Practice Matters

Stranger than we can think

“When the unthinkable becomes thinkable, it moves rapidly from the realms of impossibility to probability.” Carolina Louise Zurlage, 1993

If we were living in 1900 instead of 2010, we could never have predicted some of the things that have become ordinary occurrences: great symphonies playing in homes throughout the world; moving images and sound transmitted into the living rooms of poor and rich alike; aircraft whisking tens of thousands of people every place on earth; people talking to other people on tiny instruments in their ears; pills that make you smarter; surgery performed by light beams rather than knives.

Yet 19th-century scientists believed they had discovered all that could be known about reality and the nature of the material world, with only a few unresolved details to be explained.1 They weren’t able to predict with accuracy because prevailing scientific theories precluded the possibility that certain things could come to be. Of course, there were a few hints: Roentgen discovered a mysterious phenomenon he called an X-ray, and a French scientist noted that the metallic element uranium fogged photographic plates without touching them or emitting light. But that’s about it.

What would seem amusing were it not so sad is that in 2000, some scientists claimed we really had discovered it all. Scientific discovery, they said, was at an end; we knew everything that could be known, and further discovery was impossible.2 Yet hints of the future were there—the incredible shrinking computer, the rapid progress made in mapping the human genome3, the strange and incredible discussions of the quantum theorists. How could anyone think, even for a moment, that we knew it all?4

Even more than the technologies are the possible consequences—and their ethical implications. Such lines of inquiry can cause intense debate because the ethical implications are beyond our experience, or even beyond our imaginations. Nonetheless, the discussions are important because when the argument is over, you’ve learned a little about the values at stake. Below, I examine several of today’s important issues on the scientific front.

  • Arguments about human hybrids. It looks like technological progress is accelerating rapidly in the human-hybrid arena—to the point that a major motion picture has been released about it.5 According to many objective metrics, rapid acceleration is occurring (although some of the data don’t bear this out). But whether or not progress on human hybrids is accelerating is largely irrelevant. What’s important is the feasibility of developing not just transhuman organs but trans-human species. Acceleration may influence time frames, but it doesn’t influence feasibility in the abstract sense. When skeptics claim technological progress isn’t accelerating and therefore all this transhumanist concern is impossible, they miss the point. If a given technology is feasible, it’s likely to be invented eventually unless it’s suppressed globally. But the question of when is entirely separate. In principle, transhuman intelligence could be created during a time of accelerating progress or constant progress or even stagnation. The ethical implications of creating a new human species are enormous: What would be their status? Would they, or should they, be accorded full human rights? Could they be owned by their creators? Moreover, if transhuman intelligence is greater than human intelligence, what would happen to us?
  • Radical life extension. People living to age 100, 120, 150, or even beyond is plausible.6 In fact, we’re likely to see this occur in our own lifetimes. One forecasting model indicates that Americans will have a life expectancy of age 88 within this century.7 The ethical, social, and economic implications will force gut-wrenching moral problems on all of us.
  • Mind “uploading.” Mind “uploading,” or whole-brain emulation (sometimes called mind transfer) is the hypothetical process of scanning and mapping a biological brain in detail and copying its state into a computer system or another computational device. The computer runs a simulation model so faithful to the original that the brain behaves essentially the same way as the original brain (or for all practical purposes, indistinguishably).8 Some scientists consider whole-brain emulation to be a theoretical but entirely possible technology. Substantial mainstream research and development are underway in relevant areas, including development of faster supercomputers, virtual reality, brain-computer interfaces, animal brain mapping and simulation, and information extraction from dynamically functioning brains. Supercomputers are expected to reach sufficient capacity for whole human-brain emulation within a few years. But the human brain scanning technologies available today would destroy the original biological brain.9 The ethical implications of this technology–even of researching this technology—are mind boggling!

These three concepts are immediate; they’re upon us now. They haven’t been treated equally, and I assure you they involve many more issues and implications than those I’ve broached here. In addition, we haven’t even dealt with the topic of abortion at the beginning of life or euthanasia at its end—the defining moral questions of the 20th century.

Today’s technologies are thrusting the defining ethical problems of the 21st century upon us. And make no mistake about—physicians and nurses will be involved in these issues before you or I can retire.


  1. Rae A. Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality?. (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press; 2004.
  2. Horgan J. The End of Science:Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Broadway Books; 1997.
  3. Genomics and Its Impact on Science and Society: The Human Genome Project and Beyond. U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program.
  4. Feynman RP. The Character of Physical Law (Messenger Lectures). MIT Press; 2001.
  5. Anthony Kaufman of The Wall Street Journal wrote a post on the reality behind the movie “Splice” (“How real is the science behind Splice?,” July 9, 2010), in which he mentioned the Venter Institute’s recently created synthetic microbe Mycoplasma mycoides. ABC news reports that in the wake of this film, some states have banned animal-human hybrids.
  6. The future of human life expectancy: Have we reached the ceiling or is the sky the limit? Research Highlights in the Demography and Economics of Aging. National Institute on Aging; 2006.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Goertzel B. Human-level artificial general intelligence and the possibility of a technological singularity: a reaction to Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, and McDermott’s critique of Kurzweil. Artificial Intelligence. 2007;171(18, Special Review Issue):1161–1173.
  9. Kay KN, Naselaris T, Prenger RJ, Gallant JL (March 2008). Identifying natural images from human brain activity. Nature. 2008;452(7185): 352–5.

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7 thoughts on “Stranger than we can think”

  1. Leah says:

    I think I must respond to Jenn’s comment expressing concern about my ‘agenda’. Quite simply put, I do not have an agenda. My goal, however, is to promote thoughtful discussion about matters that are – or are about to become – important… My hope, as jpack notes, is that this will improve decision-making. Thanks for all the comments!

  2. says:

    If we only address what we see as ‘current’ problems, there is no possibility of improving our choices when addressing future problems…Jenn needs to look ahead a little — and I might add that life extension, and some of the problems it presents already ARE here…

  3. Jenn says:

    What is this author’s agenda? The Horgan book, “the End of Science” was laughed at by the scientists I know. I suggest we honestly have enough to concern ourselves with in focusing on the very real moral and value rich decisions facing us as we deal with current humans’ lives and current technologies rather than “brain lifting” possibilities. Where are the Jetson-like space communities and transporters we once thought would be commonplace by now?

  4. John says:

    The idea of human hybrids is somewhat far-fetched. The research is about using animal hosts to grow human parts…and then, never again will we have shortages. The future is made brighter and better by each of these developments. We cannot halt progress because some people may misuse technology. If we did this, we’d all still be in the caves – and without a campfire even!

  5. Leah Curtin says:

    Both Pauline and Jo Anne have identifie some of the very real problems that arise from these technical advances…And if I had the answeers, perhaps I could be president!

  6. Pauline Sperber says:

    If we could prolong life to 150 years by taking a drug, how many people would get access? If we had access and refused to take the drug, could that be tantamount to suicide? Would we give the life-prolonging drug to the Jeffery Dahmers of this world?

  7. Jo Anne says:

    I am not sure just how far down this ‘rabbit hole’ we want to go…Certainly radical life extension poses enormous problems, especially in regard to population control…As for human hybrids: that’s a real challenge. Perhaps so much of this is wrapped up in respect for life…I kind of like the idea of ‘uploading’ the mind: we could have the ‘input’ of many geniuses to solve problems. So perhaps we should do this one first???

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