Virtual tourism has thus far been a futuristic dream, but a world shaped by Covid-19 may be ready to accept it.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the travel and tourism industries;
- Businesses in this sector must build infrastructure and practices that allow people to travel safely in a post-pandemic world and support local communities that benefit from tourism;
- Augmented, virtual and mixed reality technologies can offer alternative ways to travel the world and an exciting new model for the industry.
The tourism industry has hit a nadir owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will continue to feel the effects for at least the first three quarters of 2021 – according to a recent UN report, tourist arrivals globally in January 2021 were down 87% when compared to January 2020.
Travel will prevail over post-pandemic anxiety, making it incumbent on the aviation and tourism industry to build safer infrastructure and practices that take care of travellers' well being.
After a year thwarted by the pandemic and with the future not looking too upbeat for the industry at this juncture, tourism business owners should look at alternative modes of interaction for holidaymakers that can also aid the people and economies who depend on tourism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has noticeably hastened the testing and rollout of forward-looking technologies. Technology has not only enabled citizens globally to interact with loved ones, but also helped industries such as healthcare, information technology, education and many more to work remotely.
In the last few decades, technology has helped travel and tourism industries increase their reach through travel booking websites, videos, blogs and travel photography. Digital tools and content are a vital source of information for vacationists organizing their next holiday or creating a destination wish list. Whilst remote or virtual tourism has been a futuristic theme within industry forums for some time, the world today, shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, might now be ready to accept it.
A human-centric design that draws insights from cognitive behaviour, social psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics applied with cutting edge technologies such as augmented, virtual or mixed reality (AR, VR, MR) could be a game-changer. AR, VR and MR can enable a seamless, uninterrupted interactive experience for viewers from their own private space. The design principles will create a frictionless digital user experience and construct a positive perception of a tourist destination.
There have been previous attempts to achieve this feat: if you are an aqua sightseer, you might be aware of a documentary exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Through an interactive website, one can view the clear, tranquil currents of the Pacific Ocean and the biodiversity of the reef, and experience the sounds of a healthy coral reef. Another much-discussed VR experience is Mission 828 which allows you to take a virtual parachute jump from the world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The Official Tourist Board of the Faroe Islands has also crafted a virtual experience to entice post-pandemic visitors from across the world.
Imagine a human-centric designed, interactive space online that makes a destination accessible and so real for a sightseer with sound captured by electro-acoustics researchers. You could view holiday sites in a video or through self-navigation using voice or joystick controls, interact with people using video-calling platforms, travel through the streets of said location, eavesdrop on local music and much more. This could be stitched together in a single platform individually or in silos on the internet and further enhanced by setting up physical experience tourism centres locally. Such a setup would allow tourist guides, artisans, craftspeople, hoteliers and transport business to create their own digital and virtual offerings and interact with possible customers.
Here's how it might look: a vacationer starts their experience from the time their flight commences. The plane descends to the destination runway and pictures of the vicinity from the aircraft window pane are captured. The airport signage welcomes passengers and directs them to a pre-booked taxi. The vacationer gets to choose their first destination and travels through the streets in a chauffeur-driven car whose interactions en route become part of their cherished memories. On arrival, a tourist guide walks you through the destination all controlled with just a tap on your gadget. During the sightseeing, you hear random people speaking, posing for photographs and more. You take a photo to post on social media, go shopping and negotiate with a local vendor to purchase an artwork and get it delivered to your door. You learn how a local dish is prepared and get familiar with local customs.
A virtual platform could even provide an opportunity for people to explore areas that are affected by or fighting terrorism. For example, imagine seeing the diverse wildlife and snow leopard of the Gurez Valley, in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, India. It doesn't stop there: if thought through, one could experience travelling to the South Pole, space and beyond. It could also serve as a learning portal for students to understand geographies, culture, art and history.
With technology improving lives globally, virtual tourism could reignite the tourism industry and its people and help build a more sustainable economic model. As a human-centric platform, it can establish local tourist guides, artisans and others as global citizens in the tourism industry.
Even with six months' notice, we can't stop an incoming asteroid.
- At an international space conference, attendees took part in an exercise that imagined an asteroid crashing into Earth.
- With the object first spotted six months before impact, attendees concluded that there was insufficient time for a meaningful response.
- There are an estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects potentially threatening our planet.
The asteroid 2021 PDC was first spotted on April 19, 2021 by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii. By May 2, astronomers were 100% certain it was going to strike Earth somewhere in Europe or northern Africa. On October 20, 2021, the asteroid plowed into Europe, taking countless lives.
There was absolutely nothing anyone could do to deflect it from its deadly course. Experts could only warn a panicking population to get out of the way as soon as possible, if it was possible.
The above scenario is the result of a recently concluded NASA thought experiment.
The question the agency sought to answer was this: If we discovered a potentially deadly asteroid destined to hit Earth in six months, was there anything we could do to prevent a horrifying catastrophe? The disturbing answer is "no," not with currently available technology.
While Europe can breathe easy for now, the simulation conducted by NASA/JPL's Center for Near Earth Object Studies and presented at the 7th IAA Planetary Defense Conference is troubling. Space agencies spot "near-Earth objects" (NEOs) all the time. Many are larger than 140 meters in size, which means they're potentially deadly.
Credit: ImageBank4U / Adobe Stock
"The level [at] which we're finding the 140-meter and larger asteroids remains pretty stable, at about 500 a year. Our projection of the number of these objects out there is about 25,000, and we've only found a little over one-third of those so far, maybe 38% or so," NASA's Planetary Defense Office Lindley Johnson tells Space.com.
With our current technology, spotting an NEO comes down to whether we just happen to have a telescope pointing in its direction. To remove humanity's blind spot, NASA is developing the NEO Surveyor spacecraft, which they plan to deploy in 2025. The project is being supported by the Planetary Society, the same organization that deployed Earth's first light sails. According to the Planetary Society, NEO Surveyor will be able to detect 90 percent of NEOs of 140 meters or larger, a vast improvement.
How to move an asteroid
The DART spacecraft will attempt to deflect an asteroid.Credit: NASA
The NASA/JPL exercise made clear that six months is just not enough time with our current technology to prepare and launch a mission in time to nudge an NEO off its course. (Small course adjustments become significant over great distances, which is why "nudging" an asteroid is a potential strategy.)
What would such a mission look like? Hollywood aside — remember Armageddon?— we know of no good way to redirect an NEO headed our way. Experts believe that shooting laser beams at an incoming rock, exciting as it might look, is not a realistic possibility. Targeted nuclear blasts might work, but forget about landing Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Liv Tyler on an asteroid to set off a course-altering bomb, especially just a month after its discovery (as was the case in the movie).
Another thing that might work is crashing a spacecraft into an NEO hard enough to shift its course. That's the idea behind NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). This mission will shoot a spacecraft at the (non-threatening) asteroid Dimorphos in the fall of 2022 in the hope of changing its trajectory.
The deadly asteroid's journey
The asteroid "2021 PDC" hit Europe in NASA's simulation.Credit: NASA/JPL
The harrowing "tabletop exercise," as NASA/JPL called it, took place across four days at the conference:
- Day 1, "April 19" — The asteroid named "2021 PDC" is discovered 35 million miles away. Scientists calculate it has a 1-in-20 chance of striking Earth.
- Day 2, "May 2" — Now certain that 2021 PDC will hit Earth, space mission designers attempt to dream up a response. They conclude that with less than six months to impact, there's not enough time to realistically mount a mission to disrupt the NEO's course.
- Day 3, "June 30" — Images from the world's four largest telescopes reveal the area in Europe that will be hit. Space-based infrared measurements narrow the object's size to between 35 and 700 meters. This would pack a similar punch as a 1.2-megaton nuclear bomb.
- Day 4, "October 14" — Six days before impact, the asteroid is just 6.3 million km from Earth. Finally, the Goldstone Solar System Radar has been able to assess the size of 2021 PDC. Scientists calculate the blast from the asteroid will be primarily confined to the border region between Germany, Czechia, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. Disaster response experts develop plans for addressing the human toll.
"Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature," says Johnson, "we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information, and when."
Practically speaking, little can be done to hurry technological development along other than budgeting more money toward that goal. Maybe we should have Bruce Willis on call, just in case.
Noise causes stress. For our ancestors, it meant danger: thunder, animal roars, war cries, triggering a 'fight or run' reaction.
Noise is a belittled threat that disrupts the functioning of people, animals, even plants. It causes stress, provokes aggression, increases the risk of heart disease. Blocking the issue of noise can bring catastrophic consequences for us.
Morning coffee. I set up my laptop in the garden. All I can hear is the morning chirping of birds. Nothing to bother me. Suddenly, the roar of a chainsaw tears into the idyllic scenery. Actually, it's two chainsaws, which the new neighbours are using to massacre trees on the plot next door. Construction work has started. I hide in the house. Unfortunately, even with my windows shut, my ears register a muffled yet distracting roar. Noise has caught up with me here, in the countryside, the place I escaped to from the city. Is there any way to protect myself from it?
The necessary cost of progress?
Or maybe I'm just sowing needless panic? After all, noise has been accompanying us for ages and we have been dealing with it somehow. In Ancient Rome, there was a ban on riding chariots at night to prevent the rattling of wheels from waking the residents, in the Middle Ages streets were sound-proofed with hay, while today we set up noise barriers along roads and railroad tracks, and install sound-proof windows. But the noise level is increasing along with the expanding networks of motorways, railway lines and new airports; we are all experiencing noise, and it's affecting not only the inhabitants of big cities, but also small villages like the one I live in. The most common source of undesired sounds is road traffic; research shows that that 125 million Europeans are subject to sound intensity levels exceeding 55 decibels (which is considered to be harmful). To give you something to compare that to: rustling in the woods is around 10 decibels, a whisper is 30–40 decibels, while a regular conversation is about 50 decibels. One passenger car generates sound of an intensity exceeding 65 decibels, a lorry over 70 decibels, and a plane taking off 120 decibels. In large European or American cities, such as New York or Los Angeles, the average sound intensity is 80–90 decibels. If for an extended period of time we hear noise exceeding 85 decibels, we expose ourselves to hearing damage, balance disorder or even pain. Noise at a lower level of intensity causes us to be nervous and fatigued.
Why do most of us trivialize the issue then, saying You can live with it. It's something you can get used to? I pose that question to Agata Stasik, a sociologist from Kozminski University in Warsaw. "Noise is one of those harmful factors that has a delayed effect on us; it's hard to detect the negative influence of noise on our health without going through costly long-term testing. Indeed, it is easy to notice the unfavourable effect of noise on our well-being. Yet the fact that noise bothers us can be quickly put off as a sign of our oversensitivity, which has no place in a big city. For many people, noise is quite justified and viewed as a necessary cost of progress. Even more so as it usually appears as a side effect of processes like mobility or the effect of industrial activity that serves to meet commonly accepted needs. As a result, any discussion usually goes in the direction of having an only choice between pre-modern life and life in noise," the expert explains.
1.6 million years of life in good health
Maybe it's high time to stop drowning out the issue of noise and confront the effects it has? "Noise pollution is the second threat to public health right after air pollution," is the conclusion of the research of the Environmental Burden of Disease Project presented by the World Health Organization (WHO). As far as eight years ago, the WHO estimated that each year we lose 1.6 million years of good health due to the noise coming from our environment. And this pertains to Europe only! Let's add to that the calculations made by the European Environment Agency (EEA), which show that on the Old Continent, noise is responsible for 10,000 premature deaths, 43,000 hospitalizations and 900,000 cases of hypertension. Yutong Samuel Cai, an epidemiologist from Imperial College London, analysed the data of 356,000 British and Norwegian people. Noise considerably increased the risk of cardiovascular disease; the impact was stronger than the effects of smog, for example. Francesca Dominici from the Harvard School of Public Health came to similar conclusions when she took a good look at the data of over six million Americans (aged 65 years and older) who lived in the vicinity of 89 airports. The results of her research published in 2013 in The BMJ show that an increase in noise intensity of 10 decibels translates into an increased (on average 3.5%) number of patients with cardiovascular diseases: heart attacks, cardiac dysrhythmia or ischaemic heart disease. Why does that happen?
"Noise causes stress. For our ancestors, it meant danger: thunder, animal roars, war cries, triggering a 'fight or run' reaction," explains Bart Kosko, a professor of electrical engineering from the University of Southern California and the author of Noise, published in 2006. And although modern noise, such as the sound of cars on the streets, does not usually pose a threat, our body reacts to it by secreting stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, leading in turn to higher blood pressure, higher pulse rates, increased glucose levels in the blood and increased lipid metabolism; excessive lipid levels can build up in the blood vessels.
Add to that sleep disorders. "Our auditory system has a watchman function. It's constantly monitoring our environment for threats even while we're sleeping. [...] However we are often not aware of this noise and our sleep disturbances because we are unconscious while we're sleeping. In the past we've done studies on the effects of traffic noise on sleep, and research subjects would often wake up in the morning and say, 'I had a wonderful night, I fell asleep right away, never really woke up.' When we would then go back to the physiological signals we had recorded during the night, we would often see numerous awakenings and a severely fragmented sleep structure. These awakenings were too brief for the subjects to regain consciousness and to remember them the next morning, but they may nevertheless have a profound impact on how restful our sleep is," noted Mathias Basner from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine during his presentation at TEDMed in 2018. He has been researching the effects of noise on sleep for years, he is also an advisor of the WHO and President of the International Commission of Biological Effects of Noise (ICBEN). Poor quality of sleep disrupts not only circulation, but also metabolism, which increases the probability of the onset of type 2 diabetes, as confirmed by Swiss studies involving the participation of over 2500 people. The risk of the onset of depression also increases considerably, as much as 25%. Recent research conducted by the National University in Seoul showed that poor sleep may also increase the risk of infertility in men.
Be quieter in school and at work!
The sound of the school bell can hardly be heard over the whirring of power drills and rattling of hammers. The primary school in our village is going through a new phase of construction, as it needs to be expanded due to the latest educational reform and the need to provide room for Year 7 and Year 8 pupils. The operation is being performed on a live organism, during the school year. Nobody seems to have given any thought to issues like constant headaches, lack of concentration or lack of motivation for learning. It's strange, because back in the 1970s, Arline Bronzhaft, a professor in environmental psychology, had already looked into the matter. "One of my students at Lehman College was complaining that at the elementary school his child was attending it was so loud that children were not able to study," the researcher mentions in a recently published book by David Owen, Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World. Passing next to Public School 98 in northern Manhattan was an elevated subway line. Some parents were thinking of suing the city, but Bronzhaft convinced them that they needed proof that the noise was in fact harmful to their children. She compared three years of test results of pupils who were in classrooms located right next to the line with the results of pupils who were studying in the quieter parts of the school. On average, the first group had an 11-month delay in terms of its level of knowledge when compared to the second group. Bronzhaft's research not only ignited a heated discussion in scientific circles, but also forced city authorities to sound-proof the ceilings in the school, while special rubber pads were installed between the rails and the tracks (the solution was later introduced on all New York subway lines). The tests were repeated six years later and showed that eliminating the noise helped the pupils even out the results. The level of noise at school as well as at home has an influence on the development of children. Studies conducted at Cornell University show that children growing up in a noisy environment are significantly more often subject to development problems and have to deal with disorders like dysgraphia, are slower learners, understand less from a text they've read, or find it more difficult to remember new information.
Problems with concentration, nervousness, or even aggression affect adults as well, both at home and at work. The sectors that are most exposed to noise naturally include construction, mining and entertainment, but the issue also troubles people working in the increasingly more common open space offices. Based on tests conducted on urine samples, Gary Evans, a psychologist from Cornell University, determined that open space employees had an increased level of the stress hormone, adrenaline. Their motivation to work was also weaker when compared to people working in small, yet separate rooms. Vinesh Oommen from the Australian Queensland University of Technology believes that in open spaces, we are "confronted with a number of issues, such as the lack of privacy or the flood of stimuli, which in turn lead to health issues, reduced productivity and a low level of job satisfaction." Even a regular conversation between two colleagues at adjacent desks can significantly reduce concentration.
Why doesn't the whale sing?
Noise also has a negative effect on plants and animals. The first discoveries confirming this hypothesis were made accidentally by researchers who were measuring the level of stress hormones in whale stool samples in the Bay of Fundy on the coast of Canada. They found that the level of the hormone drastically fell in September 2001, after which it grew again in a few months. The scientists, who were using hydrophones (microphones to receive sounds underwater) noticed that during that time the level of noise generated by ship traffic had significantly decreased, which was the effect of the September 11 terror attacks. The researchers decided to take a closer look at the effects of noise on marine life, and the results of their research showed that it is harmful to animals, disrupting their communication, foraging and reproduction. "Visibility underwater can reach ten metres, but sound spreads over hundreds of kilometres," explains Peter Tyack, an ecologist from The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. The main source of noise are ships, but the greatest threat is posed by the so-called impulse sources used to search for crude oil. These sources generate a seismic wave underwater, and the signal can be detected by acoustic monitors even thousands of kilometres away. As Tyack's research shows, some animals react negatively even to the sound of a sonar. "Whales stop foraging then, leave the given area and don't return for many days. The sound of the sonar scares them away, even if they are swimming a kilometre deeper than the source of the sound," Tyack explains in his book, Volume Control. Sometimes the sound causes the animal to have a panic attack and suddenly rise to the surface, where it dies from decompression sickness. Impulse sources also kill zooplankton which is food for many marine creatures. Robert McCauley from Curtin University in Perth, Australia took plankton samples before and after a seismic wave was 'triggered'; after the wave was emitted, the abundance of plankton fell by 60% and the number of dead species doubled. Certain animals, like turtles, which react to noise by hiding in their shells, stop to seek shelter in the shells due to the increased frequency of that stimulus; as a consequence, they fall prey to predators more often.
Noise also disrupts the reproduction process in marine mammals. Researchers observing humpback whales near the Japanese island of Ogasawara noticed that in response to noise from ships, males change their mating songs or stop singing altogether. At a distance of 500 metres from the route that ships often sail on, the number of humpback whales was significantly less, while at a distance of 1.2 kilometres from the wake, whales either sing less often or not at all. The whales that stop singing don't start again until at least half an hour has passed after the ship sailed by, according to the article published in PLOS ONE magazine.
And the robin went silent too...
Noise is also harmful to animals on land: the most common source here are roads, production plants, or logging locations near animal habitats. Yet it's not only noise that is a threat to the animals; excessive intensity of artificial light or air pollution are also culprits here. How can we check to what degree noise specifically is harmful to them? Pondering that question was Jesse Barber from Boise State University in Idaho. In 2012, together with his team, he built a half-kilometre stretch of phantom road in Glacier National Park. Speakers mounted on the trunks of fir trees emitted traffic noise. Although the sounds were not deafening (an average inhabitant of a large city would find it to be a delicate hum), the effect they had was dramatic. The number of migrating birds fell by 28% during emission, while certain species completely left the area. Those who stayed suffered; the MacGillivray's warblers did not gain weight like they should have, and they need a supply of fat to migrate successfully. Other research confirmed the observations of Barber's team. Gareth Arnott from Queen's University Belfast demonstrated that noise drowns out the singing of European robins. "In effect, the robins obtain incomplete information regarding the intentions of other birds and their reactions are sometimes inadequate to the situation. In certain cases, the males fight more ferociously, while in others they resign from fighting early on," the researcher says. Noise also disrupts the functioning of bats, which use echolocation to navigate and look for food.
"Noise has a cascade effect on entire ecosystems; it disrupts the functioning of not only animals, but plants as well," Rachel Buxton, a biologist from Colorado State University explains. Insects become more aggressive under the influence of noise; for example, beetles start to attack each other. Bumblebees pollinate plants less frequently; as a result, these plants give lower yield.
Let's make some noise about noise
"The sounds you hear when you walk through the woods, the bustling river, tree branches swaying in the wind or the singing of birds make even us, people, feel better. They are important for our physical and emotional welfare. We should protect them," Buxton argues. But how can we do that? In accordance with EU guidelines (based in turn on WHO recommendations), we should not be subject to noise levels that are a threat to health or quality of life: "At no point in time may exposure to noise exceed 85 dB, and the permissible level of noise in built-up areas during the day should be 60 dB (during the night – 50 dB)." Unfortunately though, things look rather bleak when it comes to implementing these guidelines. The Polish National Inspectorate of Environmental Protection evaluates "facilities that are especially damaging to the environment" and also creates "acoustic maps of areas surrounding airports and entire localities".
The most popular solution is to install acoustic barriers along roads or railroad lines which, as many local residents complain, distort the landscape (accessing the road is also often more difficult). Solutions such as hiding traffic in tunnels are not applied due to their high cost. "The negative impact on health due to noise is not easy to observe on one's own, making it difficult to encourage politicians and citizens to stand up and fight against it. It seems that proposing alternative solutions is key here; in many situations, noise is not inevitable, even if any change in the technologies used and change of habits could be associated with cost at the beginning," Agata Stasik argues.
The so-called third sector, or non-governmental organizations, are introducing effective solutions. In the US, one of the more thriving organizations is The Quiet Coalition (one of its co-founders is Arline Bronzhaft), which is trying to make the authorities realize how negative the effect of noise is on health, work and education. It also supported New York City authorities in creating new regulations regarding noise limits in the city (the so-called noise code), which became the benchmark for other American cities. "While in Poland we have thriving nationwide social movements battling smog, such as Polish Smog Alert (Polski Alarm Smogowy), organizations fighting for silence are usually active on a local level, such as the Quiet Sky over Warsaw association (Ciche Niebo nad Warszawą), which challenges users of Babice Airport in the city to comply with the law. As a result of the pressure exerted by activists, city authorities have announced that they will enforce compliance with noise level standards by users of airports," says Stasik. Yet a nationwide movement in Poland advocating silence is still lacking. Which is a shame, since as our experience with battling smog shows, it could be instrumental in increasing awareness of the issue and exerting pressure on authorities and the private sector. Such a movement would support the activities of citizen science; the idea would be to have citizens create their own noise maps using their smartphones and appropriate software (The Sounds of New York City does that, for example).
Noise pollution has a socio-economic dimension. In her book, The Soundscape of Modernity, Emily Thompson notes that quite often large cumbersome investments, such as production plants or airports, are located in poorer districts, because their residents do not have enough clout to protest against them. Wealthier citizens escape noise by settling in quieter and more expensive districts. "This is a pattern we can also observe in Poland," Stasik confirms.
Let's not forget that we can start the fight against noise with ourselves. "Very much like a carbon footprint, we all have a noise footprint, and there are things we can do to make that noise footprint smaller. For example, don't start mowing your lawn at 7am on a Saturday morning. Your neighbours will thank you. [...] Whenever you're looking to buy a new car, air-conditioning unit, blender, you name it, make low noise a priority," suggests Mathias Basner during his TEDMed presentation. The 'Quiet Mark' programme, active since 2012 and led by the UK Noise Abatement Society, has already started cooperation with over 70 key equipment manufacturers (including Electrolux, Bosch, Logitech and Samsung), ranging from home appliances to lawn mowers and computers. Agata Stasik is also urging us to change our transport habits: opt for a walk, go by bike or use public transport whenever possible.
Contrary to what we might expect, our individual actions can translate into improved social relations. Noise caused by annoying neighbours is, after all, the main reason for an increase in aggressive behaviour, or even violence. Every third person surveyed by Rockwool admitted that loud neighbours deprive us of sleep and cause nervousness and aggression. Nearly two million Brits claim that 'loud neighbours have made their life a nightmare'. Attempts to defuse the stress not only result in increasingly more complaints year after year, but such issues are often solved through the use of force, leading to serious bodily injuries and even the death of those participating in the dispute. So it's probably better to turn down that music.
As Mathias Basner concludes: "Robert Koch once said that one day humanity will fight with noise like it once did with cholera or the plague. It seems that we've reached this point and I hope we will win this fight. And when we win, we'll celebrate in silence."
Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon.
Could a pill make you more moral? Should you take it if it could?
- Moral enhancement is the idea that technology can be used to make us more moral people.
- Proponents argue that we need to be better people in order to solve global problems.
- Ideas on how to use this ethically abound, but no solid consensus exists yet.
People have been artificially enhancing themselves for a long time. Caffeine and other stimulants improve our cognitive performance and might have made the enlightenment possible. More controversially, some athletes use steroids to enhance their athletic performance beyond what would naturally be possible for them.
These aren't the only ways that we can use science and technology to improve our performance, of course. In the last few years, some philosophers have argued that we can, and perhaps should, use these tools to enhance our moral abilities to become a more cooperative, empathetic, or properly motivated species.
Moral enhancement explained
The term "moral enhancement" was first used in a 2008 essay by Tom Douglas. It generally refers to biomedical enhancements but can refer to any technological attempt to make humans more moral. While one could debate what "more moral" means, the literature on the subject focuses on ideas of making people more cooperative, altruistic, and the like.
I reached out to Dr. Joao Fabiano, a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University's Safra Center for Ethics, for more information. He expanded on the idea of moral enhancement and provided the motivation for it.
We all sometimes behave worse than we think we should but have a hard time improving. Moral enhancement would be a technological intervention that helps us behave as we should. There is often a certain pattern to our moral failures shared by most of us. As the neuroscience of morality progresses, we might be able to fix these failures with technology. In fact, we urgently need moral enhancement given the grave social problems these moral failures create and their ingrained biological nature...
...Many of these recurrent moral failures are connected to grave problems in society, such as our inability to tackle global threats (global warming, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics) and grave injustices. Often, these failures can be explained by evolutionary science; they are deep-seated adaptations hardwired in our brains which we can, sometimes, costly and partially control with improved social norms. For instance, many forms of group favoritism and discrimination, such as racism, are to some degree evolved adaptations to an ancestral environment where groups were small and at constant war, and long-distance trade was limited. As neuroscience continues to uncover the biological modulators of our moral behaviour, we might soon be able to reliably influence that behavior with technological interventions.
Ways to make people more moral
Several studies have demonstrated that the moral actions people take can be influenced with biomedical interventions. One found that people will be more aggressive and more likely to violate social norms when their serotonin levels are artificially lowered. Another found that increasing serotonin levels made people harm-averse and more likely to stick to ideas of fairness. Lowering the amount of tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin and melatonin, that people have in their system makes them less cooperative.
Outside of the laboratory, some commonly used drugs, such as painkillers and antidepressants, are also known to slightly modify moral decision-making. Remember that next time you try to make a decision after taking some acetaminophen. The painkiller Tylenol also kills empathy.
Dr. Fabiano points out that the widespread use of these drugs means that "technology is already interfering with our morality, sometimes in undesirable and unpredictable ways." He adds, "We should, at the very least, try to take control of that to produce desirable changes."
He also mentioned, however, that no drug that can reliably enhance moral behavior currently exists. So you shouldn't get the idea that you'll be able to enhance yourself tomorrow.
While philosophers have only been discussing this idea for the last decade or so, plenty of them have argued both for and against moral enhancement.
The basic argument for moral enhancement has been mentioned, namely, that we humans are inclined to certain moral failures, these failures can be corrected, and we have the ability to do so with technological interventions. Some thinkers, such as Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, suggest that we have a moral imperative to do so, as the possibility for even a single person to cause widespread destruction is greater now than it has ever been.
On the other hand, some thinkers, like Allen Buchanan, suggest that while the problems that many proponents of moral enhancement want to solve are real, moral enhancement isn't likely to be a feasible solution to these problems.
Instead, these thinkers propose that non-medical interventions, such as adopting more progressive and accepting attitudes toward out-groups, have proven that our moral natures are not fixed and can be improved without technological intervention — even if the process is a little slow. They additionally have a few doubts about the feasibility or desirability of relying on technology to improve our morals and conclude that focusing on traditional methods is the better bet.
Of course, these are not mutually exclusive options, and it is possible that moral enhancement can be used in tandem with more traditional methods of making people more moral.
The many problems with moral enhancement
The problem of how to actually implement any technological solution remains unsolved. While some philosophers, including Dr. Fabiano, have developed frameworks to guide our use of this technology, there is no real consensus on it. This is a bit of a problem, as simplistic variations of moral enhancement, such as the use of chemical castration as a tool to try to reform sexual offenders, are already in use today in ways that are controversial.
Moral enhancement raises many other ethical questions. Which traits should be enhanced (or suppressed)? What are the side effects of taking a drug that alters your moral behavior? Should such treatments be required for some people, like violent criminals?
Ironically, there is even the chance that improving in-group cooperation, a possible excellent application of moral enhancement, could cause other problems. As Dr. Fabiano explains, "[T]here is a lot of empirical evidence indicating that a drug increasing cooperation between individuals would likely decrease cooperation between groups. Highly cooperative groups tend to be highly discriminatory. Such a drug would create more problems than it would solve."
On the other hand, the possible benefits of moral enhancement are obvious. People could become more cooperative, empathetic, or altusic without the years of work that our current moral improvement systems require. Problems we currently face could vanish in the face of an enhanced population. As Dr. Savulescu argues, this is enough of a benefit to make moral enhancement a worthwhile consideration.
If offered to you, would you take the pill?
Why are rapture ideologies exploding?
- The speed at which civilization is progressing has become overwhelming for modern humans and has caused what Jamie Wheal (author of Recapture the Rapture, founder of the Flow Genome Project, and host of the Collective Insights Podcast) calls a "collapse of meaning."
- For many, Meaning 1.0 (organized religion) and Meaning 2.0 (modern liberalism) no longer provide the structure and guidance that they used to. "It does feel like the handrails, the things we used to look to for stability and security, have evaporated," says Wheal. "If we've experienced a collapse of meaning, how do we go about restoring it?"
- In order to reach Meaning 3.0—which Wheal says is a blend of traditional religion and modern liberalism without the promise of an escape—we need to focus on mending trauma, reconnecting with inspiration, and connecting better with one another.