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Improving the human being is not without risks for society.

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An international team is looking at new technologies that improve human physical and cognitive skills, their development and their distribution in society. The possibilities are dizzying, but they raise many questions about the very essence of man, about what is useful for his individual and collective well-being. What is the impact on society of these technologies aimed at improving human performance? The debate is only just beginning.
 
Aew technologies for improving human beings open up immense possibilities, but also raise profound questions about the very essence of man, about what is useful for his individual and collective well-being. Today, they are mainly aimed at improving or restoring physical and psychological capacities for medical purposes. But an application aiming at improving performance alone is emerging. The result of individual choices, the use of these technologies has an impact on society at large. An international team led by researchers from the Universities of Geneva (UNIGE) and Oxford has been studying the ethical issues raised by these manipulations. Published in the journal Nature Human BehaviorTheir questioning highlights the conflict between individual and collective well-being, and the important role that governments must play.
 

Medical or performance improvement?

Today, new human enhancement technologies are mainly used in a restorative manner following an accident, illness or birth disability. A recent American study, conducted by Debra Whitman and published in the journal Scientific AmericanThe results of the survey, which was conducted by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHR), show that these restorative technologies are very well accepted by the population: 95% of the respondents support a physical restorative application and 88% support a cognitive restorative application. However, this percentage drops to 35% when we talk about an application that aims to increase physical or cognitive capacity for simple performance purposes. Why is that? This touches on the essence of man and raises a whole host of ethical questions. We've been working on a number of different projects," says Daphne Bavelier, a professor in the Psychology Section of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE) at UNIGE. This is why an international team of researchers, mandated by the World Economic Forum (WEF), has been studying the parameters to be taken into account in the development and distribution of these new human enhancement technologies, in order to guarantee an equitable society and the well-being of the community.
 

Well-being conceived as autonomy, competence and social relations

Often summed up in economic indices, well-being goes beyond money once primary needs are met. The theory of self-determination divides well-being into three main components: autonomy, the ability to make one's own decisions; competence, being able to act and contribute to society; and social relationships, the fabric of relationships one can rely on. « We asked ourselves about the individual and collective impact of human augmentation technologies according to these three components, in order to warn governments against the possible excesses of a free use of these scientific advances. ", says Julian Savulescu, professor at the Centre for Ethical Practice at Oxford University.
 
Autonomy is defined as the ability to make decisions without being under the coercion of another person. An individual can therefore choose whether or not to undergo an increase in his or her faculties. « But quickly, there can be drifts. If a military pilot gets vision enhancement, it may become mandatory for the military pilot to improve visual acuity in order to do the job....illustrious Daphne Bavelier. Consequently, a person who wishes to become a pilot without undergoing surgery would automatically be excluded from the profession.. "Another example:" If parents could choose certain characteristics of their baby, such as muscle strength, eye colour or intelligence, this could have serious implications for human diversity.The new technology will be used in the future," explains Simone Schürle, Professor in the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zurich. Some trends may favour particular traits, while others may disappear, reducing genetic variability.. "Yet each group of parents would choose only the features of one baby. « Every manipulation of an individual has consequences for the community. ", Daphne Bavelier hammered.
 
The same goes for skills. What if some people can afford to buy new skills while others can't? How can companies stay competitive if such advantages are traded? How can they compete against people who have been upgraded? « Sport, through doping, is an excellent example of the impact of an individual's increase on the collectiveexplains Julian Savulescu. By taking a performance-enhancing substance, an athlete encourages others to imitate him or her, in the interest of performance. This requires new approaches. The key issue may not be the effectiveness of the regulations, but rather a new transparency that would allow everyone to accept or reject improvements, but to be open about it and to take use into account in the results.
 

Drugs for human well-being

Finally, the ever-increasing use of drugs used to facilitate social relations underlines the importance of this component in human well-being. New technologies are beginning to develop in this field, but their use raises real ethical questions. « Today, we can already reverse dominance ratios in mice by stimulating certain areas of the brainrelieves Daphne Bavelier. Acting on a person's behaviour, for example by removing the sense of loneliness often associated with depression, is therefore within reach.. "But behind every good intention there are perverse effects, as demonstrated by the sad trepanning experiments of the 20th century aimed at curing female hysteria in particular. Suppressing a behavioural problem is not the solution. « A study that strengthened the empathy of individuals in order to eradicate racism showed that individuals in the same group became more cohesive through empathy, but their rejection of other groups increased considerably. ", continues Julian Savulescu. What works on an individual does not have the same effect on the community.
 
As a result of this global questioning, the international team, composed of geneticists, ethicists, philosophers, engineers and neuroscientists, is seeing the importance of thinking about the consequences for the community of each individual change. The experts also note the urgent need for concerted regulation by the various governments before the use of these new technologies becomes deviant, as illustrated by the recent case of the Chinese twins genetically modified to resist the AIDS virus, a disease they might never have contracted anyway. « One of the great unresolved ethical conundrums is how to reconcile the interests of the individual with those of society in the event of conflict. Human enhancement technologies require policy-makers to strike a certain balance. The collective effects are important and we cannot let the market decide. "says Julian Savulescu. « Our commentary is a call to action before it's too late... ", concludes Daphne Bavelier.
 

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Source: University of Geneva/EurekAlert
 

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