Kirk seeks 'superman' technology watchdog to rein in scientists
SCIENTISTS of the future will have to be controlled by an ethics watchdog to prevent a nightmare vision of nanotechnology becoming reality, according to a Church of Scotland expert.
Dr Donald Bruce, the director of the Kirk's society, religion and technology project, said "it was only a matter of time" before action had to be taken.
The potential of this new science to create artificially "enhanced humans" who are supposed to be smarter, stronger and have other capabilities such as night vision, meant the work of physicists and chemists would need to be monitored, he said.
A group called "Transhumanists" believe humanity should start to artificially improve itself, and there have already been some tentative experiments. But there are fears this could lead to problems similar to the side effects of steroids taken by athletes to improve their performance.
Currently there is no body to ensure scientific research is ethical. Creating one with a wide remit would be a highly controversial step. But there is a precedent as areas of research involving human embryos require a licence and are monitored by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
Dr Bruce, who is also a member of the Nano2Life Ethical, Legal and Social Advisory Board, stressed he was not calling for a regulatory body to be set up now, but said one would be necessary as the science develops.
"I think the human enhancement area does need, or will need, a body or bodies to be able to say 'Well okay, what should be done in this area?'" he said.
At some stage, the capacity to create enhanced humans, which some scientists were exploring, would "undoubtedly need some form of ethical oversight", he said. Writing in the journal of the European Molecular Biology Organisation this week, Dr Bruce said nanotechnology - the science of the very small - risked leading scientists towards viewing humans "primarily in terms of his or her functions".
If this was done, it was "easy to take the next step and manipulate these functions to do something supposedly better".
"In humans, the negative results of steroid abuse by athletes serve as a warning about the risks of 'improving' one's body," Dr Bruce said.
He added the Scottish Executive, UK government and European Commission all appeared to put the need to develop new technology "primarily in terms of its capacity to generate wealth ahead of quality of life".
But he warned: "New developments must respect certain limits drawn from religious and cultural traditions, philosophy and theology, the arts and humanities, and the social sciences." The paper also raises concerns that nano research into tiny implants that can monitor disease and the blood sugar levels of diabetics could also lead to "increased surveillance of citizens under the guise of national security, or even be used by terrorists.
Cybernetics expert Professor Kevin Warwick, of Reading University, who believes enhancing humans should be allowed, agreed there might be a need for an ethical advisory committee, but spoke out against a formal watchdog with powers over what research is carried out.
"Technology which could be used to assist someone who has a problem, maybe to overcome blindness, could also be used by someone else to enhance themselves," he said.
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