Michelle Roberts of BBC news recently wrote an article on Leeds Universityâ€™s Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (iMBE), dedicated to research which will ultimately allow human beings to achieve â€œ50 active years after 50.â€ Hereâ€™s their mission statement:
Driven by clinical challenges, we undertake solution focused pioneering research and education in the fields of medical devices and regenerative medicine, innovating and translating novel therapies into practical clinical applications.
Our expertise is in the area of musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems with our research focusing on three main areas – Joint Replacement, Tissue Re-engineering and Functional Spinal Interventions.
Roberts adds, â€œNew hips, knees and heart valves are the starting points, but eventually they envisage most of the body parts that flounder with age could be upgraded.â€ The article is titled â€œScience to ‘stop age clock at 50,’â€ and it is this desire to â€œstopâ€ the clock which Freud, Otto Rank and Ernest Becker argue drives a great of deal human activity.
The adage â€œnature vs. nurtureâ€ is generally used to describe the debate among scholars (across disciplines) as to whether or not we are primarily products of biological, evolutionary imperatives, or cultural, relative or â€œartificialâ€ factors; now more than ever this has ceased to be a mere adage â€“ science and technology is at war with nature itself. The iMBE, and â€œScienceâ€ generally, has been tasked with stopping the natural processes of aging, or, at least, the terribly unpleasant side effects which come with it. A lofty mandate indeed.
To make the situation even more desperate, this science of life, which increases quantity and quality of human existence, must not only compete with the relentlessness of nature, but with itself also, in the form of the militaristic sciences or science of death. 2 against 1, no fair.
A little while before the iMBE article was posted, I came across an article (wonderfully) titled, Call for Debate on Killer Robots. Here, Jason Palmer interviews Professor Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield, who calls for restraint in the development and use of unmanned or autonomous military robots (e.g. the Predator Drones currently used in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere), and Nigel Mills, an â€œaerial technology directorâ€ at QinetiQ (a defense contractor), who explains that â€œComplete autonomy – where you send a UAV off on a mission and you don’t interact with it – is not compatible with our current rules of engagement, so we’re not working on such systemsâ€ â€“ in other words, the current rules of engagement dictate that clearance, presumably human, must be given before a fire mission is carried out, and so developing fully autonomous war-bots is either avoided, or classified.
However, the article also cites excerpts from the U.S. Air Forceâ€™s “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047,” which predicts that in the near future,
Advances in AI will enable systems to make combat decisions and act within legal and policy constraints without necessarily requiring human input; [however]â€¦ Ethical discussions and policy decisions must take place in the near term in order to guide the development of future UAS capabilities, rather than allowing the development to take its own path apart from this critical guidance.
Professor Sharkey is pleased that theyâ€™re at least taking ethical considerations into account, and hey, so am I. But these two articles illuminate a stark (though not so startling) contradiction: the same tools we use to extend life simultaneously work to end it. Technology is the ultimate global auto-immune disorder, tirelessly working against itself. What can account for this?
Of course itâ€™s too complicated to say definitively, but according to Rank and Becker, we can trace the roots of both technological drives back to the desire for immortality by way of self-esteem. This is clear when discussing the medical sciences (they allow us to live longer and â€œupgradeâ€ faulty parts), but perhaps it is less clear in light of the militaristic sciences. Yet, killing was likely one of the earliest forms of a symbolic elixir of life. In Truth and Reality: A Life History of the Human Will (1936), Rank writes, â€œThe death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.â€ Ending another life implies the supremacy of oneâ€™s own â€“ itâ€™s the ultimate domination.
Becker adds that early on in humanityâ€™s evolution, we became aware that we were relatively weak when compared to larger animals (or other humans), and so looked for â€œalternativeâ€ sources of power. Becker writes, â€œThis is one way to understand the greater aggressiveness of man than of other animals: he was the only animal conscious of death and decay, and so he engaged in a heightened search for powers of self-perpetuation [i.e., symbolic]â€ (in The Ernest Becker Reader).
With the rapid advances in technology, our ability to â€œself-perpetuateâ€ via death has increased exponentially, to the point where it is conceivable we will bring about our own extinction. Well, medical science, it appears you have your work cut out for you â€“ not only must you fight against the forces of nature, but against your evil twin sibling, military science, as well. Good luck; weâ€™re going to need it.