Augmented humans

Bionics, wearables, augmented reality applications and brain implants allow people to move, think, see, feel, hear and remember with previously impossible power, speed and precision. Technologically advanced exoskeletons (think an intelligent super-structure or shell) allow people to lift and coordinate heavier objects, perform a greater variety of tasks in old age, and interact with colleagues and data in new ways.
Internal 3D printed organ transplants and advancements in gene editing could lead to higher life expectancies. Gene editing means we can intervene in humans’ fundamental dispositions even before birth. The barriers that separate the physical world from the digital one are increasingly melting away, while our biological attributes are becoming a starting point for development. Everything from the plough to the PC has radically altered the way we work, learn and communicate, but the latest wave of emerging technologies promises to expand human capability in ways that take us well beyond the natural limits of our minds and bodies.

We are already beginning to see the impact of new forms of augmentation upon different sectors. Currently, the medical, rehabilitation and defence sectors are at the cutting edge of advanced augmented technologies. In healthcare, current projections estimate a global growth of 23.13% in the augmented and virtual reality market by 2025, reaching $11.14 billion. In construction, exoskeletons provide support to workers and enable them to lift heavier and to prevent common injuries caused by hard physical labour. In education, virtual reality applications are being tested to utilise the advantage that experiencing has on absorbing and memorising information when compared to reading or listening to a subject. Further advancements in augmentation will have profound effects on humans’ physical and mental abilities.
As the use of augmented technologies becomes more common, could new understandings emerge of what it means to be human?
What will the “new normal” of the human condition be?

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Current trajectory

Augmentation at the genetic and healthcare level

  • Gene editing: At the Sichuan University in China, already in 2016 the first human was injected with genetically edited cells to fight cancer.* The patient’s immune cells were edited to disable a gene that slows down and allows cancer to grow. In 2018, another Chinese scientist claimed to have gene-edited the first babies to become resistant to the HIV Virus.*
  • Life-extension technologies: There are various drugs and other techniques to slow or eliminate the ageing process. Google’s Calico project aims to ‘cure death’, by assembling scientists from various research fields to decipher the elements of human biology that control our lifespan.*
  • 3D printing: There have been several attempts to improve human bodies by 3D printing. The Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) created a machine that can print skin cells onto wounds and burns to improve the healing process.* In 2018, the Swedish start-up Cellink announced the discovery of a method to replicate skin, ears and liver cells,* and in spring 2019, Israeli scientists followed and printed a precise model of a human heart: it’s scaled down to the size of a rabbit’s heart, but already marks the first step for 3D-printed heart transplants.*
  • Reproduction: A new process to grow human eggs in a laboratory from the earliest stages in ovarian tissues to full maturity, had been developed by the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with the Centre for Human Reproduction in New York. With this method, ovarian tissue can be harvested directly, even from young girls who do not yet have mature eggs, in order to preserve their fertility. *

Augmentation of physical ability

  • Wearables: In 2018, scientists from Cornell University developed the first non-invasive brain-to-brain interface. “BrainNet” records electrical signals through the skull of the sender. The information is then transported via the cloud, and received through magnetic stimulation by the other person without any communication. The device, which looks like a hat, works with nanobots that transmit the information.* 
  • Augmented Reality: Scientists are experimenting with the use of virtual reality in psychotherapy and trauma treatment. At BrainPark at the Monash University, patients with OCD can experience, in virtual reality, slightly offset situations, in order to get used to similar real-life settings, and become more comfortable with them. In order to protect the patients, biofeedback from heart-rate monitors is collected and the intensity of the virtual reality adapted accordingly.*
  • Prosthesis: Researchers at Glasgow University have found a way to use photovoltaic cells for skin-like material on prosthetics. The highly touch-sensitive artificial skin needs a power resource to mime the feeling of human skin: with solar power, it is independent of any batteries or other electric sources.*
  • Exoskeleton: Research predicts that the exoskeleton market will reach $1.8 billion by 2025. They are already widely used in healthcare to support patients to recover from strokes or spinal cord injuries. In the construction industry, suits that allow heavier lifting or hauling are becoming more popular - not only leading to more efficiency but also preventing injuries from heavy work.* In spring 2019, the US Military invested in a full-body robotic exoskeleton - although the intended use has not yet been revealed.*

Augmentation of cognitive ability

  • Smart drugs: Precision medicine, or individually tailored medical intervention, is not a new thing, but advancements in decoding genetics and technological capabilities for precise diagnosis as well as easier access to previous health records lead to new medical approaches like pharmacogenetics. Scientists are now working on how patients respond differently to drugs depending on genetics and how to use this for their better.*
  • Brain implants: At the University of Southern California brain implants were tested in 2017 to stimulate human memory. The stimulation by the device's electrodes improved short-term memory by 15% and working memory by about 25%.*

Implications

  • Enhanced human capability and capacity could lead to improvements to the quality of life. Exoskeleton systems like ReWalk and the Esko Bionics suit could help millions of people with spinal cord injuries to walk again, as well as stroke victims and those with muscular dystrophy and other genetic conditions. They could also allow elderly people to remain active and independent for longer, and grant construction workers, sportspeople and military personnel extra strength and stamina. However, these same technologies could also create new categories of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ – the ReWalk, for example, costs just under US$70,000.
  • Some enhancements could redefine what it means to be human, which is one of the goals of the Transhumanism movement, leading to profound cultural, ethical, philosophical and economic shifts. In the long term, society may begin to split along ‘augmented’ and ‘non-augmented’ lines as some people might reject the augmentations that others embrace. This could lead to disadvantages in the labour market for those who decide to not use technological or medical advancements.
  • Genetic and synthetic enhancements could extend average life spans by decades or more for those who can afford them, and human consciousness may increasingly merge with machines. A backlash against human augmentation and increased regulation of emerging industries could limit some areas of research and its potential application.
  • The possibility of gene editing raises new ethical questions with regards to the human fetus. While it could offer possibilities to build resistance against diseases and prevent disabilities, it places the potential to ‘design’ life in the hands of the wealthy and presents challenges to equalities, rights and social acceptance. A lack of regulation could lead to new divisions, prejudices and dangers.
  • As technology becomes embedded in human bodies, questions of ownership and usage rights become more acute: who will be able to own and use them? What will the cost be? Who will have the freedom and power to adapt themselves? Who will have access to the data generated?
  • Augmentation of senses could open up profound new ways to interact with one another and the world, with new frontiers for experience, creativity and relationships. We might choose to be able to hear colours for example, which was previously an ability that only people with the neurological condition Synaesthesia had. Could virtual reality also be used to create more empathy for the experience of others?

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