Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Human 2.0 Presents an Incredible Dilemma For Arms Control

The Incredible Hulk is a hyperbole for a problem policy makers will be facing sooner than we realize

Right now, on movie screens across the world, a mighty green behemoth is smashing his way into the public consciousness.

The Incredible Hulk, Marvel films' attempt at a gimme on 2003's previous and widely-unpopular Hulk film (titled simply Hulk), stars Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, an idealistic young scientist who, in the course of testing his scientific work on himself, transforms himself into a massive, beastial creature whenever his heart rate gets too fast.

With his ex-girlfriend Betty Ross (played by an implacably dull Liv Tyler) in tow, Banner embarks on a quest to excise the Hulk from himself before General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (played by William Hurt, who was clearly phoning this performance in) gets his hands on it and tries to weaponize it.

Banner's worst nightmare eventually comes true when Ross imbues career soldier and tough-guy Emil Blonsky with the same experimental gamma radiation technology that eventually transforms him into the Abomination.

The "god-like" power that Blonsky covets will give him the ability to remain an incorrigible tough guy well into the waning years of his military career. Unfortunately, he has little interest in maintaining the level of discipline necessary to continue that career, and quickly becomes the ultimate loose cannon, fighting anyone and everyone in his way, including, eventually, the Hulk.

To the average, implicitly disinterested, viewer The Incredible Hulk seems like nothing more than another sci-fi fantasy/monster flick.

However, to those who have paid even passing attention to science's emerging "human 2.0" movement, the film turns out to be quite prescient: a cautionary tale about science run amok with no will to constrain itself within traditional means or ethics.

One thing that we have slowly been discovering over the past 30 years of human history is that weapons are already hard enough to control. But the burgeoning revolution in bio-engineering is only going to make it much, much worse.

It's one thing when the weapon in question is an old Soviet stock AK-47 in the hands of a terrorist footsoldier, rebel fighter or child soldier. The weapon can always be taken away with relative simplicity.

But when the weapon is the person themselves -- enhanced with a variety of occular implants, cybernetically enhanced brains, and post-birth genetic treatments -- it's much harder to take that weapon away, so to speak. Not only do such human weapons pose a serious challenge to our ability to control them -- there's only a certain extent to which human behaviour will tolerate being controlled, particularly when an individual's personal resources in terms of resisting that control have been exponentially expanded -- but they pose a singular threat to the very principle of human sovereignty over the self.

Once militaries begin to weaponize the otherwise-promising advancements offered by human 2.0, this scientific movement very much will begin to pose a dilemma for foreign policy thinkers.

Norton plays Banner as an idealistic young scientist who flees to Brazil in order to prevent the government from weaponizing the results of his accident. But as Dr Samuel Sterns (played by Tim Blake Nelson), Banner's unscrulous "mr Blue" compatriot, reminds us, some scientists don't adhere to conventional ethics or idealism.

As difficult to control as the new human weapons the military applications of human 2.0 will eventually spawn will be, it will be even harder to control these scientists, who all too often are inspired not by the desire to improve the quality of life of all people, but simply to make exorbitant amounts of money and acquire exorbitant amounts of personal glory.

Frankly, the ethical concerns posed by human 2.0 are as stringent as those imposed by human cloning, although it certainly lacks the sensational quality of those posed by cloning.

The time to start constraining this movement within conventional scientific ethics is now. The ethical dilemma posed by human 2.0 could even pose a threat to the extremely important medical advances offered by stem cell research.

To pretend that the human 2.0 (or primo posthuman) movement will spawn armies of Hulks that will proceed to smash their way through major urban centers is a fantasy that, fortunately, defies credulity.

But there are potential consequences that are, in their own way, every bit as bad if not far, far worse -- conequences that even the most imaginative comic book writers could likely never imagine.

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