Science and Technology
Life course, lifestyles & health - human extensions, prosthetics, cyborgs
A wide range of technologies, from pharmaceuticals to implantable devices, and specialised cognitive or behavioural training (leading to regional brain activation through functional imaging), will enable extensions of human bodies, senses, and capabilities. This will lead to redefinition of various boundaries: natural versus artificial, alive versus dead, individual versus collective.
We humans have always used tools to extend our capabilities. Our use of tools and technologies to control our environment and to enhance our lives is, in fact, a defining characteristic of the human species. Today, however, we are at an inflection point in history as a new generation of technologies is enabling new kinds of previously unimaginable human extensions that are likely to radically redefine the notion of what it means to be human. Look for these extensions in three different realms:
- Extension of the human life span -- Some experts estimate conservatively that in the next 20 years we will see the potential human life span increase by 10 years. This will primarily result from finding cures to the most common killers -- cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and the like. Some futurists estimate potential life spans of 120 years and above. Whichever estimate we accept, it is clear that we will see the potential for significant increases in life span in the next 20 to 50 years among financially well-off populations, both in developed and developing countries.
- Prosthetic body parts -- In 10 years, artificial retinas are likely to come into use, and their use is likely to be perfected within 50 years. Similarly, there will be great improvements in prosthetic body parts -- hands, feet, liver, kidneys. We are already seeing such improvements to some extent with implants for hearing. Brain rehabilitation and repair is likely to make great progress, although the field may not be fully mature in 50 years.
- Non-medical cognitive and cosmetic enhancers -- Pharmaceuticals and devices developed to treat specific medical conditions will be used by healthy people for memory enhancement, manipulation and management of sleep patterns, and to achieve particular psychological or physical states (for example, eliminate wrinkles or 'cure' shyness). As we get better at manipulating the body and the brain they are likely to become decreasingly biologically determined.
Hank Greeley, Professor of Law at Stanford University, identifies five kinds of social issues/debates that extension technologies are likely to engender:
- Safety -- Is it safe for normal populations to use the same pharmaceuticals and enhancements as people with serious illnesses? (For example, a pill to help people with pancreatic cancer who are at high risk of dying may not be that safe for basically healthy individuals.)
- Coercion -- To what degree does use of an enhancement become an expectation, intrinsic or extrinsic?
- Fairness -- Will we be perpetuating a class of 'enhanced nobility' -- that is, those who pass their enhancements through generations?
- Integrity -- Is it fair to use enhancements to achieve superior results (during exams, in athletic competitions or beauty contests)?
- Naturalness -- When is something natural or artificial and how do we distinguish between the two?
Harold Thimbleby adds:
- Usability -- will the extension technologies be easily and effectively used? Will they be too complex for some enhanced people? This is unlikely in my view, at least when they get interactive, as users will have little experience of controlling internal devices with no physical affordances. Also, stress etc may make users unable to use enhancers effectively. Cognitive enhancers may be particularly tricky if they affect perception - where are the boundaries between reality and enhancement and madness?
- Feature interaction -- a common problem with interactive devices is that separately they are fine (or nearly so) but in combination unexpected features arise. It is possible, for example, that two radio controlled enhancements interact with each other, perhaps in unforseen and undesirable ways. Or they may interact in creative, artistic ways.
- Reversibility -- every device will need safety properties, including reversibility and de-activate (temporarily and permanently). You can imagine a sufferer needing all but the problematic enhancement to be de-activated while it is repaired/diagnosed. Here's one that almost wasn't: [link]
- Growing gap between the healthy and 'enhanced' rich and other people, including growing disparities in life expectancy between and within countries
- Growing percentage of GDP dedicated to health, broadly defined, including not only health care but such areas as food, cosmetics, and leisure
- Use of steroids by athletes
- Growth of various types of cosmetic procedures
- Advances in tissue regeneration
- Increased use of medications for ADHD by students during tests
- Thousands of deaf or severely hard of hearing people benefiting from cochlear implants [link]
What to Watch:
- Better prosthetic devices come onto the market.
- The use of cognoceuticals -- medications that enhance cognition -- grows.
- Debates about the safety, fairness, and integrity of using various types of body and cognitive extensions are waged in public forums.
- The life span of the rich increases dramatically in the next 10 to 20 years.
- Academy of Medical Sciences debate on use of cognitive enhancers.
- Debates about and eventual widespread adoption of in-vitro fertilization and other medically enhanced reproductive techniques
- Migration of the use of antidepressants to treat various types of psychological conditions like shyness
- Advances in understanding of the brain
- Advances in genetics and genomics
- Victhom, Human Bionics [link]
- Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago [link]
- Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto (1998 project to grow a heart suitable for transplant within a decade) [link]
- University of Saarland, Germany (digital bionic chip for new generation of hearing aids) [link]
- Cyberhand, Italy (European Union project) [link]
- Hybrid Assisted Limb, Tsukuba University, Japan [link]
- Shimojo Implicit Brain Function Project, Japan [link]
- Manchester Materials Science Centre (inkjet printing of layers of human cells) [link]
- Cells for Sight Transplantation and Research Programme, Institute of Ophthalmology, UK[link]
- Papworth Hospital, University of Cambridge (tissue-engineered blood vessels) [link]
- Imperial College London, Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Centre [link]
- Eastman Dental Institute, University College, London (tissue engineering and biomaterials for gum disease) [link]
- Interview with Hank Greeley, Professor of Law, Stanford University. July 2005.
- Garreau, Joel. 2004. Radical Evolution. New York: Doubleday.
- "Ray Kurzweil" Ray Kurzweil [link]
- Naam, Ramez. 2004. More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement. New York: Random House.
- Choros, Michael. 2005. Rebuilt : How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural Born Cyborgs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Ashley, Steven. "Artificial Muscles." Scientific American v289, no. 4 (2003): 52-59.
- Senker, J., and S. Mahdi. 2003. "Human Tissue Engineered Products - Today's Markets and Future Prospects." Brighton: SPRU, 46 p. [link]
- Paralysis Lost, Michael Craggs, Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital [link]
- T Stieglitz et al, Implantable Biomedical Systems for Neural Prostheses, Engineering in Medicine and Biology, 58-65, 2005, [link]
- Moore, M.M. "Real-world applications for brain-computer interface technology." IEEE Trans Neural Syst Rehabil Eng. 2003 Jun;11(2):162-5.
- Foresight Project Report: Drugs Futures 2025 [link]
At A Glance:
About this outlook: An outlook is an internally consistent, plausible view of the future based on the best expertise available. It is not a prediction of the future. The AT-A-GLANCE ratings suggest the scope, scale, and uncertainty associated with this outlook. Each outlook is also a working document, with contributors adding comments and edits to improve the forecast over time. Please see the revision history for earlier versions.
Posted at Dec 20/2006 02:12PM:
Compare this and "Human Brain: The Next Frontier." The latter has a high likelihood and medium controversy, this one has a medium-low likelihood and a high controversy. Given the similarity of the topics, shouldn't they track each other more closely?