Designer people: is technology making us less human?

Sunday 30 October, 12.30pm until 1.30pm, Lecture Theatre 1

Over the past decade, dramatic advances have been made in synthetic biotechnology, neuroscience and digital technology. Engineers of brain computer interfaces predict headbands that will deliver digitally enhanced cognition, letting us talk without speaking, see round corners, and drive just by thinking about it. In 2010, Craig Venter made headlines with his (partially) synthetic cell, and, as he plans to patent an entire manmade lifeform in the future, work continues on the creation of smaller DNA constructs known as bioparts. This year a man in Austria voluntarily had a (damaged) hand amputated so he could be fitted with a bionic limb controlled by brain signals. Stem cell science and synthetic biology bring the prospect of replacing flesh with ‘synthetic’ flesh rather the creating crude cyborgs. So is the long-awaited ‘Singularity’ – that sci-fi dream/nightmare of merging man and machine – finally upon us?

The use of technology to replace damaged faculties is widely accepted: fitting prosthetic limbs to amputees raises no moral objections. Will anyone object if doctors manage to grow new hearts for transplant rather than depending on donors? Perhaps ethical questions arise if we imagine voluntary enhancement of limbs with stronger, faster models? How might we respond if designers invite us to upgrade to Arm 2.0? Or even Brain 2.0, with a live internet feed directly into our consciousness and, potentially, the entire body of human knowledge fitted on a biochip? What about being able to synthesise drugs within your own body to alter your emotional state? What will happen to those who cannot afford such enhancements? Will they be less, or more, human than the new ‘transhumans’? What about the civil liberties issues? Would you, a protective parent, fit a biochip to your child? To criminals?

What it means to be human isn’t a new question; we share half of our genes with a banana and have ten times more bacteria cells in our bodies than human ones. Are we already less human than we think? Is our intuition that there is even a ‘me’, which retains its identity whatever the body is made of, any more than an illusion? To look at the question another way, society and culture already shape our consciousness in various ways. Might sweeping changes in society change who we are more than any amount of bio-tinkering? What will be the role of design in shaping our future? Should we use technology to surpass nature? What do we do with this technological knowledge, and how is it transforming what it means to be human?

Daisy Ginsberg
design fellow, Synthetic Aesthetics, Stanford University/University of Edinburgh

Professor Andy Miah
chair in science communication & digital media, University of Salford

Marilyn Monk
emeritus professor of molecular embryology, University College London

Susana Soares
designer; senior lecturer, London South Bank University; former research fellow, Royal College of Art

Sandy Starr
communications officer, Progress Educational Trust; webmaster, BioNews

Produced by
Susana Soares designer; senior lecturer, London South Bank University; former research fellow, Royal College of Art
Sandy Starr communications officer, Progress Educational Trust; webmaster, BioNews
Recommended readings
First synthetic windpipe transplant is a success

In a groundbreaking operation, a cancer patient's windpipe was replaced with an artificial replica that had been grown using his own stem cells.

Rebecca Robey, BioNews, 1 July 2011

The new overlords

Man and technology are evolving together in radical new ways

Economist, 12 March 2011

Humans, Version 3.0

Where are we humans going, as a species? If science fiction is any guide, we will genetically evolve like in X-Men, become genetically engineered as in Gattaca, or become cybernetically enhanced like General Grievous in Star Wars.

Mark Changizi, SEED, 23 February 2011

Design takes over, says Paola Antonelli

There are still people who believe that design is just about making things, people and places pretty. In truth, design has spread like gas to almost all facets of human activity, from science and education to politics and policymaking.

Paola Antonelli, Economist, 23 November 2010

The Synthetic Kingdom

Our increasingly complex scientific world functions in the realm of the microscopic, obscuring the macroscopic big picture.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Second Nature, 2010

Synthesising a DNA genome is a major feat but is it creating new life?

Craig Venter and colleagues recently published their work on a synthesised life form. Once again scientists are charged with playing God...

Marilyn Monk, BioNews, 1 June 2010

God, science and the quest for moral certainty

‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’. Dostoevsky never actually wrote that line, though so often is it attributed to him that he may as well have.

Kenan Malik,, 26 March 2010

Engineering Greater Resilience or Radical Transhuman Enhancement?

Three types of human enhancement are proposed: 1) engineering traits of accepted value, 2) engineering traits of contested value and 3) radical transhuman enhancements.

Andy Miah, Studies in Ethics Law and Technology, April 2008

Humans Are the Sex Organs of Technology

I claim that technology has its own agenda. What is the evidence that technology as a whole, or the technium as I call it, is autonomous?

Kevin Kelly, Technium, 17 February 2007

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