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SXSW: Beyond Human – just because we could, does it mean we should?

When we think of our future self, very few of us would see ourselves as a digital clone or even with our limbs replaced by bionic prosthetics. However, this vision of the future is something that could be moving out of the realms of science fiction and into reality, according to several speakers as SXSWi.

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In Sunday’s keynote presentation, transhumanist Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics and author of Virtually Human shared her thoughts on the advances in artificial intelligence and the potential for us to create virtual clones of our minds. This ‘cyber consciousness’ is already in its early stages of development as more and more of us document our lives, opinions and thoughts on social media.

Martine has already started to create a cyber-consciousness for her wife Bina Aspen, called Bina48, who is capable of having conversations as proven in a  New York magazine interview last year. This may sound familiar to Black Mirror who remember the ‘Be Right Back’ episode where a grieving widow implanted the digital mind of her late husband into a lifelike robot. Martine believes we are not that far away and that digital immortality is something the human race should strive for.

From virtual versions of ourselves to improved versions of ourselves. MIT professor, keen climber and double amputee, Hugh Herr shared his view that advances in bionics will illuminate physical disability by the end of this century. On stage, he demoed the powered ankle-foot prosthesis he and his team have developed and how he changes his prosthesis depending on the activity he is doing. For example, he has designed special lightweight prosthesis for ice climbing versus rock climbing, and has such an advantage over his non-amputee climbing competitors to such an extent that they actually complained. His response is that they are welcome to have a double amputation to even up the field.

But what if prosthetics became so advanced it would be advantage to replace our healthy organic limbs with bionic ones?

Technology has the potential to take us beyond our physical limitations, but it also raises so key ethical questions. The first of these is open access, since the cost of these technologies will mean it will only be an option for a few, not the many. The other is whether by augmenting our bodies or our minds, do we still retain our humanity? This is a debate that must be had if we are to fully utilise these technologies to improve our lives.

Chrissy Totty is Head of Innovation for Vizeum
To find out what Chrissy and James from the Innovation Team got up to in Austin search #southbyviz on Twitter