By Bertalan Mesko, PhD | 30 March 2019
The Medical Futurist
What if you could have a heat-map vision to search through an abandoned terrain? What if you could filter out unpleasant odors of urban decay every now and then? Can you imagine hearing ultrasounds better than bats? And what about lifting 20 tons or having a third, bionic arm? With the rapid advancement of technologies, the future of healthcare might not just be about being healthy, but even augmenting our bodies and “upgrading” ourselves. Where would you draw the line between being a human and a cyborg?
Superhuman traits in sight: perceiving colors as sounds
The wish for a perfect human body with enhanced capabilities has been a dream for centuries culminating in the appearance of literary and cinematic superheroes in the collective mind. Who doesn’t want to see in the dark like Superman or lift 12-story-high buildings as Hulk does? Now, what if we tell you that a limited number of people already possess unique capabilities due to technology?
Take the example of Neil Harbisson, an artist born with achromatopsia or extreme colorblindness meaning he could only see in black-and-white. At first, he received his specialized electronic eye, his “eyeborg” to be able to render perceived colors as sounds on the musical scale. He is capable of experiencing colors beyond the scope of normal human perception: Amy Winehouse is red and pink, while ringtones are green. Harbisson is considered a cyborg, which according to the usual definition, combines organic and mechanic body parts to improve a certain bodily dysfunction or enhance capabilities. Although, in a way, almost everyone augments their body, with cochlear implants, cardiac pacemakers or even contact lenses.
However, as technological innovations in the field of medicine multiply day by day, it will be more and more usual to augment our bodies with the help of machines in a more transformative way than ever before. Even if someone is perfectly healthy, it could make everyone faster, stronger or more sensitive to the environment. This means that the boundaries of “human-ness” will be stretched raising important ethical and philosophical questions as to what makes us human or where the boundaries of cyborgization are. Let’s look at the possible stages of body augmentation to better see the scale of potential human-machine intergrowth.
1) Entirely removable cyborg-extensions
If you are wearing contact lenses or glasses, you’re a cyborg-material with analog support. Now, imagine that your contacts could use augmented reality or measure glucose levels from tears (although the Google project failed, this doesn’t mean it won’t be realized in the future) or you might get a pair to see in the dark. However, vision is just one element where technology can improve human imperfections and go beyond them. For example, Starkey Hearing Technologies is already working on hearing aids measuring physical activity and detects falls. It is also working on advanced sensors, such as heart rate, as a first step towards pushing hearing aids towards the health and wellness terrain.
Beyond human perception, robotic structures called exoskeletons will truly give the sense of invincibility to people by helping human beings move around and lift heavy weights – or themselves. For example, a gait-training exoskeleton suit helped Matt Ficarra, paralyzed from the chest down, walk down the aisle on his wedding day. In the future, it is easy to imagine how soldiers, surgeons, but even warehouse workers and nurses who move around patients will use exoskeletons on a daily basis in order to extend their muscle power, stamina, and weightlifting skills. They are already helping medical professionals get through long hours of surgery.
What’s the common feature of all these devices, machines and structures? They can easily be put off at the end of the day. They might turn you temporarily into a cyborgish human, but they don’t result in any kind of lasting change in relation to your body.
2) Cyborg-humans: technologies causing lasting, but not irreversible transformation
Remember the episode in the British dystopian television series, Black Mirror, Man Against Fire? Soldiers are exterminating mutant humans called “roaches” in a countryside setting. Later, it turns out that each and every fighter has an implanted microchip which turns their targets into non-humans so it would cause them less moral and psychological issue to kill. Moreover, technologies enabled soldiers not to sense any smell or hear any noise associated with bloodshed – for the very same reasons. While the motives behind the microchips are highly disturbing, these implants bestowed these soldiers with inhuman characteristics.
It’s completely conceivable that in the not-too-distant future, permanent, fully integrated prosthetic limbs and bionic implants will be widespread. Even today we not only have mind-controlled artificial limbs but with tiny implanted electrodes they can even give back a sense of touch to an amputee. Scientists are experimenting with various brain implants that might help restore hearing for the deaf and restore sight for some blind people. Rarer, but also in use, are brain implant therapies for people paralyzed by spinal cord injury or other neurological damage. A chip inserted into the brain reads off electrical signals that are translated by a computer to restore some movement and communication.
Tokyo offers $1 billion research grant for human augmentation, cyborg tech and more
Deadlines for the completion of projects range from 2025 to 2060.https://t.co/oZqaPcj11C
— Ross Dawson (@rossdawson) August 6, 2019
What if we push these technologies further? Imagine that with specialized cochlear implants people could listen to the noise around them selectively or listen in conversations from across the room while tuning out any other noise. What if mind-reading came into practice and you could even listen to someone’s thoughts after tuning in to the right radio channel emanating from the brain implant?
Digital tattoos, chest patches or implanted sensors represent another strand of technologies impacting cyborgization. Researchers have already created an electronic skin patch that senses excess glucose in sweat and automatically administers drugs by heating up microneedles that penetrate the skin. However, digital tattoos might not only monitor vital signs and offer physicians insight into a patient’s health, but they could also work as car keys, entrance passwords or IDs. Extreme examples already exist: Jerry Javala let doctors embed a USB port into his finger prosthesis.
What’s the common in brain implants, digital tattoos or patches? They cannot be removed so easily as an exoskeleton. Remember the bug in Neo’s stomach in the Matrix? He couldn’t have taken it out without help – but after some time, no lasting marks remained. In the second stage of augmentation technology interacts with the human body in a way that it already has lasting, but not irreversible impact. Although their removal might be problematic, implants, patches, and tattoos could be cut out and discarded.
3) Technologies changing humans forever
Not as in the case of the third stage. Technologies meddling with the very blueprint of life, the genetic code, may change you forever and not only you but also the next generations. Gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR, bestow scientists the power to add, alter or remove parts of any creature’s DNA.
Its many potential applications include correcting genetic defects, treating and preventing the spread of diseases and improving crops. Research efforts are underway with regards to gene therapies for patients with inherited genetic diseases. For example, researchers in Oxford’s Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology help restore eyesight to patients with genetic vision defects. One of the methods is to inject working genes into the back of the eye. Way further down the line, it holds promise for the treatment and prevention of more complex diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, mental illness, and HIV.
However, gene editing could go far beyond treating diseases. Parents could design the perfect children based on their best possible traits. Who doesn’t want a tall, strong, beautiful kid with high IQ and empathy? Bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire believes that “we’ll start seeing the use of gene editing and reproductive technologies for enhancement: blond hair and blue eyes, improved athletic abilities, enhanced reading skills or numeracy, and so on.”
If a designer baby grow up, will they be considered as a human or a result of a successful gene editing process – the ultimate cyborg with as many enhanced human capacity as possible? Would humanity want that or allow that? Should we use the power of gene editing on perfectly healthy humans just because we can and should we be allowed to have a say not only in the fate of the individual, but also the future generations?
What would be your boundary to stop being a human and become more of a cyborg? Where do you think the red line should be drawn? Although you might believe that the argumentation is way too sci-fi-like and too far away in the future, I must call your attention to the Chinese scientist who edited the genes of two baby girls so that they could resist future HIV infections. The infants were otherwise perfectly healthy, so the move might even be considered as the very first designer baby attempt.
Although the scientific community was shocked and some called for a global moratorium on gene editing, the technology is here to stay alongside digital tattoos, implants, patches, exoskeletons, and wearables. Thus, we should start bioethical and philosophical debates about what it means to be human or where we could draw the line between humans and cyborgs as we will soon encounter the problem. Sooner than we might think.
Existential Medicine Part One: The New Biotech Frontier
Existential Medicine Part Two: Augmented Humanity
Bryan Johnson wants to put a chip in your brain | Code 2017
Our Post-Human Future | David Simpson | TEDxSantoDomingo
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