Today human augmentation is eyed suspiciously, but since the first ape-men picked up rocks and started using tools, we’ve been augmenting ourselves. Similarly eyeglasses helped to sharpen vision since the Middle Ages, pacemakers have been implanted to repair hearts since mid of last century and so on. Human augmentation is defined as the ability to supplement human brain and body with technological improvements. So if we have to say what’s new now, it’s the pace of technology. But it’s not all. In the past, medicine progress and healthcare improvement were aimed at repairing what was not working. If you are already normal, then conventional wisdom dictates that that’s enough. Today we are a bit scared by a sort of artificial augmentation which may lead to a society of haves and have not. In reality, innovation has always been prone to this argument. The fact that some own the innovation and some don’t, is an engine of the present Western society. Without resorting to the concept of Singularity, we fear somebody will have access to augmentation, while others won’t. It would be like competing with an athlete who uses drugs and doping. In reality I’ve heard also the other position. Human augmentation would simply lead to different people choosing to augment themselves in different ways, stretching their abilities in different directions. It would an explosion of diversity which does not harm the human relationships. In the end without talent and innate qualities, no augmentation can help you to succeed in life. If you read my blog, you know the Futurist Hub is usually moderately optimist toward technology, but I also acknowledge that not all the technology is really enhancing our capabilities. When talking about human augmentation, we cannot be generic, are the apps in my smartphone making me smarter or just lazier? So let’s have a look at the most promising and controversial innovations in this field
Human augmentation applications
Exoskeletons: they started as a military application helping soldiers carry large loads and resist to fatigue. Then they quickly moved into medicine, rehabilitation, construction and in the near future, possibly even sports. An exoskeleton is basically a robot wrapped around a man. If the man is a paraplegic, he can stand up from the wheelchair and walk again. If it’s workman, he can carry heavy loads. And so on. The exoskeleton is not just a dumb armor, it’s a smart robot. For example it detects how much power a person is putting in and fills the shortfall to maintain stability. And if you think, it looks like the big equipment in the picture, you have to know there is an evolution also here. A team of researchers at Harvard University have developed a prototype robotic exoskeleton, made from soft materials, worn from the waist down, supplementing the legs natural power by up to 20 percent and weighs only 6 kilograms.
Smart contact lenses: contact lenses, as we know them today, are an example of human augmentation. Laser eye surgery is a good example of both reparative and enhancive human augmentation. But the next generation of lenses will bring this concept to the extreme. Made of hundreds of semitransparent LEDs, they will literally fire images in front of the eye. The wearers will be able to navigate their surroundings without distraction or disorientation. Information about people you meet, the map of the area, weather forecast and everything else which is today a widget on your smartphone, will be just in front of your eyes. Personalized only for your needs. And, once again, it’s not all. As they are in contact with our body, they will be able to track health. Google and Novartis are developing a lens that contains a low power microchip and an almost invisible, hair-thin electronic circuit. It can measure diabetics’ blood sugar levels directly from tear fluid on the surface of the eyeball.
The tooth phone: believe me or not it’s not a fake. The prototype is around since 2002 when two British researchers developed a chip that can be embedded in a molar and receive cell-phone calls. The signals are translated into vibrations that travel from the tooth to your skull to your inner ear, where only you can hear them. Unfortunately it worked one way only (so you cannot talk back) and it has not been a huge success. Probably good for spies or sport coaches giving secret schemes and instructions to their players. I haven’t heard about it anymore, so don’t be surprised if nobody say “Excuse me, is Your Tooth Ringing?”. Anyway it was a real example of technology moving inside our body, which is not new. In principle, the more successful the miniaturization, the more likely to have innovations like the tooth phone. I anyway hope human augmentation will move in other directions.
Tattoo wearables: biometric sensors can be applied like a tattoo and stay temporary on your skin. They are removable and capable of monitoring a range of factors, from heart rate to body temperature to location. A conductive ink is the secret to transform a piece of body art into a device which can store information or check up your health. Health monitoring is currently the trendy application, but there’s a lot more. A wave of ultrathin, flexible stick-on and almost invisible sensors are entering the wearables world. Google released a digital tattoo last summer that uses near-field communication (NFC) to unlock a Motorola Moto X smartphone, but this is just the beginning. From unlocking a door to individual recognition, from storing safely person information to making payments, a device connected via Bluetooth or NFC would be helpful. University of Texas engineers already crafted disposable patches that are almost inexpensive and probably in the future we will be able to 3D print them.
Skin in spray: this innovation is just the forerunner of many other that will follow, therapies ready off the shelf. Spray-on skin is a patented skin culturing treatment for burns victims. It basically reduces the time needed to produce enough cells to cover major burns from 21 days to 5. Then it can be obviously sprayed on the wounds to produce a uniform layer of skin, which guarantees better results and faster healing. In reality, we are far from the simple spray bottle that we would love to have to heal the skinned knees of our kids. But the promise of self-healing easily and fast what today requires long visits to the doctor and cures, is appealing. Tomorrow, thanks to sophisticate wearables, we will have more information about our health than our doctor. The current paradigm will be completely inverted, as the title of Dr. Topol book says “The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine is in Your Hands”.
Biological tricks: somebody correctly says that augmentation doesn’t have to be about technology. Controlling the bacteria in and on your body can even make you smarter. Let me explain. There are ten bacteria for every one of your own cells. They are so many that add an extra two kilograms to your body. These microbes perform a lot of functions, for example they actively help digest food and prevent infection. There is a specific theory about how microbes in our gut influence the brain, as they facilitate (or not) the communication of some messages (and not others) going from one organ to another. They are a sort of controller that can be influenced or hacked to make us healthier, happier, and smarter. This simple consideration leads to doctors prescribing drug cocktails to fit microbial (and genetic) profiles. If these solutions will allow people to work harder, longer, and smarter we can see a clear (and risky) implication in the relationship between employers (with their performance requests) and employees (with their career ambitions).
Ingestibles: if you followed this post up to point, I think you realize we are moving progressively from outside to inside our body. Ingestibles are the topic of the season. It’s not a secret that miniaturization is allowing huge progresses in this direction. And the best is yet to come. If a wearable, a contact lens or a tattoo touches the skin, an ingestible can “measure” from the inside. It will provide a vast range of information (including images recorded with cameras) that will change forever the way healthcare services are provided. Walt Disney World used to have a simulator called Body Wars. A hydraulic chair and a wide-screen projection simulate a journey into a patient’s body. Now that’s body is yours. And the journey is not fiction. A disease (a cancer for example) can be located and the cure delivered “on-site” with (more than) surgical precision. The progress of nanotechnology will make ingestibles even smaller in the next 10 years. We will swallow them without even thinking about it, while an app on the smartphone will report us the outcome of the… visit.
Cognitive augmentation: my friend Rita Levi Montalcini said “I’m the mind, the body can do what it wants”. It’s not a surprise that researchers are working to enhance the brain capabilities. There are many ways to increase cognitive abilities: (free) apps helping people to “brain train”, drugs and pills to increase concentration and memory, physical activity (the old “mens sana in corpore sano”), active reading methods etc.… Hardware and software will come soon. Some theorists, like Ray Kurzweil for example, believe the brain will be encoded as software someday, allowing it to be programmed and reprogrammed. Others imagine bioelectronic devices, equivalent to an external hard drive, that enhance your brain exactly as they do with the memory of your laptop when you plug it in. When they speak about brain upload or dream upload, it’s not entirely fiction anymore. The human is still an extremely complex and partially unexplored machine, but the increase in computational power and the creation of efficient machine learning are helping to map it until the molecular level. The aim is to upload a knowledge into a brain. Randal Koene, a computational neuroscientist, is working in the opposite direction: to transfer his brain to a computer. We don’t know what is going to happen, but we know it will be a long way.
DNA Hacking: Today, it is possible to decode the DNA for a few thousand dollars. We expect a full DNA analysis cost will drop until it will become in line with the cost of a regular blood test. The first consideration is that we are talking about ages, but only a few years (5 to 10). The second is that this process is about “reading” DNA. The revolution in biology it is that now is possible to “write” the DNA. Scientists have already isolated the genetic variants for extra-strong bones, lean muscles, insensitivity to pain, and virus resistance. If you want them, just purchase the right “code” and plug it into your standard one. Somebody might not be even interested in enhancements for himself, but for the following generation. “Germline gene therapies are genome-editing techniques that affect egg and sperm cells. The modification of these germ cells can result in all the cells in the organism containing the modified genetic information, which would allow the altered code to be passed down to subsequent generations.” In other words, we expect the birth and development of a market where you can buy, download and install augmented DNA code. We just would like to alert that for every regular market there is a black market… and for everything you download there are hackers.