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July 18th, 2012 RUTH BROWN | Q & A
 

Hotseat: Ramez Naam

Better living through biotechnology.

hotseat_ramez_3837RAMEZ NAAM - Image courtesy of Ramez Naam
Ramez Naam wants to build a better human. Formerly a program manager at Microsoft, Naam is a “transhumanist”: someone who believes humanity can and should be improved through biotechnology. His 2010 book, More Than Human, argued for technologies that typically make frightening fodder for sci-fi novels: cloning, genetic engineering, “designer children,” neuroenhancing drugs, brains wired into computers. Far from the dystopian futures experienced by Jude Law in Gattaca, Jude Law in A.I. or Jude Law in eXistenZ, Naam says, this brave new world could see a happier, healthier, smarter society. Besides, he says, much of this technology already exists. Naam is in Portland this week to discuss his perspective at Oregon Humanities’ Think & Drink series. WW called him to find out just how soon we should be welcoming our new robot overlords.


WW: Most people would still see some of the things you talk about as pretty scary. Why don’t they scare you?

Ramez Naam: I think new things are often very scary [to people], especially new biological things. There was a lot of pushback against blood transfusions. The first smallpox vaccine was derided as something that would turn humans into human-cow hybrids, because it’s actually made from taking tissue from cows. So things like that, especially the biological side, always scare people. I am a science-fiction buff—I’ve always read science fiction. Actually my first science-fiction novel comes out this year, so I think I was already peppered with these ideas. It was a surprise to me to find out how real they actually were.


Do you think despite all the debates, humanity will just wake up one day and realize all these technologies have slowly come into our lives without us noticing?

That’s absolutely the case. Things look weird at first, then you see someone who’s done it, they ended up OK, or their kid ended up OK, and it looks safe enough, it looks cheap enough, “Well, maybe I should do it too.” How many people really embraced Lasik eye surgery the first year it was out? Not many. 


But surely there are some genuine ethical considerations.

I think the most legitimate one is access: Will enhancement technologies increase the gap between the haves and the have-nots? You can imagine science-fiction universes—and there have been plenty of them—where the super-rich get to live forever or the super-rich get to augment themselves, and most of humanity does not. And if that’s the world we’re headed for, that’s not a good thing. It is a further separation of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, or the 0.001 percent. But the history of technology...it’s not how things tend to happen. I can afford better communication technology, better phones, than Bill Gates could 10 years ago. The technology gets better and it gets cheaper. So the early adopters get technology that only barely works and is incredibly expensive. Then two years later, the technology is cheaper and better and then it gets out to a wider audience, and so now there are more cellphone users in Africa than there are in North America. And who would have expected that 20 years ago? So that’s usually the trajectory of technologies. 


Can we keep biological meddling out of sports?

I think for quite a while, for the next couple decades at least, we’re going to hold the line and at least put on the facade that people are not enhanced in sports.... There is an issue right now that some of the genetic enhancements...gene therapy that boosts muscle, are not detectable by current means. So if you want to detect that someone has done, let’s say IGF-1 therapy, injected by a virus to boost their muscle, you can’t do it via blood test today. You have to do a muscle biopsy. And they don’t do muscle biopsies. So we don’t even know that we don’t have genetically enhanced athletes in sports. There might be some already. It would not surprise me at all.

It’s still the case that an athlete has an advantage because of the genes that she or he was born with over different athletes. It’s just kind of random luck gave them a different genetic starting point. A fellow in the 1964 Winter Olympics, [Finnish cross-country skier] Eero Antero Mäntyranta, who won [two] gold medals in those Olympics, has a mutation—and many of his family do—which causes the body to make more red blood cells.... They had this big edge because of being genetic mutants, ultimately. Wouldn’t it actually be more fair to let other people make the same change themselves?


So about robot overlords...

There’s no economic incentive to make robots that have that much volition. We make robots and A.I.s to do stuff for us. The human characteristics of having desires, having wants and goals, is something that seems economically superfluous to the devices we create. I don’t know anyone that would want to make a robot that would take over. That seems like a bad decision. 


GO: Ramez Naam speaks at Think & Drink at the Mission Theater, 1624 NW Glisan St., 223-4527, on Wednesday, July 18. 6:30 pm. Free. Minors allowed with parent or guardian.

 
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