HUMAN 2.0: What does the future look like for the human mind & body?
This February and March, the SEC is looking at what impact human augmentation will have on the future of our physiology. We will explore the potential scientific, social and ethical implications of human augmentation through the lens of four different technologies including brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), bionics and prosthetics, neurotechnology and gene editing, and finally, bioprinting. But before looking at our first technology, we examine what human augmentation actually is, its origins and how close it is to commercialisation.
The promise and the pain of human augmentation
Bioethicist Eric Juengst suggested that human augmentation is a medical or biological intervention introduced into the body designed to improve performance, appearance, or capability beyond what is necessary to achieve, sustain or restore health (Juengst, 1998). Therefore, human augmentation has actually been with us for a long time dating back to the discovery of coffee in the 15th century and the use of amphetamine by the US army for heightened concentration and wakefulness. But for many years, the primary focus of science and medicine has been to restore normal function to sick individuals rather than improve the functioning of the healthy. Only recently have advancements in biological and biomedical research led to a rapid paradigm shift allowing us explore the physical and cognitive enhancement of human performance.
Gartner, an American research, advisory and information technology firm classified human augmentation in the ‘innovation trigger’ phase of their hype cycle for emerging technologies, predicting its transformational impact to society within the next 10 – 20 years (Figures 1A, B). This phase represents the earliest of five key stages of a technology’s life cycle characterised by little commercial viability but the potential for a breakthrough to trigger a massive growth in expectations (Gartner, 2018). Although the underlying scientific principles for human enhancement are now evolving at a rapid rate, it will be a long time before we witness a shift from therapeutic robotics, genetic manipulations and neurotechnology, to the commercialisation of these technologies with the goal of enhancing physical attributes and human cognition beyond what we consider normal.
In a future no longer limited to historical methods of enhancement, we will be able to alter our biology with drugs and integrate our bodies with machines, thereby increasing our physical and cognitive capabilities beyond what is now considered to be “normal”. In an ultramodern society, we can only postulate as to what technologies it will encompass and how consumers will react to their commercialisation
Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) and Neurotechnology
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are direct communication pathways established between the human brain and an external device, primarily focused on neuroprosthetic applications aiming to restore impaired movement, hearing or sight. The human brain’s unique plasticity means that it can adapt to interpret signals from neural implants that can be processed like natural receptors. Advancements in the development of BCIs are intricately tied to neurochemical and electrophysiological research of the brain. British superconductor and software company ARM recently partnered with the Centre for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering to exchange ideas and collaborate to create a chip that will facilitate the transfer of nerve signals to and from the brain in individuals with spinal lesions (London, 2017). The bidirectional integration of BCIs expediting the transfer of information between man and machine is the first step towards human augmentation.
Elon Musk took the integration between man and machine one step further after facilitating a partnership between Neuralink and IBM’s SyNAPSE project, biocompatible materials experts, neuroscientists and BMI experts, to create a whole-brain BCI coined “neural lace” (London, 2018). The vision is that of an integrated digital layer, in the form of an ultrathin mesh that effectively grows around brain tissue, bypassing low-bandwidth mechanisms of communication and incorporating inputs from our electronic devices with our thoughts. Language, in its written and spoken forms, is merely a compressed, simplified form of thought transfer. Ultimately, neurotechnology and BCIs could facilitate uncompressed, direct, conceptual communication between individuals, while simultaneously providing seamless access to memories, information and data. Such an interface would revolutionize thought itself, merging biological and digital intelligence to augment human cognition to inconceivable lengths. Although promising and exciting, the realisation of such technology will require huge advances in our understanding of neural networks and material science, and for the foreseeable future, we will have to be content with traditional ways of information recall and communication.
Meanwhile, in Facebook’s ‘Building 8’, a diverse team of specialists in machine learning and natural language processing recently began working on optical neuroimaging systems and next-gen neural prosthetics that will detect, process and translate thoughts into ‘speech’. The ultimate aim is to create a social media platform that allows users to share memories, emotions and experiences (Constine, 2018). Texting, typing and calling would be replaced by the effortless, uncompressed transfer of information between individuals, with potentially disruptive effects on the telecommunication industry. If Facebook were to successfully develop this technology, they would hold a competitive advantage over Musk’s Neuralink due to their ability to rapidly distribute and commercialise their brain-machine interface throughout their well-established user base.
One of the key limitations to this technology is the current phenomenon of redundancy in technology. Given the current rate of innovation, consumers would be reluctant to implant chips in their brains that could be obsolete within a few years. Innovators must create a technology that can be modified according to a user’s needs and updated non-invasively and cost-efficiently. Moreover, one must consider the issues related to the inflammatory response to a foreign object in the brain, as well as the power source for the prosthetic. Breakthroughs in related technologies, such as genetic engineering and supercapacitors, have the potential to drive growth and proliferation, indicating the importance of the collaboration between multidisciplinary research teams, specialized technology firms and innovators. Furthermore, there are certain ethical considerations regarding big data and privacy. The integration of digital systems within the human brain will allow companies such as Facebook to collect staggering amounts of their user’s data, and in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, this is a terrifying thought.
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