Whatever the future holds, Andy Miah will have thought about the rights and wrongs, Claire Smith discovers
IT IS not every academic that specialises in a subject as extraordinary as extraterrestrial ethics. But Andy Miah is no ordinary academic. Part futurologist, part philosopher, his work on the science of sport grew to encompass bioethics, medical law and now covers all aspects of the way technology impacts on human beings.
Miah, who is a reader at West of Scotland University and who has the marvellous title Fellow of Visions in Utopia and Dystopia at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies has just finished editing Human Futures – a collection of futuristic visions that includes the work of artists, designers and even science fiction writers.
"I'm particularly pleased that the whole process of getting it into print has taken about seven months – most academic books take about three years," he says. For a futurologist you understand why this might become an issue.
The book covers subjects as diverse and controversial as cloning, genetic screening, disabled athletes, space exploration and cosmetic surgery using a variety of wildly different imaginative approaches.
One contribution comes from Yann Marussich, a Swiss bio artist who ingests a potent blue dye and then exhibits himself in a glass case, allowing people to watch as the colouring seeps out of his pores.
Even the index of the book is unusual – as well as a formal alphabetic index the book has a tag cloud index, that showers words across the page with a larger type for topics mentioned more often.
"I'm pretty sure it is the first book in the world with a tag cloud index," Miah says.
Miah, 33, who took a degree in sport science, then a PhD in bioethics and a masters in medical law, has previously written or co-authored more conventional-looking books on genetically modified athletes and on the way medical information on the internet has transformed the way people look at health. He has also written papers for publications including the Lancet.
But, in his opinion, uncharted territory requires new ways of thinking – which is why Human Futures, published by the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool, is such a radically different book.
In his introduction Sir Drummond Bone, former vice-principal of Liverpool University, says: "When we talk about the need for radical interdisciplinary thinking in order to understand an environment which paradoxically is increasingly created by our own activities, we rarely think radically enough."
In Miah's view the world in which scientists pursue their own particular lines of inquiry to the exclusion of other forms of thinking is limited.
"Specialism is an outdated mode of operation. People today are talking about convergence," he explains.
"I spend a lot of my talking to bioethicists and engineers and for the most part they are absolutely null and void of any imagination.
"Their way of imagining the future is very different from that of an artist or designer. What I find with artists and designers is that they bring a whole different way of looking at problems."
Miah believes using artists and designers to explore the possibilities at the cutting edge of research can help engage members of the public in the very real debates about the ethical implications of research. "The question is what does the future look like – and who is in the position to tell us what the future looks like?"
In one unsettling image in the book a little girl appears to be playing with clay like lumps of human flesh, in a sculpture by Patricia Picinini. In another, designer Kate O'Riordan has created a "breathing dog" – a canine with an extra set of mechanical lungs which can breathe for its owner – just as a guide dog can see and a hearing dog can hear.
"There was a time when we used leeches and maggots to help us recover – but aesthetically we now find trouble with that," Miah says.
"The underlying question is about the limits of what is possible and desirable as the scientific field of genetics and biotechnology expands. What I want to do is bring a range of different approaches to the question: 'What does the future look like?'
"Artists can communicate concepts in a way that allows people to make sense of it. Designers are something else. What they are bringing is not just vision but the practical application of technology."
Miah tells me about one of his design colleagues who invented a telephone tooth implant – questioning how far the miniaturisation of electronic goods could be taken. It didn't actually work – but it illustrated the question of how far things could go. In terms of ethics and human rights scientific and medical advances can throw up challenging issues – such as the case of South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, whose case is discussed in the book by Gregor Wolbring.
Pistorius, who has artificial legs below the knee, was initially barred from the 2008 Olympics because his artificial "cheetah legs" could make him faster than able- bodied athletes. He was later told he could compete, but failed to qualify.
In Miah's view, science fiction can be an important way of exploring the implications of science fact – which is why there is also a section devoted to fiction.
He says: "These fictional works should provoke us to consider the realities of how science and technology are evolving. All these works are based on actual scientific realities – but they take us further than a deep scientific analysis might take us."
Miah's interest in extraterrestrial ethics was triggered by a work of art.
He was inspired by watching Laurie Anderson – the "first and last official artist in residence at Nasa" perform her work The Way of the Moon at Glasgow Tramway in 2005.
It set him thinking about the medicalisation of astronauts, the way they are used as human specimens in space, about the possibility that bio-engineered robots could be sent on missions to Mars and about what could happen if human beings encountered alien life. But isn't the formulation of ethics in relation to little green men a step too far?
"The answer is all ethics are made up ethics. Morality is a figment of our imagination," Miah explains.
"And we are already committed to the environment of space – whether or not little green men exist. If we were to discover water on Mars this is a new environment and we have to work out how to engage with it."
Miah, who has a Bangladeshi father and an English mother, says thinking about the future could help make human beings behave better in the present. "I get frustrated that I live in a century which is not past racism.
"Thinking about extraterrestrial ethics is important – because it should allow us to build a real sense of concern for the environment and for other beings – which could also show us how to treat humanity.
"Ethics has always been a way of making sense of the moral choices we encounter. Extraterrestrial ethics should focus our attention on outer space in part to help us refine how we deal with life on Earth."