Security and Transhuman Futures….

In this piece, Tom Hobson (PhD Candidate in International Security, University of Bath) reflects on the ethical and political implications of imagined trans-human futures, facilitated by technological advances. Such work goes beyond a narrower range of security concerns which have so far preoccupied states and civil-society working in arms control forums.

What follows is a short discussion of some of the possible implications of biotech for human security and for global society. I advance a fairly troubling, but I feel, entirely plausible account of how genetic engineering could lead to the exacerbation of global inequality, with this inequality becoming biologically embedded. The piece hopes to provoke further discussion of the transformative effects and global security implications of advanced technologies, such as genetic engineering or synthetic biology. The discussion concludes by suggesting some further avenues for research and questions for consideration.

New tech/New questions/New ways of thinking

Cutting-edge developments in biotech and the biological sciences are likely to hold major implications for the conduct of war, and for security more broadly. In a recent post, Brett Edwards asks us to consider the way we understand “biologically inspired” technologies, and how these understandings can influence their ethical standing and use, and how they may fit into or interact with existing governance structures. It seems to me, that this type of questioning is crucial – science research is advancing and biological and technical capabilities are expanding accordingly. Those concerned with security and safeguarding against the harmful application of these capabilities must also seek out new approaches, new questions and new ways of thinking.

The debates which have long dominated the field of biosecurity– with a focus on the efficacy and process of inter/national governance regimes, prohibition and verification – are no longer adequate on their own. The scale and pace of contemporary scientific and technical advance is such that a more critical engagement with science & technology and its relationship to policy, law, ethics and society itself is required.

In an age when our daily lives are so heavily mediated by advanced technology, it is no longer sufficient for those of us concerned with science, tech and security to rely on uncritical, instrumental definitions of technology. Particularly when the line between the biological and mechanical may start to blur – when human and machine become increasingly co-dependent, symbiotic or imitative – it is important that the ethical and substantive quandaries of such development are considered before they are implemented, rather than after the fact.

Human Security/Genomics

If it is true that advanced biotech will have a significant impact upon the means and practice of political violence, then we should bear in mind that the effects of these enhanced capabilities will not be confined to the military sector. Developments in genomics have already led some academics to ponder the potentially negative geopolitical and societal impact of readily implementable genetic enhancement. CRISPR, for example,  scientists the ability to edit genes in living organisms- and in germ lines. A recent article in The Washington Post highlighted the extensive range of possible medical applications of the technology, before also discussing some of the more worrying outcomes that could result from heritable genetic modification:

“Changes made to enhance human offspring, rather than simply to combat disease and disability, could redefine what it means to be human, while those to whom these techniques are unavailable would risk becoming a genetic underclass.”

This concern was also articulated by Fukayama in 2004:

“The new procedures and technologies emerging from research laboratories and hospitals … can as easily be used to ‘enhance’ the species as to ease or ameliorate illness…. The first victim of transhumanism might be equality”

As much as Fukayama has a historic tendency towards the hyperbolic, this is a suggestion that must be taken seriously. Indeed, there is really no reason for us to presume that the trajectory of the ongoing biotechnology revolution will be a purely utopian one.

Access to the benefits of genetic engineering – possibly including the elimination of congenital disease, enhanced mental or physical capabilities or resistance to illness – may well be highly asymmetric. Rather than facilitating a brave new world where the profits of eradicating disease, adapting physiologies and extending life are shared equitably among a global society, some argue that the affordances of genomics and human enhancement are likely to be concentrated in the hands of the richest or most powerful.

In a particularly pessimistic account, George Annas has advanced the view that:

“…it almost seems inevitable that genetic engineering would move homosapiens into two separable species: the standard-issue human beings would be seen by the new, genetically enhanced neo-humans as heathens who can properly be slaughtered and subjugated. It is this genocidal potential that makes species-altering genetic engineering a potential weapon of mass destruction and the unaccountable genetic engineer a potential bioterrorist.”

This is an ethical issue, yet it is also clearly a security issue. The bifurcation of humans at genetic-species level would dramatically impact human security, greatly threatening the survival of those left out of the genetic enhancement pool. The likely destabilisation would be likely to catalyse regional conflict making the issue a definite national and state security concern. Finally, it is worth remembering that the relative weakening of populations has the capacity for military application.

Of course, this is not the only issue facing the academic or policy community concerning security and biotech innovation, but we would be foolish to ignore it. The reach of this techno-science is vast, and our analytical grasp must be equal to it. It will not be sufficient to legislate after the fact, and to disregard the transformative potential of synthetic biology and genetic editing will leave us dangerously under-prepared to deal with these risks.

Looking forward…

How then, can security experts and policy makers ensure that we are best placed to avoid such a drastically harmful outcome? Well, as has been suggested, one important task is to generate new questions and adapt to new approaches so we can begin to comprehend how these technologies may transform the world, and the mutually constitutive relationship they hold with law, ethics and policy. Neither technology nor security exist in isolation from these realms, and analyses that aspire to understand their interaction are likely to yield valuable results.

By way of instigating further unpacking and consideration of these challenges, I offer the following questions for possible discussion:

  • What analytical or theoretical tools do we have at our disposal to take up this challenge? Can the potentialities of this technology be understood through ‘traditional approaches’ to IR and security? Or do we need to reach outside the canon and engage with interdisciplinary approaches?
  • How do the ways we understand these technologies – for example, as entirely instrumental or substantive, as generally utopian or fatalistic – impact the ways we regulate, develop and implement them? What consequences do these understandings hold for the future?
  • What type of politics do we want in this area- and perhaps more pragmatically, what is the possibility and value of moving beyond exercises in ‘speculative ethics’, towards more pro-active modes of governance?

– Tom Hobson, @tom_hobson87

Featured Image Creative commons: source

Bio-inspired weapons

In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the relationship between the specific international prohibition covering toxins and disease – and the idea of biologically inspired weapon systems (which generally speaking are not prohibited under international law). Such relationships are not unconsidered- indeed a 2010 report from the Center for Technology and National Security Policy reviewed many of the issues below. However, it strikes me that very specific perspectives are currently dominating ethical and legal discourses on these matters- particularly in relation to cutting edge innovation.  As is noted in the foreword to this report:

Despite various treaties and protocols, offensive biological weapons use
has continued to this day, with the anthrax attacks of 2001 being the most
recent incident. Such activity has led to a strong defensive program, with
medical science developing numerous countermeasures that have benefited
both civilian and military populations.’

‘But that is the “old” biological warfare. Covert programs for the
development of novel weapons will advance; likewise, the development of
countermeasures will also continue.’

Further to this the report opens up the study of what it terms ‘the new face of biological warfare‘- which includes biologically based or inspired materials for military technologies, novel portable power sources, manufacturing technologies, sensors, and technologies which can heal, enhance and conceal war-fighters.

But what about biologically inspired weapon systems? Surely this is also part of the ‘new face’ of biological warfare, it is certainly something DARPA has shown interest in – do these systems attract special ethical considerations, and how do these relate to the prohibition against poisons and disease?

Three areas I think could merit particular discussion, which for the time being I am grouping around the idea of targeting (such as biologically inspired autonomous weapon systems), delivery ( such as insect inspired or algorithm based swarm technology) and payload  (synthetic agents). It is clear the latter is prohibited under the BWC and CWC- however, this is not the case for the first two. It is also apparent that in thinking about weapons in terms of targeting, delivery and payload, I may also be bracketing out a whole other range of biologically inspired weapon systems.

I guess there are a few key questions that would require unpacking:

  • In what senses can technologies be ‘biologically inspired’
  • What aspects of  the framing of technology contributes to its ethical status. ( i.e relationship with nature,relationship with existing systems of order,  mode of use and effects)

Thoughts very welcome.

-Brett Edwards