a frank and open political debate about it and try to guide it." Fields will explore the theoretical idea of a looming technological "singularity," when the speed and capacity of computers becomes so great that it becomes impossible for us to understand the world's information or make predictions from it.

If that's not disturbing enough, the singularity also carries the possibility that artificial intelligence "will be able to do everything the human brain can do, then humans become pets or pests and the machines might call pest control or just run over us like roadkill," says Fields, pointing to portrayals of the idea in many science fiction books and films.

Asked her take on these developments as a sociologist, Fields said, "I'm a little gloomy. If you marry technology to the logic of multinational capitalism, then add governments and their military power, then I'm not sure we can stop what's happening. We're addicted to our gagets and Americans are great optimists and ... we want to believe technology will solve all our problems and make our lives better and better. The wheels are in motion. It's coming. How will the rest of us deal with the social consequences and rate of change? The transhumanists could be right, that it all will make us healthier, smarter, happier. We're going to plunge ahead, whether we like it or not. The potential risk could be disastrous."

Fields' presentation plays with ideas of Kurt Vonnegut in his novel "Player Piano," where machines run everything, control all wealth and power — with Paul Proteus as an engineer working for them, and humans kept around, but with no real purpose. Her talk, "Better Than Human? Paul Proteus Meets the Post-Humans," is noon Wednesday in Room 319 of SOU's Stevenson Union. It's free and open to the public as part of SOU's series, "On Being Human."

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