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NIH‘s Human Genome Project funds Vanderbilt history professor‘s research, Michael Bess studies the impact of technology on what it means to be human

May. 5, 2005, 12:59 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. ñ As the science that could lead to designer babies advances, and as machines take on more human-like capabilities, what once was considered science fiction is becoming reality for contemporary scientists and technologists, with more in common than generally assumed.

That is the underlying premise of research on human identity that recently won Vanderbilt Professor of History Michael Bess a $75,833 grant from the National Institutes of Health/National Human Genome Research Institute. He is one of a small number of non-scientists to receive funding from the institutes.

“Although we are still not remotely close to having the kinds of robots with personalities that are depicted in science fiction books and movies,” Bess said, “the science in these areas has been accelerating phenomenally, especially in the past two decades.” Nevertheless, Bess believes, significant alteration of human biology through genetic engineering is a more realistic possibility in the near future than a human-like robot.

“What‘s different about my research is that I am bringing together these two very different science fiction visions ñ robots and clones ñ and comparing them,” Bess said. “Both of them push the limits of traditional concepts of what it means to be human.”

As a historian, Bess said, his focus will be different from that of a scientist. “The key issue, for my purposes, is not so much whether a computer or robot could ever legitimately be described as sentient, or whether creating a designer baby will actually become feasible someday ñ though these are undoubtedly important questions.

“Rather, the main issue for my proposed study is how the possibility of creating such entities ñ intelligent machines and re-engineered humans ñ has been perceived in postwar culture: what kinds of controversy have surrounded these technological visions, and what those controversies have revealed about our society‘s shifting conceptions of human identity.”

In other words, Bess said, “How have scientific discoveries concerning artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation caused us to rethink what we mean by the term ‘human being‘? How far can we go in tinkering with human traits before we start seriously threatening the basic identity underneath?”

Bess, who has already published two books exploring the social and cultural impacts of technological change, will publish his latest research in a book titled Artificial Persons: Shifting Boundaries of the Human in the Age of Robots and Clones.

He explained that he was able to receive the grant for his research because a certain amount in the budget for the Human Genome Project has been allocated for people who are not necessarily scientists to explore the social and moral implications of these new technological capabilities for changing the nature of human biology.

His research will be highly interdisciplinary in focus, said Bess, who plans to interview not only biologists, engineers, and other scientists, but also philosophers, politicians, novelists and others who have helped shape the public debates over these new technologies. He hopes to have his findings published by 2009.

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS