Is Human Enhancement the Next Revolution?

  • December 05, 2016
  • by David Masci

Since the beginning of human civilization, people have been trying to enhance their physical and mental capabilities, sometimes successfully—and sometimes with inconclusive, comic, and even tragic results.

Up to now, most biomedical interventions have attempted to restore something in need of repair, such as vision, hearing, or mobility. Even when these interventions have tried to improve on nature—such as use of anabolic steroids to stimulate muscle growth—the results have tended to be relatively modest and incremental.

But thanks to recent scientific developments in areas such as biotechnology, information technology, and nanotechnology, the world may be on the cusp of a revolution in what scientists and futurists call human enhancement. In the next two or three decades, people may have the option to change themselves and their children in ways that until now have existed largely in science fiction novels and comic books.

Advocates for enhancement, many of whom call themselves transhumanists, argue that these new technologies will make life better. Instead of leaving a person’s well-being to the vagaries of chance or nature, they say, we will take control of our species’ development, making ourselves and future generations stronger, smarter, healthier, and happier.

But a survey by the Pew Research Center published in July indicates public wariness about the emerging technologies that could accomplish transhumanist goals. For example, 68 percent of Americans say they would be “very” or “somewhat” worried about using gene editing on healthy babies to reduce the infants’ risk of serious diseases or medical conditions. And a majority of U.S. adults—66 percent—say they would “definitely” or “probably” not want to get a brain chip implant to improve their ability to process information.

These concerns are shared by many ethicists, theologians, and others who worry that radical changes would lead to the creation of people who are no longer physically or even psychologically human.

For now, fears about enhancement remain theoretical. That’s because although the science that underpins transhumanist hopes is impressive, researchers have yet to create the means to make supersmart or superstrong people. Questions persist about the feasibility of radically changing human physiology, in part because scientists do not completely understand how our bodies and minds work. And yet researchers are making impressive strides in areas that could ultimately form the basis of an enhancement revolution.

We are already living in an age of enhancement. Nicholas Agar, professor of ethics at Victoria University

On Feb. 25, 2014, President Barack Obama met with Army officials and engineers at the Pentagon to discuss plans to create a super armor that would make soldiers much more dangerous and harder to kill. The president joked that “we’re building Iron Man,” but his comment contained more than a kernel of truth: The exoskeleton, called the tactical assault light operators suit, does look vaguely like the fictional Tony Stark’s famous Iron Man suit.

A little more than two years later, in April 2016, scientists from the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, revealed that they had implanted a chip in the brain of a quadriplegic man. The chip can send signals from the man’s brain to a sleeve around his arm, allowing him to pick up a glass of water or swipe a credit card.

And around that same time, Chinese researchers from Guangzhou Medical University announced they had successfully genetically altered embryos to make them HIV resistant.

These examples show that many of the fantastic technologies once confined to science fiction have arrived, at least in their early forms. “We are no longer living in a time when we can say we either want to enhance or we don’t,” says Nicholas Agar, a professor of ethics at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. “We are already living in an age of enhancement.”

One of the technologies that may herald this new age is a powerful gene editing method known as CRISPR, which is much faster, cheaper, and more accurate than earlier gene editing methods. CRISPR, which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is already dramatically expanding the realm of what is possible in the field of genetic engineering. “CRISPR’s power and versatility have opened up new and wide-ranging possibilities across biology and medicine,” says Jennifer Doudna, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and a co-inventor of the technique.

CRISPR is already being deployed in the fight against cancer and other deadly diseases by, for instance, trying to reprogram immune cells to fight specific types of tumors. But a more intriguing possibility involves making genetic changes at the embryonic stage, also known as germline editing. The logic is simple: Alter the gene lines in an embryo’s eight or 16 cell stage (to eliminate the gene for a given disease, for example), and that change will occur in each of the resulting person’s trillions of cells—not to mention in the cells of his or her descendants.

But although editing embryos could conceivably help eliminate or “edit out” a host of maladies in people before they are born, it also offers parents an opportunity to change their unborn children in nontherapeutic ways, from altering hair or eye color to endowing their offspring with greater intellectual or athletic ability.

Some transhumanists see great opportunities in making changes at the embryonic level. “This may be the area where serious enhancement first becomes possible, because it’s easier to do many things at the embryonic stage than in adults using traditional drugs or machine implants,” says Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.

But for many philosophers, theologians, and others, the idea of “designer children” veers too close to eugenics, the 19th- and early 20th-century philosophical movement to breed better people. And, indeed, wariness about many of these possibilities is heightened among more religious people. The Pew Research Center developed an index of religious commitment to categorize the people it surveyed and found, for example, that 64 percent of those with the highest commitment said that gene editing to reduce babies’ risk for disease was “meddling with nature and crosses a line we should not cross,” compared with 28 percent of people with a low religious commitment who agreed with that thought.

In spite of the intense disagreements about the utility and morality of trying to “improve” humanity, many thinkers on both sides of the debate share the belief that if just some of these potential developments come to pass, human society will probably change significantly.

People have long used chemicals such as caffeine to sharpen their focus and generally improve their cognitive ability. Today, many are using drugs prescribed for brain-related illnesses such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or narcolepsy to help them focus better or remember more.

Drug companies may soon make and market much more powerful “smart” pills specifically designed to improve memory, perception, and reasoning. But dramatic improvements in cognition may not come until scientists figure out how to implant and operate powerful computers in our brains.

Advances in computing and nanotechnology have already resulted in the creation of tiny computers that can interface with parts of our brains. This development is not as far-fetched as it may sound, because both the brain and computers use electricity to operate and communicate. If, as some scientists predict, full brain-machine interface comes to pass, people may soon have chips implanted in their brains, giving them direct access to digital information, with the ability to call up mountains of data instantly and without ever having to look at a computer screen.

Genetic engineering also offers promising possibilities, although there are potential obstacles as well. Scientists have already identified certain areas in human DNA that seem to control our cognitive functions. In theory, someone’s “smart genes” could be manipulated to work better, an idea that almost certainly has become more feasible with the recent development of CRISPR. “This would allow us to do so many different things,” says Anders Sandberg, a neuroscientist and fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. “The sky’s the limit.”

But some scientists maintain that it will probably be a long time before we can bioengineer a substantially smarter person. For one thing, it is unlikely there are just a few genes or even a few dozen genes that regulate intelligence, which makes bioengineering a genius much harder.

Given the brain’s importance, cognitive enhancement might be the holy grail of transhumanism. But many futurists say enhancement technologies also will probably be used to transform the whole body, not just one part of it. This broader effort will almost certainly include the creation of synthetic or “smart” blood.

Researchers have already created artificial blood in an effort to ease shortages and help patients who need immediate transfusions. But, as with CRISPR and gene editing, artificial blood also offers a host of enhancement possibilities. For instance, synthetic blood could be engineered to clot much faster than natural human blood, preventing people from bleeding to death. Synthetic white blood cells also could potentially be programmed and receive software updates that would allow them to fight a variety of threats, such as a new infection or a specific kind of cancer. Finally, smart blood could carry much more oxygen around the body, greatly improving strength and stamina.

So where is all of this new and powerful technology taking humanity? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Having more energy or even more intelligence or stamina is not the endpoint of enhancement efforts, many transhumanists say. Some futurists, such as inventor Ray Kurzweil, talk about the use of machines not only to dramatically increase physical and cognitive abilities but also to fundamentally change the trajectory of human life and experience.

But others, like Boston University bioethicist George Annas, believe Kurzweil is wrong about technological development and say talk of exotic enhancement is largely hype. “Based on our past experience, we know that most of these things are unlikely to happen in the next 30 or 40 years,” Annas says.

He points to many confident predictions over the past half-century that didn’t materialize. “In the 1970s, we thought that by now there would be millions of people with artificial hearts,” he says. Today, only a small number of patients have artificial hearts, and the devices are temporary bridges to keep patients alive until a human heart can be found for transplant.

In spite of the intense disagreements about the utility and morality of trying to “improve” humanity, many thinkers on both sides of the debate share the belief that if just some of these potential developments come to pass, human society will probably change significantly. For the first time in human history, the biggest material changes in our society will not be occurring outside ourselves—in the fields, factories, and universities that have shaped human civilization—but inside our bodies, in our brains and muscles and arteries, and even in our DNA.