What is Human Enhancement, and why is it good for our society?

Guido Putignano
14 min readSep 14, 2020


It was one day like others when the 20th October 1890 Walter Yeo was born. He was a young guy like others who used to spend his days with his older sisters Adelaide and Elsie. When he was 12, he joined the marine navy until 1916 when during the battle of Jutland he sustained terrible facial injuries. After going to the hospital, he was treated by Sir Harold Gillies, the first man to transfer skin from undamaged areas on the body. After this event, Walter Yeo has been the first person to benefit from advanced plastic surgery and one of the first enhanced people ever.

But, What is Human enhancement?

According to Wikipedia, we could define Human enhancement as the natural, artificial, or technological alteration of the human body to enhance physical or mental capabilities. In other words, you can decide to change your own body to alter different capabilities that you want to change most. If someone wants to have a new face, like what happened with Walter Yeo, now you can.

The main difference between an enhancement and a therapy is that the latest one is going to end and the first one has the aim to be there forever, or until it is going to disappear.

To understand the reason why Human enhancement is going to become more and more important, we should consider what happened in the past.

During The Fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt, almost 5000 years ago, Egyptians used to think about themselves as the best society because they used to measure progress just thinking about the number and the dimension of pyramids. It has been the same with Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan with the dimension of their empire. They used to see other enemies, and they weren’t able to find someone better than them, it would have been impossible.

In a broader sense, we tend to do the same with money, that’s why Forbes lists are incredibly so important, people want to be inside that list to think about themselves as successful people.

What happened in the past also happens now. The main difference is that we find different ways to evaluate what progress means for us. From the birth of the internet, people started creating different groups to find people that are like them.

Jono Bacon could be considered as one of the most famous community managers in the world.

In his book, People Powered, he identifies 5 main reasons why community are becoming more and more important:

  1. Access to a growing, globally-connected audience
  2. Cheap Commodity Tools for Providing Access
  3. Immediate Delivery of Broad Information and Expertise
  4. Diversified Methods of Online Collaboration
  5. A Growing Desire for Meaningful Connected Work

All those factors make people join communities and make people meet with others like them.

Communities have also been present in the transhumanistic world with what is called Humanity+

Humanity+ hasn’t always been called in this way. Back in 1998, Nick Bostrom and David Pearce founded a nonprofit called the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) with the aim that any technology to enhance humans will have been available to anyone, without any differences, in a short period of time. In other words, humanity is not the end of evolution in our current form, and we, as humans, can take part in the intelligence recreation of ourselves by taking advantage of technology. We can be more robust, happier, we can eliminate negative emotions, and we can even eliminate all the diseases and fight death. If that sentence used to seem like a dream, now it is a reality.

According to a study made by the European Parliament, The umbrella term “human enhancement” refers to a wide range of existing, emerging and visionary technologies, including pharmaceutical products: neuro implants that provide replacement sight or other artificial senses, drugs that boost brain power, human germline engineering and existing reproductive technologies, nutritional supplements, new brain stimulation technologies to alleviate suffering and control mood, gene doping in sports, cosmetic surgery, growth hormones for children of short stature, anti-ageing medication, and highly sophisticated prosthetic applications that may provide specialised sensory input or mechanical output. All these technologies signal the blurring of boundaries between restorative therapy and interventions that aim to bring about improvements extending beyond such therapy.

Much of those technologies are pretty new, and their side effects may be, more evident than their benefits but, if we have to think about the long term, side effects will be less and less evident, and benefits will be more and more present. An example of that is Ritalin, a nervous system stimulant that may cause Nervousness, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, weight loss, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or headache and some studies show that has not such a significant effect on healthy people. It is in this way because some products such as Ritalin are designed to cure diseases of people that have Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder whose brain works in a different way than what we generally call “normal people” (also they are normal, they are just different from the average but it doesn’t preclude they are better or worse). For this example, when precision medicine will be present, we are going to assume what can help us achieve higher performances with fewer side effects and more benefits (because they will be made just for us). In general, thanks to these techniques, we will be able to boost well-being.

Generally, well-being is often reduced to economic indices, but, in reality, it goes beyond the idea of money once primary needs have been met. The theory of self-determination divides well-being into three parts:

  1. autonomy — the ability to make one’s own decisions;
  2. competence — the capacity to act and contribute to society;
  3. social relations — the network of relationships that we can count on.

As Julian Savulescu, professor at the Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University, says “We probed the individual and collective impact of human augmentation technologies based on these three components, the aim being to alert governments to the possible abuses involved in the unrestricted use of these scientific advances,”

This situation has many implications in everyday lives.

Enhancement technologies could change how people work.

Work will evolve over the next decade, with enhancement technologies potentially making a significant contribution. The widespread use of enhancements might influence an individual’s ability to learn or perform tasks and, perhaps, even to enter a profession.

Enhancement could be used to influence motivation; enable people to work in more extreme conditions or into old age, reduce work-related illness; or facilitate earlier return to work after illness.

Now, if you are a professional aircraft driver, you should have an optimal sight if they want to work and people that would like to become aircraft drivers could undergo a Lasik surgery to solve that problem. This surgery is so popular that even people that can see perfectly undergo Lasik surgeries to see even better.

Let’s imagine, instead, that a worker asks you to take a pill two times a day to stimulate some areas of your cerebral cortex to work in a better and faster way. Would you do that? Would anybody do that? What is the difference between this example and the previous one?

The main difference is that in case of any mistakes, in the first example hundreds of people may say, in the second case, an email could have a “would” rather than a “will” in the First conditional.

So the main difference is what in mathematics is called the average cost-effectiveness ratio. It is the division for each activity by the outcome. The higher the gain is, the more likely you are going to do one task.

One of the most common questions people ask is: “Why should we enhance themselves? Aren’t we already good like we are?”

To answer this question, we should consider three main points.

Back in 1988, two scholars, William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser found that people show a disproportionate preference for choices that maintain the status quo. This condition would have then be called “Status quo bias” to indicate the tendency of people to prefer things as they already are without thinking about how they should be. From this bias comes some sentences such as “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”

This is also why so many people are just not ambitious enough, but they are ok with what they already have. It is not a decision but is it a bias that should be cured.

This bias comes from years and years of evolution in which there were not so many differences between the past and the super past, and novelty was just a negative feature to avoid, now, it isn’t anymore in the same way, and we need to adapt.

You can find more at this link https://chgiw.com.au/status-quo-bias-the-great-wealth-destroyer/

The second point is that compared to 100 years ago, we are far more talented, taller and more intelligent than we were 100 years ago. If an average 30 years old guy, had come in our era, we would have considered him someone with intellectual problems. That is because he wouldn’t have known how to write, how to read and many other features that we believe assumed even to the most ignorant person in the world.

If an average 30 years old guy went 100 years from now in the future, they wouldn’t have only thought about what I said before but, they may consider that human as we consider dogs today.

That is because enhancement has always been present (also reading is a kind of it). Still, the biggest fear is that, now, it is going incredibly faster with different features and possibilities.

The last is what we could call “Loss of Potential”. Imagine that a man dies because of cancer at age 30, we would say that he would have been able to live another 70 years and we can’t just imagine what he would have done in those years.

Let’s imagine now if someone dies at age 80; we would say that we are happy that the person lived so long enough. In case we had found a way to make her live until 180 (without losing any of physical or intellectual capabilities that people tend to lose when they age), we would have said that it’s a loss of potential also in this case.

When I was younger and less ambitious, I would have desired to donate my life to make Einstein alive, even for just 10 years.

Let’s imagine how the world would have been different from now if the brightest minds of our histories would have lived even 10 years more. Einstein would have probably have found the theory of everything (that we don’t know, yet). Picasso would have started a completely new artistic era. Asimov would have written hundreds of other fantastic papers, and Sigmund Freud would have written other of its theories (hoping for more scientific ones at that age).

In the field of Longevity, much progress has been made. They have just been possible when we started thinking about ageing not as something familiar but as something we can cure, and then change.

David Wood has been one the members of the Board of Directors at Humanity+, already mentioned before, and he wrote a book about “The death of the death” (Literally la Muerte de la Muerte”) Where he analyses all the ways people are going to fight ageing. It is really similar to another book “ The abolition of ageing.”Apart from him, there are thousands of other amazing people that are dramatically changing how we age.

The Forever Healthy Foundation, for example, has the mission to enable people to vastly extend their healthy lifespan. Apart from making papers more exciting, organising international events, they also follow some of the most important companies in the world about this field. One of those is Elevian, a Harvard spinout developing therapeutics to stimulate regenerative capacity, the body’s ability to repair itself, that declines as we age.

We could summarise in 3 main points the reasons why people tend to be against human enhancement.

The first one is because of religious reasons. Religious itself it’s not the problem; it is just one part of the culture of a place.

With Christianism and secularised Western traditions, people tend not to accept human enhancement because they think they think they are already like God, what is called “imago Dei”, in other words, the image of Gods. If God is perfect, why should someone aim to be better than him? Buddhism, instead, is extremely different because there isn’t a Creator.

In LaFleur’s view: “Reasons for prudence may have other, even better, bases than assumptions made about limits with a divine origin”. In other words, the analysis of desire is at the heart of all Buddhist reflections on human enhancement.

It is the same also with Confucianism, too, where the negative impacts of limitless desires on society constitute a major ethnopolitical concern. In any case, the solution to any problem, can’t be found in a belief or inside us, it should be found outside us. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “many people look for meaning in life [but] you have the power to create meaning in your life rather than passively look for it”. Personally, I think It is the same also with ethics, you can understand what you really want, just acting and acquiring experience without passively listening to what others have already decided for us.

The second one is because if illness could be present because of a range of possibilities, an enhancement is done because of choice and not everybody can afford that.

One problem, though, could be that Human Enhancement may be only for the rich with a difference in the society that could only increase. The truth is that any technology is just for the rich, first. It is because they have done more good for society to have it first. In any case, the more a technology is mature, the cheaper it is. The main focus is on how fast will it become available to anybody.

That happens even more with exponential technologies. One example is CRISPR/Cas9 that you can buy for $169.00. The difference isn’t anymore between the rich and the poor, but it is between that are intelligent and stupid.

A solution to this problem could be a sort of guarantee or payment that could also be done in years, but you can benefit from the enhancement right now. Generally, it’s what happens with mobile phones, before they were just for the right, after a while and different business strategies (such as instalment plans) they became available to anybody. We are going to reach what can be called “Sustainable Super Abundance”, a future in which anybody can benefit from technology.

The last concern is that when a person can enhance herself so much that we can’t consider her human anymore, what should we do? Should we allow that to happen?

In Bioethics, there is a considerable distinction between living organism, human and person.

A living organism is an entity that embodies the properties of life (Homeostasis, Organization, Metabolism, Growth, Adaptation, Response to Stimuli and Reproduction).

A Human Being is what Carl von Linné, also known as Carl Linnaeus called Homo Sapiens.

A person, instead, is a living organism that has the same status as us. For example, if I kill a man, I am punished because I am doing something or illegal if I kill a cow, I can have something to eat during lunch.

When a person can be enhanced so much, should she have more benefits, the same amount of benefits or fewer benefits (like what happens with taxes)?

The problem here is that we are touching on the very essence of humankind, and we have still to understand what will it mean to be a person.Everything that I have said about Human Enhancement can have a reason to exist only when we change our mindset.

The latest century has always been characterised by a mindset of scarcity and competitions where people used to win not because they were able to create something of good for humanity, but mostly because they used to have some innate characteristics delivering an incredible advantage. Right now, instead, we have to focus more on a mindset of abundance and cooperation to achieve co-creation.

The most important skill for man has always been to collaborate to achieve a common objective, and It is incredibly true also now. Human enhancement, in other words, should mostly be considered as positive when there is not only a personal benefit, but when there is also a social one.

Let’s examine, for example, the situation of an Olympic game. If one athlete wins by taking a beta-blocker, that merely transfers the benefit to the athlete using the beta-blocker from some non-using athletes. In this case, the athlete wins just because it has a concrete advantage that others don’t have. The use of the beta-blocker may seem like it is a large benefit to the individual user, but it creates a zero total benefit to the set of all people. If the other athletes respond by also taking beta-blockers, as they are likely to do if it became permissible, then all the athletes will have their accuracy improved similarly. and the beta-blockers are unlikely to alter who wins.

If so, then beta-blocker usage will provide not only zero total benefits to all athletes, but zero individual benefits to each athlete as well. Each athlete nonetheless will have incentives to take the beta blocker because the individual athlete considers only whether the benefits they personally experience from their own individual usage decision outweigh the health risks and costs to themselves.The collective result is that athletes suffer health risks and costs in return for zero total and perhaps zero individual benefits. Those health risks and costs may not be large. But suffering them for zero benefits is something we should want to avoid.

In other words, the problem here is that in the case of competition, Human Enhancement should be avoided in the majority of the cases.

In classical music, by contrast, the benefits are not merely personal, but they are also transferred to the other musicians. In other words, musicians’ motivation for taking the beta-blocker is not only to improve their performance, but it also to improve the general performance. Beta-blocker usage, therefore, also creates a powerful absolute benefit, even if all musicians use them.

The group that benefits, in this case, is the audience that can have a higher quality experience. We thus can’t (and mustn’t) prevent the usage of beta-blockers by classical musicians.

When we have to consider Human Enhancement in a broader scale, the possibility to take a pill and to become more intelligent or to genetic engineer some parts of the body could not only reflecèpt a personal benefit (such as having higher scores in a test or walking faster), but it may also have transferred benefits (such as having more patents in one year or spending fewer taxes to sustain people in difficulty)

Probably, the new people that are enabled to be enhanced thanks to technology will be able to influence even the new Marvel films.



Guido Putignano

Synthetic Biology + Quantum Computing for drug discovery