Wednesday, October 5, 2016

X-Men: fine in the movies but not in real life

Despite the popularity of superhumans in the X-Men series and growing interest in transhumanism, the American public is wary of even mild forms of human enhancement, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center.

In the survey people were asked about three scenarios: gene editing to protect babies from disease, chips in the brain to improve people’s ability to think, and synthetic blood which would enhance performance by increasing speed, strength and endurance.

None of these are currently possible. Even so, people were “cautious and often resistant”. Most would be “very” or “somewhat” worried about gene editing (68%), brain chips (69%) and synthetic blood (63%). By a margin of 2 to 1, people would not want to be enhanced themselves and only half would want it for their children.

As an index of how much the public trusts scientists, “At least seven-in-ten adults predict each of these new technologies will become available before they have been fully tested or understood.” Most believe that enhancement technology will increase social differences because only the rich will be able to afford it. A majority also believes that enhanced humans will feel superior to those who do not have them. People with a deep religious commitment and women tend to be more skeptical of enhancement.

The survey also detected skepticism about cosmetic surgery, which is the closest legal enhancement available at the moment.

For example, 61% of Americans say people are too quick to undergo cosmetic procedures to change their appearance in ways that are not really important. Roughly a third (34%) say elective cosmetic surgery is “taking technology too far.” And, overall, 54% of U.S. adults say elective cosmetic surgery leads to both benefits and downsides for society, while 26% express the belief that there are more downsides than benefits, and just 16% say society receives more benefits than downsides from cosmetic surgery.

Unsurprisingly, scientists feel differently. Some believe that if the US Congress continues to ban germline modification – genetic engineering which can be passed on to the next generation – the US will be left behind. “The United States is ceding its leadership in this arena to other nations,” write I. Glenn Cohen and Eli Y. Adashi in an essay in Science.

“We are on the cusp of being able to do [gene editing] safely, and the prospect of a telling a parent that they won’t have access to these therapies is morally untenable,” transhumanist bioethicist James Hughes, the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, told Motherboard.

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