Human Augmentation – The Emergence of an Unforeseen Dilemma?

Human augmentation research is expected to lead to new advancements in the 21st century raising several legal, ethical and fundamental rights questions. Do we need to worry about human enhancement?

This article was written in co-authorship by Anaísa Correia de Oliveira, Catarina Camacho Correia, Francisco Miguel Gomes and João Quinta Gomes, students of NOVA School of Law


Human augmentation, also known as human enhancement, refers to new technologies that improve human productivity or capacity or add to the human body somehow. It can be used for therapeutic purposes, which aim to restore human health and condition, or for non-therapeutic uses, that improve individuals capacity to live. However, as any other emerging technology, it poses some challenges, particularly to its users well-being, since it is not possible to determine its long term effects.

           Overall, the main question is : do we need to worry about human enhancement?

            Human enhancement technologies can be found in several inventions already. While they are beneficial to humankind, they also pose risks to society. Consider some examples:

Robotic Prosthesis

One of the most known uses of human augmentation is robotic prosthesis: artificial limbs (in plastic or otherwise) that are impregnated with technology, such as artificial intelligence. Robotic prosthesis can be used to replace or add new limbs to someone’s body. Nowadays, they are used specifically for medical purposes, by arm or leg amputees. However, human enhancement by robotic prosthesis can entail much more than just help someone to enjoy their normal lives again. Although still in an initial phase, the advancement of human augmentation technology can allow the development of robotic wings, gills, and other limbs equipped with all kinds of gadgets or improving skills (e.g. speed, strength, among others).

There are some advantages related to this type of technology, since it can improve life quality and facilitate a daily routine, enhance the capabilities of people and contribute to a more equal society. Nevertheless, robotic prosthesis may pose some challenges, such as health issues (e.g. body pain, skin irritation, etc), high costs, limited availability and the unpredictability associated with artificial intelligence.

Microchip Implants

Microchip implants are extremely small devices that can be inserted into a person’s body without the need of complicated surgery. They are composed of several components, such as the RFID tags, the RFID reader, the antenna and a database which stores memory to an external computer.

Microchip implants have a unique ID number and can be used to track or record medical details of individuals, replace keys or even allow access to personal information in case of an emergency. Therefore, the main advantage of this gadget is convenience by making the daily lives of its users more simple.

Although this is a promising technology, there are some risks associated with its use, particularly in relation to concerns regarding security and privacy, often associated with identity theft, autonomy and freedom. Additionally, there are also some implications concerning uncertainty; since this is an emerging technology, there is no record of long term effects that might be harmful and pose a possible threat to an individual’s health.

Smart Drugs

Smart drugs are also an interesting example of human enhancement technologies. They are specifically designed pharmaceuticals that can exponentially improve humans capacity to interpret and process information.

Like any other technology, there are some benefits and challenges connected with its use. Some of its main advantages are related to health, since it allows for the treatment of patients with neurological problems, such as Alzheimer, Parkinson or even hyperactivity. Moreover, it also improves the individual’s focus on tasks, allows for energy and motivation boosts and also provides neuroprotection.

Furthermore, there are some risks regarding the consumption of smart drugs. The possibility of occurring health issues is a severe consequence since it is not possible to determine yet how the human brain will react when enhancing human cognition. Consequently, there are dangers related to addiction and possible overdose of individuals who choose to consume smart drugs.

Gene Editing

Human genome editing is an additional example of human enhancement. Due to the latest developments in technology and biology, adding or eliminating a person’s genes is no longer impossible. Moreover, there are already gene-editing techniques (e.g. CRISPR) that have been increasingly presenting promising results; these techniques contribute to the studying and understanding of how DNA works in the human body. In addition, it allows for the discovery of processes to counter human diseases derived from genetic and hereditary factors, such as HIV, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, dementia, among others.

Although it is estimated that this technology will play an important role in the future, there are some risks associated with it. For example, it implies exceeding the very immanent limits of a human being, breach normal standards of morality and ethical principles, and, overall, it is still a premature idea surrounded by uncertainties, given the possible and unknown side effects in the human body.

There is no doubt that there is an immense multitude of inventions regarding human augmentation beyond these examples. Even though human augmentation has many advantages, the risk should be investigated in advance. Some of these issues may arise due to the fact that law is not able to keep up with technology’s pace, originating regulatory gaps. Moreover, there are additional challenges related to the definitions of human rights and ethics, which may need to be rethought to accommodate this emerging reality. These are present day dilemmas, which will be augmented by future technological developments.

The Future of Human Augmentation

We can expect that human augmentation research will continue and it is likely that it will lead to new advancements marking the 21st century. Developments in nanotechnology, biology information technology and cognitive science will presumably happen, converging these fields and opening the door to a whole new world of unthinkable possibilities. Although human augmentation is surrounded by several challenges, both related to ethics and law, the inevitable truth is that, similarly to other emerging technologies, it will keep evolving quickly. Consequently, and due to its unpredictability, it may pose future dangers that we cannot anticipate at the present moment. In addition, there should also be a focus on mitigating the risks associated with the use of these technologies. In conclusion, the world will have to readapt to this new and inevitable reality in which some, if not all of us, will be augmented in one way or another, at least in part.

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The opinions expressed within the article are solely the author’s and do not reflect in any way the opinions and beliefs of WhatNext.Law or of its affiliates. See our Terms of Use for more information.

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