On one side stood those with heady hopes for the possibilities of enhancement technologies. Cambridge geneticist Dr Aubrey de Grey anticipated a massive extension of the human lifespan, achieved by offsetting the processes of ageing. Futurist Nick Bostrom argues that until now humanity has focused on cultural development - now is time for dramatic changes in the way in which we 'eat, sleep, defecate, fornicate, see, hear, feel, think and age'. Some even predicted that technologies could allow mind reading between individuals, reducing misunderstandings and perhaps social conflict.
On the other side stood those worried that enhancement technology poses a threat to our humanity. The social theorist Jürgen Habermas is concerned that 'biotechnology will cause us in some ways to lose our humanity - that is, some essential quality that has always underpinned our sense of who we are and where we are going'. Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting wonders whether her granddaughter will be pressured to take cognitive enhancement drugs to keep up with her classmates at school: 'in a competitive, unequal world, we could hurtle towards some horrible futures.' (1) Neuroscientist Steven Rose worries about brain implants and the authorities using technology to read our minds, and asks what this would do to 'our self-conception as humans with agency, with the freedom to shape our own lives'.
This debate has a runaway, fantasy quality. It seems that all our hopes and fears for humanity are being projected on to these enhancement technologies; technology is often attributed with an autonomous power to decide our fate. 'We must be prepared for the changes when they happen', said one member of the audience last night, as if technological development occurs of its own accord. 'There is no stop button available', writes Madeleine Bunting. Both sides forget, it seems, that it is we who invent and control technology.
Panellists Daniel Glaser and Sarah Franklin (a neuroscientist...