Excerpted from The Future Declassified: Megatrends That Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action, by Mathew Burrows. Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2014. Copyright © 2014. Reprinted with Permission.
Most of us are relatively comfortable talking about the rise and fall of countries or even civilizations. That’s an age-old story we’re familiar with. Being able to change or duplicate human nature, however, has been such a staple of science fiction and related films and television—like Blade Runner, The Six Million Dollar Man, or The Matrix—that it has been easy to dismiss as entertainment or diversion. In the nineteenth century Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution shattered earlier conceptions about humans’ creation and undermined the literal biblical interpretation and, for some, their faith. People started applying the principle of survival of the fittest more broadly, with mostly deleterious effect. Racism was supposedly justified and war extolled as an extension of the law of nature.
We’re at another watershed moment, and it is hard to know the full extent of the change or what will be the total effect. We no longer just study creation, as in Darwin’s day; we can now change our fundamental human nature. In other words, we don’t have to wait for God or natural selection. At the same time, as Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, put it, “By understanding the information processes underlying life, we are starting to learn to reprogram our biology to achieve the virtual elimination of dis- ease, dramatic expansion of human potential, and radical life extension.”
It’s not just because biological sciences have advanced to a new level that we are making these discoveries. The convergence and synergies of several broad technologies—particularly nano, bio, IT, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, new materials, and robotics—is what makes this technology revolution different.
This is scary stuff, particularly in the context of the other changes underway, such as superempowered individuals and a splintered world with more and more powerful states that don’t agree on values or principles. My intelligence background tends to make me see all the traps and unintended consequences. Before I lay out potential drawbacks, let’s examine the major good that could come out of these new capabilities.
One of the first indications that something totally new was afoot was when I was starting work on the Global Trends project and went to a conference presentation by a Johns Hopkins doctor about implants and advanced prosthetics that would help returning soldiers who were amputees and paraplegics. A microchip implanted in the brain is used to power a robotic arm. The brain implant picks up the patient’s brain signals, decodes them, and then, through a computer cable hookup, moves the robotic arm. Eventually scientists hope the connection will operate wirelessly. Over time, restoring movement of the patients’ own limbs—in the case of paraplegics—remains the ultimate goal, according to scientists at the Brain Institute at Brown University.
Jeffrey M. Stibel, chairman of Braingate, a company developing brain computer interface technology, has talked about the progress made in restoring lost vision: “You effectively have a brain implant that hooks to what looks like sunglasses. The glasses are actually processing what you normally would be looking at except this person is blind, and then feeds that information through a computer chip directly into the mind, to give that person the sensation that they are actually seeing something, and it works reasonably.” Stibel think there is much work yet to be done to perfect the brain implants, but we are well on our way to a “mind over matter” universe.
Exoskeletons are another invention that is increasing our physical capabilities. They normally consist of an outer framework that is strapped to the legs of a soldier and through a powered system of motors or hydraulics allows soldiers to carry heavy loads—up to 220 pounds. According to press reports, Lockheed Martin is testing a model that would be capable of providing 72 hours of continual use. Over time, as battery storage technology improves, limited electrical power may no longer be a constraint. These exoskeletons are designed to avoid impeding a soldier’s movement. Rather, like brain implants enhancing mental powers, exoskeletons can increase physical capacities. Exoskeletons are now being designed to aid upper body strength as well.
Human augmentation will allow civilians and military people to work more effectively, and in environments that were previously inaccessible. Elderly people may benefit from powered exoskeletons that assist wearers with simple walking and lifting activities, improving the health and quality of life for aging populations. Successful prosthetics probably will be directly integrated with the user’s body. Brain-machine interfaces could provide superhuman abilities, enhancing strength and speed, as well as provide functions not previously available. For example, signals from the brain could be sent, bypassing damaged sections of the spinal cords, but activating motor control nerves in disabled hands or other limbs.
As replacement limb technology advances, people may choose to enhance their physical selves as they do with cosmetic surgery today. Future retinal eye implants could enable night vision, and neuro-enhancements could pro- vide superior memory recall or speed of thought. Neuropharmaceuticals will allow people to maintain concentration for longer periods of time or enhance their learning abilities. This would be a step beyond Google Glass’s wearable computer, which has an optical head-mounted display that allows people to be in instant and continuous touch with the Internet. Augmented reality systems—such as those that would improve IQ or allow night vision—could hugely increase your mental and physical capabilities and agility, making you better able to deal with real-world situations. Needless to say, militaries are interested in the possibilities. A recent study by the Washington think tank Center for New American Security notes that while the US Defense Department has shown some discomfort with “increasing individuals’ performance beyond their baseline,” “there are some indications that other nations are willing to run programs that the United States is not.”
For human enhancement, advances in robotics will also be important, as I found during a visit to Silicon Valley. These can provide much-needed physical and mechanical support in the case of the handicapped. If your best friend’s son was paraplegic, and you had the means to help, wouldn’t you? This is how Willow Garage, one of the biggest robot developers in Silicon Valley, got his inspiration. I was reminded of how Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone: he was originally attempting to find a hearing aid for his wife and daughter, who were deaf. In Willow Garage’s case, the friend’s child was entering adulthood without being able to care for himself. An institution loomed in his near future. Now, a humanlike robot stays at his side, allowing him to live a seminormal life; with the aid of his humanoid friend, the young man can manage on his own. Using a two-way video, he can also direct the mobile robot to navigate around another physical space and interact with other humans at the user’s behest.
One of the biggest challenges is actually making the robot more human. Robots have better mechanical capabilities than humans do, making them ideal for routine tasks. Industrial robots have transformed many manufacturing environments: over 1.2 million industrial robots are already in daily operation around the world. But many industrial robots are caged, kept well away from human contact, because a swing of the robot’s arm could kill you. They are programmed to do motions at a set speed and with a set purpose in mind. They are expert at working on assembly lines, outdoing humans with the regularity and precision of motions to perform a set job. Caring for another person is a whole different ball of wax. They need to respond to sensory touches, be able to hold cups without smashing them, and be sensitive to the movements of the humans they are helping. In other words, the inventors have to give them all the skills and learning abilities of a human companion. We are a long way from Frankenstein.