by Tom Bulford
Posted 21st February 2017
The American science writer Ray Kurzweil believes that the human species will soon be radically transformed.
Humans will redesign their own bodies and minds, they will produce forms of artificial intelligence far smarter than the human mind, and they will give these superintelligent machines bodies far superior to our own.
By doing so the human race will give birth to its own successor – a species who will fulfil a destiny beyond anything that we can even comprehend today.
The law of accelerating progress
This view is espoused by transhumanists. They believe that we can, and should, improve the human condition through the use of advanced technologies. They think that we should live much much longer, even eternally, and that we should augment our physical and mental capacities. They think that we could all be happier, that we could acquire greater willpower and a calmer temperament. They argue that we need not be limited by our five senses.
Why should we not be able to perceive radio signals or become telepathic?
Kurzweil defines six epochs in the progress of humankind. So far we have had the elemental foundations of physical and chemical processes; the advent of biological life; the development of neuronal structures like the human brain; and the use of those brains to create modern technology.
Next up is the merger of human technology with human intelligence, and beyond that the birth of super-intelligence and expansion away from this planet and into the universe. To this Kurzweil applies his ‘law of acceleration’, which says that each advance is quicker than the last.
Previously I described how a thought has been transmitted from one person to another with the help of brain sensors and digital transmission. The Pokémon phenomenon uses technology to enhance the experience of being physically active. We have prosthetic limbs that are connected to our nervous system. And the Siri virtual assistant allows us to hold limited conversations with our iPhones. So stage 5 of Kurzweil’s history is under way and his theme is explored in a new book ‘Make Way For The Superhumans’.
The author, Professor Michael Bess of Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, identifies several drivers for the creators of Superhumans.
These include Artificial Intelligence, Nanotechnology, Synthetic Biology and Robotics, but his big three are Pharmaceuticals, Genetics and Epigenetics, and Bioelectronics. Let me start with the latter.
One step from cyborgs…
The definition of bioelectronics varies and for Bess it ‘encompasses all applications in which electrical, prosthetic, or informatics devices connect directly with the human brain or sensorium to achieve new functional effects.’ These devices could boost the senses, for instance overcoming blindness by the electrical transmission of images into the brain.
The electrical signals could go the other way, taking their cue from the magnetic field or blood flow of the brain and translating these symptoms of thought into the control of machines.
Electrical stimuli have already been used to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s, obsessive compulsive disorder and severe depression and could be used to alter our state of mind and emotions. Bess describes an early experiment in which an electrode was implanted into the brain of a young man who was prone to violent rages.
The transmission of gentle pulses to that part of the brain where rage is centred calmed him so that he was allowed to leave the institution where he had been held. ‘Things went peaceably for a while. The one day the man went on a rampage, in which he wounded a neighbour, attempted to murder his parents, and barely escaped being shot by the police.’ It turned out that the wires from the battery to the brain-stimulation pacemaker had frayed and broken. Upon their restoration the man calmed down again.
For this field to advance we need non-invasive devices such as advanced headsets, we need to be able to decode the brain much better than we can today, and we need to understand the interface between electronics and biology. But an example of what might be possible comes from work conducted in Israel. Attached to a human volunteer was a magnetic coil. When this sensed a lot of brain activity it sent a message to nanorobots, which then unloaded their cargo of drugs.
In this instance the nanorobots were inside cockroaches, but in theory they could have been inside the human. The experiment demonstrated the possibility of releasing drugs in response to brain patterns, allowing patients who are for example prone to depression or epilepsy to receive them when they need them instead of being permanently drugged.
As Professor Bess observes of bioelectronics ‘Treatment unavoidably opens the door for enhancement…because the technologies for repairing a malfunctioning human body are inseparable from the technologies that that allow us to push human capabilities to ever higher levels.’ This has not been lost on the pharmaceuticals industry. The original idea of healthcare was to treat people who were ill and make them better. But the definition of illness has expanded considerably.
Today drugs are available for lethargy, distractedness and social anxiety disorder (what you and I would call shyness), all conditions that Bess correctly observes ‘would once have been considered mere character flaws.’
Another Professor, John Hoberman, refers to ‘lifestyle medicine’ such as body-building steroids, cosmetic surgery, and of course Viagra. But where it really gets interesting is in the use of drugs to enhance our mental state. Habitual users of narcotics may say they have been using them for decades, but the drugs that Bess has in mind are those that sharpen our acuity. Trials on both mice and humans have suggested that it is possible to use ‘smart pills’ to improve memory and brainpower.
Hacking the ageing process
Meanwhile gerontologists are getting closer to understanding the process of ageing. Playing a crucial role are telomeres, repeated sequences of nucleotides that are found at the tip of the DNA sequence of chromosomes.
Each time a cell divides it loses one of these repeated segments. Once it has lost all of its telomeres, it ceases to reproduce itself and enters a state of senescence.
This is called the Hayflick Limit, after the biologist Leonard Hayflick who first described the phenomenon and believes it is crucial to ageing. By intervening to prevent the loss of these telomeres, as well as by the engineering of certain genes researchers have succeeded in lengthening the life of cells, fruit flies, mice and roundworms.
Thanks to such advances serious academics like Michael Rose, Michael Fossel and Aubrey de Grey believe that we can radically increase the human lifespan.
The other main avenue for making Superhumans, says Bess, is through genetic intervention. For sure we can alter human traits, both physical and mental, by editing genes, and given the huge worldwide interest in genetics we can expect a very rapid accumulation of knowledge.
Bess, though, has a slightly different take on the subject. As he says, our genes do not determine who we are, they merely predispose us towards certain outcomes. Proof of this comes from identical twins which have identical DNA but do not turn out exactly alike due to epigenetic factors such as upbringing and environment.
That is one problem with altering genes. They won’t necessarily deliver the desired outcome. The other problem concerns the editing of germline cells. Unlike alterations to somatic cells, these are passed down from one generation to the next which takes us into the realm of designer babies and other ethical conundrums.
So here is Bess’s solution: ‘Instead of directly modifying the underlying DNA code in people’s cells scientists and doctors would operate indirectly, altering the epigenetic mechanisms that modulate the expression of the DNA code.
Thus, for example, if they identified a certain string of DNA associated with higher susceptibility to pancreatic cancer, they might seek to turn down (methylate) those portions of code.’ Bess reckons that epigenetic intervention would allow us to fine tune the expression of our genes ‘tweaking, adjusting, boosting and upgrading at will.’ Furthermore, unlike the alteration of DNA, we could reverse epigenetic alterations any time we wished.
So through chemical, electronic and epigenetic means Bess argues that we can create humans with longevity and powers that today seem fanciful. As with Henry Greely’s book ‘The End of Sex’ this prospect throws up all sorts of alarming societal and moral questions, which others can argue about.
What interests me is the science and the role that biotechnology is playing in transforming our race.
And in case the scientific challenges strike you as overwhelming Professor Bess reminds us of the words of Lord Ernest Rutherford. In 1933 he dismissed the notion of atomic power as ‘moonshine’. Twelve years later it wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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