Posted: Fri, November 02, 2012 | By: Owen Nicholas
Here’s a list of enhancements I would appreciate having, and I expect they’ll all be available in my lifetime. I begin with my 10th choice, and conclude with the #1 upgrade that I desire the most. What super-enhancement would you like to have? Do you want what I want, or something even more incredible?
As with any such list about future human abilities, speculation is often a code word which allows the expression of personal desires and wish fulfillment. In order to prevent this article from veering off into the utterly fantastical, a subject perhaps for another time, I have deliberately restricted the enhancements outlined here to developments I think will be possible in my lifetime. The list below may seem bio-centric in nature to some but that is only because; A) I believe that is where the most likely changes will occur and B) I am inclined to think that the technical obstacles in the way of radical cyborgisation and uploading, to name a few, means that I will not be fortunate enough to see them come to pass. Hopefully this assumption will be proved incorrect but until that day comes I am happy and willing to play the role of pro-meat enhancing conservative.
10. Suspended Animation
Images of frozen animals and astronauts awaiting some delayed revival process have been embellished in popular science fiction stories since the early 20th century. However, it has only been in the past decade that significant scientific work has been done on this subject in the hope of finding a trigger for hibernation in human beings. There are a variety of animals in the natural world that possess this ability, reducing life processes to a bare minimum whilst avoiding termination during the winter before thawing again in spring. There have also been some remarkable stories of humans going through a similar process. One well-known case is that of Canadian toddler Erica Nordby, who wandered outside in the winter of 2001 wearing only her nappy. In the bitter cold her heart stopped beating for two hours and her body temperature plunged to just 16°C before she was rescued, warmed, and came miraculously back to life, despite having literally frozen to death. In another case a Japanese man, Mitsutaka Uchikoshi, fell asleep on a snowy mountainside in 2006. He was found 23 days later with a core body temperature of just 22°C. He too was successfully reanimated having suffered no appreciable ill effects.
Needless to say suspended animation has the makings of a powerful medical tool. Laboratories around the world have begun artificially inducing this state by cooling animals to ultralow temperatures, pumping them full of fake blood, and plying them with toxic gases in order to reversibly arrest life’s basic processes. Human tests are now just around the corner. If successful, they will pave the way for a revolution in trauma care that could save the lives of thousands of patients; suffering heart attacks, strokes, or near-fatal injuries, who could survive if only there were a way to shut down the body long enough to reach the operating room. Preventing trauma and temporarily reducing the effects of severe tissue damage is of course the more realistic use for suspended animation methods, but could this not be the first real step towards discovering a mechanism that might one day be used for that oldest of futurist dreams; space exploration.
There is every indication that eliminating the necessity of sleep would be hugely popular amongst broad segments of society. The idea of never feeling tired and not suffering the adverse effects of sleep debt, which can be incredibly unpleasant, while increasing the hours of productivity and creative energy, is deeply appealing to many. Attempts to assert wakefulness in the modern world rely on drugs like modafinil which is one of, if not the, dominant player in the sleep-avoidance market. Eventually more sophisticated pharmaceuticals will be developed which keep people awake for longer by mimicking the rejuvenating effects of eight hours of sleep in just three or four hours. Even more intriguing is the possibility of identifying short-sleeper genes amongst members of the human population who operate quite normally on a few hours sleep every night. A simple genetic tweak might be all it takes to give you as much as 7 hours of waking life back each day. As our understanding of the process and purpose of sleeping grows so too will the ability to initiate sleep sequences and reboots in parts of the brain otherwise inactive during normal daily activity. As mastery over brain function increases it should be expected that in around 20 years, sleep will be dispensable, artificial and controllable. Much in the way hormone-based birth control pills can now make a woman’s period last exactly three days, occur on a quarterly basis or disappear altogether until she wants it back, science is separating sleep from the inconvenience of nature.
It may perhaps not the sexiest of possible enhancements but without a doubt it could be one of the most important. In a world of rising toxicity levels, nutritional disorders, poor diets and food shortages, surely learning how to hack our own guts and ramp up gastric efficiency would be a vital asset. Genetic technology may allow us to restore lost enzymes to the human metabolic system, and even to take enzymes that evolved in other organisms and put them to use in our bodies. Those in poorer nations are often afflicted with hypo-alimentation, malnutrition, and those in richer nations have problems with hyper-alimentation, especially obesity, both caused by the human metabolism being an inefficient mass of enzymatic pathways. With appropriate regulation, new treatments could cure both these conditions and other nutritional disorders by enhancing the human stomach with a plethora of new metabolic pathways. With the ability to synthesise the appropriate enzymes your body could balance your diet for you, allowing you to live healthily on burgers and ice cream if you so wished, though probably still with the need for mineral supplements in pill form, as no enzyme can convert one element to another.
Another possibility is to broaden the range of foods available for human consumption to anything eaten by living organisms. With the genes for cellulolysis, cellulosic plants could be digested without the need for a gut-full of cellulase-producing bacteria. With enzymes available to break down toxins, contaminated or poisonous food could be consumed, and with novel enzymes, other carbon-based materials like plastics (i.e. rubber, polystyrene, polypropylene) could also be digested. Although this may make medical applications for such plastics more difficult as you don’t want to digest any implants made of the same material. It may even be possible to add organelles responsible for photosynthesis, allowing for sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to be used as raw materials for the human metabolism.
A human enhanced in this way would be the ultimate survivalist, able to consume a wide range of foods normally inedible to humans. Of course, corresponding alterations to taste receptors may have to take place in order to make these foods palatable.
7. Drug Glands
Chemically mediated awareness is a fact of life which most people take for granted without any consideration of how much their introspective stream of selfhood is influenced by our hormone saturated bodies. Mood swings, transient states of mind, attitudes and prejudices are all given retrospective rationalisations based upon our common sense theory of mind, yet an awful lot of embodied phenomenal existence must surely arise from simple chemical interactions. People familiar with Ian M Banks ‘Culture’ novels and the post-human society they explore, will be aware of the myriad ways in which culture citizens entertain themselves with synthesised drug compounds of their choice, manufactured from specialised sub-dermal implants within their own bodies. With the rise of personal genomics and nano-factories in the coming decades and the onset of designer drugs, it is easy to envision similar developments becoming available in the not too distant future.
Having ready access to an arsenal of compounds which can induce anything from contemplative relaxation or uninhibited joy to psychoactive hallucinations would give users sublime control over their emotional lives in a way self help books could never hope to match. With effective, individually tailored and safe implants not only would the trade in crude street chemicals wither and die, so would the unfortunate addictive behaviour and health problems that often follow. When your body can produce a slew of neuro-cocktails with better dope than marijuana, more exciting stuff than ecstasy, more pleasurable feelings than heroin and yet still feel fresh and clearheaded afterwards, where’s the need to pay organised crime for your kicks.
6. Gene Therapy
Engineering resistance to diseases which have plagued humanity for millennia is likely to be a high priority for future biological enhancements. Somatic gene treatments which only affect the individual are already in usage, but eventually the step will be taken to engage in germline engineering which alters the genes in the first cell of the embryo and is thus heritable. This would allow for the correction of faulty genes at source rather than relying on screening methods such as pre-implantation diagnostics which pick out only those embryos which have the correct or desired traits. One possibility which has been suggested by bio-physicist Gregory Stock is the creation of artificial chromosomes which effectively act as add on genetic scaffolding that can incorporate a variety of tailored genetic modules designed for specific functions. Using a chemical control mechanism, genes in these modules could be turned on and off, activating genes which are either responsible for resistance to diseases like cancer or AIDs, or that directly search and destroy malignant cells through apoptosis.
Germinal choice technology will give parents the ability to program resilience and good health for their offspring and insure that genetic maladies which may have existed in families for generations are rooted out of their inheritance once and for all. Although currently there is a high risk of unintended side effects creating a snowball effect of negative consequences, the ongoing march of computing power and complex simulations will insure that we will be able to plot and analyse such changes in extreme detail before attempts are made on actual humans. Cautious and informed trial and error is often the most effective strategy. One day, hopefully sooner rather than later, many of the common diseases and illnesses that destroy life will become mere footnotes in history textbooks, of interest only to future students.
Anyone who has seen Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking anime film Ghost in the Shell or read William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk thriller Neuromancer, will have long been familiar with the concept of brain-machine interfaces, cognitive implants, mind controlled prosthetic limbs, and brain hacking security issues. Indeed these developments are probably much closer to ongoing reality than most people realise. Over the next few decades the convergence of biotechnology, neurotechnology, information technology and robotics are likely to lead to highly sophisticated bio-interfaces which challenge the distinction between human and machine in ever finer detail.
Being able to access the web, or web analogue, through a neural implant and experience real time data streams while stuck in a boring office function or whilst camped out in the woods would be assuredly convenient, but being able to communicate with your friends, family or work colleagues, swapping files and net addresses via that same device would be downright telepathic. Even more wizard like will be the ability to manipulate the external technological realm of say a home, factory or laboratory with simple unspoken requests. With such a sea of information at your mental fingertips, saturation and data shock, not to mention malicious code or snooping, may be a major problem. In such an integrated environment creating buffers, firewalls and adequate security will definitely be one of the central personal protection issues of the century. The last thing people want are their minds to be inundated with endless spam and tags for online casino’s and penis enlargement pills.
With the advent of bionic eyes designed to return sight to the blind, it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to see the potential for enhanced senses that future generations may enjoy. Perceiving a wider part of the light spectrum from infra-red to ultra-violet has been a staple of childhood fantasies for obvious reasons, we all like the idea of having a window onto a previously invisible world. Being able to see with the acuity of a bird of prey or integrate heat signatures with visual information, as in the case of some snakes, would certainly extend the human sensory realm into aesthetically interesting domains. Even more so would be the development of micro and macro scale eyesight. Possessing the capacity for telescopic and microscopic vision could potentially make the world a far more immersive and captivating arena. Sophisticated night vision might enable the existence of entertaining nocturnal environments and make savings on the nightly energy bill, assuming that still was a problem.
Enhancing our auditory systems in order to perceive higher and lower frequencies or indeed sharpen our existing hearing range much like a parabolic microphone would give us a whole new appreciation for sound. One can imagine secondary larynxes being designed which produce signals that can only be unscrambled with the correct audio receiving algorithms. This could operate much like a form of private encryption. Olfactory enhancement offers the ability to reintroduce humans to a wealth of information which bipedal apes, lacking the diversity and number of receptors that exist in other mammals, simply cannot access. Why use a chemical analyser on your food when you can tell what’s toxic from odour alone. The possibility of even more radical sensory abilities like sonar, sensitivity to electricity or indeed the magnetosphere might offer genuinely bizarre skills which cannot be guessed at. Perception is the fundamental way we gain information from the external world and it would be strange indeed if no efforts were made to expand our senses in meaningful ways.
3. Synthetic Blood and Regeneration
At present the aim of developing artificial blood sources is to stimulate embryonic stem cells to develop into mature, oxygen-carrying red blood cells for emergency transfusions. This blood would have the benefit of not being at risk of diseases such as HIV, hepatitis or the human form of ‘mad cow’ disease. The military in particular needs a constant supply of fresh, universal donor blood for battlefield situations when normal supplies from donors can quickly run out. Future versions however will likely involve considerable nanotechnology, with synthetic platelets acting to repair damaged blood vessels and prevent internal bleeding. With nano-particles flowing through the bloodstream correcting injuries, cleansing infections and respirocytes providing oxygen and vital nutrients to the brain and body, humans will be able to perform athletic feats beyond comparison by today’s standards. Holding your breath for hours under water or sprinting without lactic acid build up are things which have long been seen as the purview of comic book superheroes.
Much has been made of stem cell research and the increasing sophistication and viability of growing organs from donor cells upon plastic frames in a lab, before surgically implanting them in ailing bodies. However, even more impressive is the possibility of accelerating human healing by re-growing lost limbs much like a salamander. By temporarily switching off genetic blockers evolved to prevent runaway cell growth scientists could reproduce or replace missing or damaged tissue with healthy tissue which lacks any sign of scarring. Having to wait a few months for a clinic to grow a replacement heart or kidney is one thing, but being able to repair the damage yourself with no surgical intervention really pushes the definition of miraculous. It is impossible to know how far medical technology will come in the following decades, but we can be sure that there will be wonders around the corner our grandparents could never dream of.
2. Neurological programming
Improving our cognitive capacities must surely be one of the most desirable of enhancement options, one in which will have a major impact on human culture and the private life of individuals. Tweaking areas such as pattern recognition and controlling synaptic regeneration might give huge advantages in acquiring linguistic skills or mathematical acumen, dramatically boosting IQ not to mention social or job performance. Increasing the rate in which the brain processes information might cut the time it takes for people to clearly grasp new concepts, perhaps halve the time it takes to read that thick textbook, and prevent those annoying mental blocks whenever your faculties hit an abstract wall. Expanding, improving and strengthening our memories would greatly enhance our possible knowledge base, allow us to attenuate unpleasant and traumatic memories and stave off the debilitating loss of self that occurs when suffering from diseases like Alzheimer’s.
In terms of improving clarity and focus, who wouldn’t like to be able to fire up concentration levels at will, avoid all distractions and enhance ‘executive functions’; our ability to allocate our attention to difficult tasks in a sustained and efficient way. Rewiring our brains to alter personality traits and internal value systems would give us unprecedented control over not only who we are but who we want to be and allow us the freedom to explore novel character profiles which we have never even considered. If the brain is the seat of consciousness then being able to manipulate it on a personal basis will provide us with incredible insight into the functioning of this strange, vital organ and would be an almighty leap on the path of transhuman discovery.
1. Life Extension
Without a doubt the most important enhancement of our times will be the possibility of radically extending the human life span beyond its traditional norms. This is a development which would allow people to enjoy all the listed enhancements here even if R and D in these areas proves slower than assumed or suffers some unforeseen bottleneck. Prolonging our mortal existence resonates at the very core of our hopes for the future because it provides people with the very real possibility that they might actually be around to witness the wondrous changes taking place in human civilisation. Even if immortality proves to be an unrealisable dream for those of us alive today, there is certainly reason to be optimistic about how far we will go.
Aubrey de Grey’s SENS, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, research program contains various prescriptions for the use of gene therapy, which promises to not only replace faulty genes with long lived artificial ones but also to fool our cells by simulating the superficial chemical properties of a young body. It has been suggested that within a couple of decades or so, progress in anti-aging therapies should improve to the point where we are gaining more than an extra year of lifespan per year, reaching so-called “longevity escape velocity”. If this is correct then projected trends would allow for the eventual culmination of indefinite lifespans. When this hallmark will be achieved is anyone’s guess, though for obvious reasons many would prefer the date to be this side of mid century.
Doubtless there are almost innumerable kinds of enhancements which people would like to see, running the gauntlet from the modest and trivial to the awe-inspiringly grand.
What are the top ten enhancements you would most like to see and why?
Do you believe you will see them in your lifetime or will they remain features of the imagination that some more fortunate generation may utilise?
Send me comments, below.