We often highlight our frailties when we fail — we are, after all, only human.
However, technology is quickly redefining what it means to be human. There is no denying that we are considerably different from the people who came before us, not only in that we successfully wield technology to overcome a range of challenges, but we also utilize it to enhance our current condition.
From artificial skin, limbs and organs to touchable holograms and gesture-controlled devices, the trend is quite clear: Transhumanism will very likely be the next stage of human development. Every element of human physiology — the senses, organs (including the brain), skeleton and muscles — will be enhanced. These improvements will be primarily driven by advances in wearables and the Internet of Things.
Transhumanism is the “theory and intellectual movement that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations by means of science and technology.” Its origins may be shrouded in the mist of sci-fi, but just as computers have become a part of everyday life, the ideas put forward by transhumanism will soon be commonplace. We already accept some of its tenets, such as the incredible rise in elective plastic surgery and the race to quantify and connect our world with the Internet of Things (IoT).
Wearables and the Internet of Things are pushing the boundaries to enhance human intellectual, physical and psychological capacities. While it cannot be denied that technology can make our lives better, we also need to address the serious ethical issues raised by modifying the human body. Is transhumanism what Francis Fukuyama called “the world’s most dangerous idea,” or are we scaling the heights of a new Golden Age?
Wearables and connected devices drive transformation
First, it is important to understand the nature of the enhancing technologies, as wearables and the IoT depend on advances in a range of fields, such as materials engineering and quantum mechanics. We are still far from the on-demand cybernetic implants or body parts envisioned by futurists, but a number of companies are developing exoskeletons to augment strength and allow an individual to safely move heavy objects. A host of medical devices and technologies are already enhancing the human experience.
For example, while only researchers and clinicians can take advantage of the newest diagnostic wearables, consumers have access to haptic shirts, smart athletic gear and shoes and wrist trackers. These products allow for a degree of self-quantification above and beyond how an individual feels while exercising. They allow the user to measure athletic progress and highlight potential health issues.
Some wearables capitalize on the power of the ubiquitous cell phone (64 percent of U.S. adults have one — compare that to the stats for the UAE, where there are two cell phones per person), which is also undergoing an evolution. Samsung and Apple have patents on holographic technologies that use lasers, micro lenses and sensors to project 3D interactive holographic displays from the mobile devices.
The future of connecting biology to technology is becoming a reality.
Japanese researchers have developed touchable holograms, called Fairy Lights, which are made using a type of laser that can excite physical matter to emit light in 3D form. The laser produces high-frequency pulses (1,000-200,000 pulses per second) to create holographic images that respond to touch. Instead of being chained to a device, users would have greater freedom of movement, access to high-quality images for engineering projects and may even be able to see how they would look in a new outfit without the hassle of trying it on.
Augmentation of the future
There are any number of devices that are eager to supplant your mouse and keyboard, and some of them border on the magical. Gesture-based controllers or wired gloves include depth-aware cameras or radar to detect movement. For example, the Myo Gesture Control Band offers the remote control of computers, drones and other vehicles with the sweep of an arm. Leap Motion and other ring-based technologies offer the ability to manipulate the digital world with conductor-like majesty.
One of the highest uses of technology lies in serving those who suffer from physical challenges. One company, Cambridge Bio-Augmentation, has developed a universal adaptor for prosthetics. These adaptors reduce the pain of using the prosthetic device while allowing for the natural processing of neural, muscle and bone signals to the prosthetic.
The natural progression from external 3D projections is certainly a modified field of vision. One company has developed a cataract surgery technique that can give patients eyesight three times better than 20/20 vision. Although not currently available commercially, these “bionic lenses” can be implanted in about 8 minutes. The future of connecting biology to technology is becoming a reality.
Advances in wearables and associated technologies are not limited to the realm of handheld devices or prosthetics — cybernetic creatures offer a whole new world of opportunity. Researchers at Harvard have created a tissue-engineered robotic stingray that is light activated; the creation contains both artificial and natural elements. Growing and enhancing living tissue is not a brand-new technology: Scientists are hard at work creating organs to save the lives of thousands waiting for a donation. While the lifesaving ability of an artificial organ is easily understood, what about artificial brains?
What will we become when we evolve through technology?
Researchers in Singapore have successfully developed part of the brain in the laboratory; not only can these achievements give us insight into one of the most complex parts of the human body, but they may one day be able to help individuals who suffer from brain damage, help us become smarter and perhaps even allow us to better interact with one another.
One need not get a new brain for that, though, because Freer Logic’s contactless EEG/ECD can read and monitor brain activities of people without having a device on them — their next generation device will be able measure brain activity remotely.
That means we will be able to measure abnormal brain activity at airport security checkpoints for potential threats, identify the cognitive load of a customer in a retail store to assess interest or monitor the focus of train engineers to help avoid accidents.
Although modern devices tend to be stiff agglomerations of sensors and circuits, that will soon change. One of the newest breakthroughs in material technology involves the creation of a liquid metal that can move itself. One can only imagine some of the possibilities, such as flexible circuits or even safety suits that can alter shape to better protect the wearer.
The ethics of enhancement
Wearables and other forms of technology offer tremendous promise, allowing those with incredible challenges to live normal lives and letting others become more than they ever dreamed possible.
However, transhumanism challenges our ethics and values. Enhancing the body and mind through technology raises a number of questions, touching on the very essence of what it means to be human. While it is clear that helping individuals overcome challenges is a beneficial aspect of technology and wearables, we enter a gray area when we begin discussing enhancements that create “super powers.”
Some of these battles over values are already being waged over the booming plastic surgery industry, which not only restores the appearance of a burn victim, but also creates living dolls with artificial faces. Francis Fukuyama is one of many voices raised about the potential dangers of technological enhancement. Concerns about the differences between the wealthy and the poor, who gets to control access to the technology and visions of technologies gone awry all have some merit and must enter into the marketplace of ideas.
The profound, complex questions of humanity, values and ethics must be addressed. What will we become when we evolve through technology? We are about to find out.