Human By Design- A Conference on Augmentation

Courageous, a brand building studio providing cross platform native content for CNN, HLN and Great Big Story, hosted a conference this past week called Human By Design in conjunction with client Square Enix whose video game Deus Ex features human augmentation. “Mankind becomes divided between those who are augmented and improved with technology and others who are in an unadulterated state. Conflict ensues. These issues are bubbling up today,” stated Otto Bell, VP & Group Creative Director, Courageous. 

Expanding on the issues raised in the game, the Human By Design conference focused on a more detailed appraisal of augmentation - The moral questions behind it, the possibilities, pitfalls, legalities and current and future global and individual applications. What we have historically thought of as augmentation is shifting. With advancing technology, augmentation is more than what porn stars may do to enhance their appearance. Augmentation now includes all forms of technology and biogenics ranging from chips, medical devices, bionics and genetic modification, for example.

What is Augmentation?
Some define augmentation as improving what is already good and healthy in our bodies. "Wearing eyeglasses to improve your vision is reparative," explained Dr. Arthur Caplan, Director of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine who added, "Augmentation adds capabilities to currently well-functioning areas like lasik surgery that improves ones eyesight to 20/10 - beyond the normal range."

But others disagree on that fine distinction. "Augmentation is catapulting us into a new era of humanity," exclaimed Erica Orange, EVP and COO Future Hunters, "It is giving us superhero powers, making us stronger, faster or gives us a pill to extend our lifespan. We have already been living augmented lives with prosthetics for example. And it has accelerated in recent years with programmable microbes and symbiosis."

Ethics of Augmentation
It is staggering to think about how augmentation can and will impact our lives … and how quickly it will happen. We are only limited by our imagination and we are currently experiencing an exponential rate of change that is outpacing our human understanding of it. According to Orange, "We now have modular biology- self defined, manufactured and unique - where we will be able to mix and match our own biology. There will be plant-able memories, restarting active memory, transplantation - organic and genetic transplants, synthetic DNA. We will see a head transplant in 2017, mind controlled skeletons, age reversal pills, virtual immortality. But there are privacy, ethical and moral implications,” she warned.

What are the moral implications of augmentation? One might argue that genetically modifying a person is against nature. But what if we are able to modify genes to prevent ALS or other deadly diseases? We find ways to extend life but just because we can, should we? Will we become a society of haves and have nots as the costs for augmentation may be too high for many deserving people. Will some of this augmentation be used for nefarious or malicious purposes? What happens when it gets into the wrong hands? There was a consensus that it was important to create a meaningful dialogue around these issues.

The issue of individual vs societal rights can become cloudy when it comes to augmentation. “In one sense we shouldn't abridge individual rights, but there are no truly individualistic decisions. Our decisions impact others as members of a community. It has social implications. However, there is not a lot of controversy in therapeutic aspects of augmentation,” posits E. Christian Brugger, Cardinal Stafford Professor of Christian Ethics at John Vianney Major Seminary. But in fact, even therapeutic aspects of augmentation have their controversies and detractors as in stem cell research.

Applications for Media
One of the highlights of the conference was the impact that media can have on the acceptance and adoption of augmentation for consumers. For example, gaming that includes characters with bionic features creates a “cool factor” for young people who may need prosthetics. Jonathan Jacques-Belletete, Executive Art Director for the game, Deus Ex creates prosthetics for his characters that look like art. These designs are then adapted for actual use at Open Bionics, a company that builds prosthetics, to manufacture actual prosthetics from these gaming designs. Cathrine Disney, a college student born with a congenital amputation, faced a lifetime of poorly designed prosthetics, like hooks, that were not only difficult to use but also unsightly. She is now the first woman to wear the bionic Titan arm which was created by Eidos-Montreal and Open Bionics. “It is like a piece of art and it is very easy to use. I like to show it off,” she explained.

I believe that augmentation may even offer a possible opportunity for the industry through the Internet of Things. Our cars and home appliances will be all connected, so why not some types of augmentation? Some may offer unique data streams can be captured and added to our growing knowledge of consumer behavior. How scary is that?

The conference, which was live streamed on the gaming community Twitch, will live on as added content for Courageous, if you are interested in learning more. As the opening video stated at the conference, “Augmentation is about looking to the future and it is not a question of should we or shouldn't we. It is coming.” Indeed.

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