Common sense suggests we are entering, or possibly sleepwalking into at our peril, the age of artificial intelligence (AI). At the same time, we may be on the precipice of radical growth in human productivity enabled by bio-technological enhancements.
Although AI technology has advanced to the point where work and jobs are potentially being threatened, the field of human augmentation could quite suddenly raise the bar for our so-called robot rivals. Whilst augmentation may be seen as extremely controversial on social, moral, ethical, and religious grounds, it opens up possibilities which society must be aware of and make careful choices about. Most of the emerging transformational technologies aimed at human enhancement fall under a few general categories, despite a good deal of crossover.
Chemical enhancements would include pharmaceuticals which alter the brain, encompassing nootropics for focus and memory) or psychedelics for vision quests. Any transformation resulting from ingesting a food or drug would fall into this group.
Targeting our DNA and genetics, this category of augmentations involves editing or altering the actual chromosomes and genomes before or after conception. The most commonly discussed technology for genetic enhancement today is CRISPR, a “cheap and easy” means of editing DNA in existing life forms, but genetic transformations touch also on cloning, designer babies, chimeras and ageing/disease prevention.
Enhancing the brain takes several forms ranging from hardware to software. Neural implants, electronic stimulation, and brain hacking would fall under this category – implants being actual foreign objects embedded in some way to affect the nervous system. Hacking could involve tapping into the brain via “mind over matter” or altered consciousness state to awaken previously dormant mental, physical, or even metaphysical abilities.
Physical transformations would usually appear as hardware add-ons like exoskeletons (i.e., an “Iron Man” suit), endoskeletons with reinforced bones, chip implantations, bionic eyes, or other prosthetics. These could be bionic, cyborg, 3D/4D printed, or otherwise innovative adaptations which can either be removed (like prosthetics, clothing, or armour) or permanent (surgically attached or implanted). Genetic manipulation to achieve extreme physical beauty or strength would be included in this category.
The use of electronics involves the transformation of intelligence, consciousness, or humanity into digital form. Any type of uploading or downloading of human “content” in digital data form (hard drives or to the cloud) could be considered an electronic enhancement. There may also be types of implants or tattoos that read vital signs to communicate to the Internet of things, blockchains, or digital public health data sets. Health applications of nanotechnology could fall under this category along with wearable technology, and human transformations that deal with virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR).
Extending life often refers to “curing death” as its raison d’être. Ageing is viewed as an unnecessary evil, a mere medical problem waiting to be solved. Being able to live 125 years or more with comfort and good health seems to be the current vision for life extension proponents, who advocate for pharmaceutical, dietary, and lifestyle adaptations to achieve longer than natural life spans.
Rather than extend life, this transformative breakthrough puts life on pause, to restart later in time, decades or centuries from now. The idea behind cryogenic freezing is that in the future, medical technology will be able to reanimate a body which has been preserved in liquid nitrogen at very low temperatures. The elderly and the terminally ill are the most likely candidates for cryo, although there could be elective preservation conducted for personal reasons in the future. Of course, we have no idea whether we’ll ever have the technology to re-awaken the physical body and restore memory and consciousness.
By 2030 our shopping lists may contain several of these future transformations wrapped up in a neat package of human enhancements, from instant content upgrades to our brains, smart contact lenses and enhanced endoskeletons to implanted immunity, cosmetic gene editing, radically enhanced memory and organ regeneration. These may seem like something out of the pages of a Peter Hamilton space opera novel, but by 2030 they could be, not just reality, but commonplace.