Humans have always had a desire to make themselves better, faster, stronger and smarter. Today we can. With implants, nanotechnology, artificial body parts and smart drugs we can enhance human physiology beyond our current limitations. But should we really pursue this? And can we do it responsibly?

Participating guests in the studio were Karim Jebari, Ph.D in analytic philosophy, KTH, Royal Institute of Technology and Post Doc at the Institute for Futures Studies, Gustav Nilsonne, MD, PhD, researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Stockholm University and Mats Nilsson, Lecturer and researcher, KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Zoltan Istvan, writer, philosopher, futurist and 2016 presidential candidate for the newly formed Trans humanist Party and Maria Konovalenko, Molecular biophysicist, Program Coordinator for the Science for Life Extension Foundation, joined the talk via Skype.

“One of the main challenges with human enhancement is what this could do to our society. Today we already have elite that use all the means possible to entrench their positions in society. They send their kids to elite schools; they give them super healthy food and put them in super healthy training camps. If we would have a medicine that could enhance cognitive abilities, then I think we have a real challenge to deal with the inequities that could be a result”, said Karim Jebari.

On the topic of technical development in this field Mats Nilsson described how he has developed a glove which will give more support to weakened hands: “When you get older, through sicknesses or during labour, you decrease the capacity of the hands. We have made a glove that helps you in the daily life, keeping the strength. You wear it like a normal glove, with a pair of motors and you have wires from the motors to the hand. If you raise the hand to take a glass, the wires will be pulled and the glove gives a firm grip around the glass”.

MD, PhD, researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Stockholm University
Gustav Nilsonne, MD, PhD, researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Stockholm University

Boosting human cognitive functions was also discussed. “Among the receptor systems in the brain, there are possibilities of affecting the cognitive functions. It is quite difficult to enhance cognitive functions generally. The exception is that we can increase our vigilance. Caffeine is probably the most wide spread cognitively enhancing substance in our society today. This means being less sleepy, more alert and more able to perform”, Gustav Nilsonne explained.

Although there are many groups which are involved in issues related to human enhancement, the issue is not often discussed in politics. Therefore the guest Zoltan Istvan, who joined the discussion via Skype from the United States, has created a political party for which he is now a 2016 presidential candidate: “We wanted to form a political party that was pushing the bio ethical issues of Trans Humanism. None of the other presidential candidates is talking about designer babies, even though technology for designer babies is essentially here. They are not talking about ethics for Artificial Intelligence. They are not talking about the ethics whether or not we should start replacing our limbs with robotic limbs. There is a very strong chance that within ten years we will be able to eliminate heart disease through robotic hearts”.

Maria Konovalenko, who is a PhD student in biology of aging and a self-proclaimed “aging fighter”, is using her background in molecular biophysics in studying mechanisms of aging and trying to figure out ways to increase our lifespan and improve our health. She describes aging as the main limiting obstacle for humans “In my opinion it is aging. There is a whole long list of terrible things that happen to us when we're getting older. I think that eliminating aging through life extension technologies would enable us as humans to prevent those diseases from happening. We actually have the knowledge. Science knows what to do”, she said.

On the question if we can we stop people from dying, and if we should, the guests had diverse comments:
“Life extension is the number one goal of Trans Humanism. We want to allocate as many resources as we can to getting people to live far longer. Today we have approximately 150 000 people that die every day on planet earth. That’s a huge loss of lives, loved ones and productivity from an economic stand point. We can stop that!” Zoltan Istvan, said. Whilst Mats Nilsson focusses on the current life in his research: “My first priority is not to prolong life. I focus on increasing life quality for people during our normal life span", he said.

"We haven’t found a clock in the body that determines our age and that we could change. Instead every body part ages independently and it seems very difficult to counter act aging as such. On the other hand we have been tremendously successful in working against the big diseases that kill us. If we can continue to make incremental improvements we could push the limits for healthy living quite far”, Gustav Nilsonne, added.

Karim Jebari reminded the panel about the ethical considerations and said: “I think there is an interesting moral dilemma here. For us it would be very nice to live a very long and healthy life, but we live on a planet that has strict boundaries for how many people can exist at a given time”, he concluded.

Crosstalks is an international academic talk show, broadcast once a month by two of Sweden’s top universities – KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University. All episodes are available online here.