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Human Performance Enhancement Workshop

On January 21, 2016, Jonathan Fanton welcomed participants to the House of the Academy for a workshop designed to help craft a research agenda for exploring the individual, societal, and regulatory implications of artificial performance enhancement. As part of his remarks, Dr. Fanton recognized the leadership of Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute and Distinguished Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at Harvard, and Jesse Ausubel, director for the Program for the Human Environment, senior research associate at the Rockefeller University, and vice-chair of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.

An excerpt from his remarks follows.

This meeting builds on preliminary investigations by other organizations of the ethical, philosophical, regulatory, or economic ramifications of the technologies and practices that could enhance human performance, including cognitive performance.

But our objective for this gathering is perhaps more ambitious: Jesse Ausubel and the Lounsbery Foundation have asked us to develop a roadmap for a larger, multi-year initiative, and to help raise awareness in the academic and policy communities of the critical need for a comprehensive treatment of this subject.

An ambitious objective demands an ambitious agenda, and so we have many topics to cover over the next two days. Appropriately, Steve Hyman and the Academy project staff have incorporated an initial session on technological forecasting: what is the current state of the art in both invasive and noninvasive techniques, and what new approaches will be available in the near future? We will then have some discussion of what lies ahead in the world of athletic performance, followed by a series of panels on various dimensions of cognitive enhancement, including considerations for governmental regulation, for the workplace, for social equality, and for how we see ourselves as individuals. As we proceed through these sessions, please keep in mind the charge we have been given, to identify questions that could be addressed in a longer-term study, and to suggest what such a study might hope to achieve.

As a historian, I am often inclined to look to the past for inspiration, and so I note with interest that exactly fifty years ago, in 1966, the Academy created an interdisciplinary working group to study the societal impact of human experimentation. This was a time when the potential of new surgical techniques like heart transplantation was of increasing public interest. The Academy’s working group raised important scientific and technical issues, but just as importantly, it explored the social, legal, and political issues surrounding medical experimentation on human subjects.

This study followed an Academy report published the previous year, in which the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell had predicted that biomedical engineering, with the potential for organ transplant, genetic modification, and control of disease, would cause a substantial increase in human longevity.

Yet Bell also observed that, “the serious effort is devoted not to making predictions, but to the more complicated and subtle art of defining alternatives.” Bell called for:

An effort to indicate now the future consequences of present public policy decisions, to anticipate future problems, and to begin the design of alternative solutions so that our society has more options and can make a moral choice, rather than be constrained, as is so often the case when problems descend upon us unnoticed and demand an immediate response.

A half-century later, we would do well to heed these words. Rather than trying to predict the future, therefore, we should engage in Bell’s “subtle art of defining alternatives” in order to enhance society’s capacity to make informed decisions about how and when to regulate technologies and techniques that might enhance human performance, and to manage the unforeseen consequences of their widespread use.

This “subtle art” depends on bringing together diverse perspectives, and the Academy is ideally suited to this task. Our membership and our studies include leading thinkers from every scholarly discipline and every profession, including the arts, business, and public affairs. Indeed, our projects often bring together scholars who have worked on the same problem for their entire careers, and yet have never spoken to each other. It would not surprise me if that proves to be the case today.

At this point, Dr. Fanton introduced Steven Hyman and Jesse Ausubel.

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