Vanderbilt Stories, “Welcome to the Future,” May 2016

Welcome to the Future

Can the world restrain its thirst for bioenhancement technology until humanity can catch up with its effects?

Vanderbilt Stories | By Michael Bess | May 2016 [Link to Original]

This article was adapted from Michael Bess’ book Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future (2015, Beacon Press). Bess is Chancellor’s Professor of History and professor of European studies at Vanderbilt. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute to conduct the research for this book. (Illustration by James Steinberg)

During the coming decades—probably a lot sooner than most people realize—the next great wave of technological change will wash over our lives. Its impact will be similar in sweep and rapidity to the advent of computers, cellphones and the Web, but this time around, it is not our gadgets that will be transformed—it is we ourselves, our bodies, our minds.This will be a shift that cuts even more deeply than the great industrial revolutions of the past. Not only will it alter how we make a living, communicate, and interact with each other, but it will offer direct and precise control over our own physical and mental states. People will be able to sculpt their own selfhood over time, reshaping their bodies, augmenting their cognition, reconfiguring their character and personality.

We will live through this process, marveling all the while at how malleable our species turned out to be.

If you talk to the authors of this revolution—the scientists, doctors and engineers who labor tirelessly at the vanguard of biotechnology—most of them will deny that this is what they have in mind. They are not seeking to bring about the transmogrification of the human species, they insist: They are simply doing their best to heal the sick, to repair the injured. But once you stand back and look at the big picture, sizing up the cumulative impact of all their brilliant efforts, a different conclusion emerges.

Whether they intend it or not, they are giving our species the instruments with which to redesign itself radically. Those instruments are already becoming available in crude form today, and they will more fully come into their own during the next few decades. By the time our grandchildren have grown to adulthood, this wave of change will have passed through our civilization.

The enterprise of human bioenhancement—ranging from minute adjustments in a person’s biochemistry to wholesale redesign—falls into three main categories: drugs, bioelectronics and genetics. Major genetic interventions reside for the most part in the realm of future possibilities, perhaps 20 years away or more. Bioelectronic modifications, on the other hand, are keyed to a nearer future.

We already possess functional devices today such as brain–machine interfaces for the paralyzed and the blind that presage significant breakthroughs in the conjoined fields of neuroscience and informatics within the next 10 to 20 years. Pharmaceutical enhancements, of course, already are very much part of our contemporary world—and have been for quite some time.

Living Like Lazarus

Virtually all the statistics on pharmaceutical usage during the 20th century indicate continual and dramatic growth. The variety of drugs available; quantity of pills taken per capita; number of individuals relying on medication; dollars spent on research, manufacturing and advertising; as well as the level of cultural attention paid to chemical intervention—in all these areas the 20th century can be described as a period of explosive expansion.

The drugs themselves, moreover, have been getting ever more effective as time has gone by, becoming increasingly precise in achieving their stated purpose while minimizing unwanted side effects.

The result, not surprisingly, has been a new level of social and cultural upheaval. In the world of competitive sports, for example, it is hard to find a serious commentator who does not believe the situation has reached a crisis point: world-class athletes forced to retire in disgrace; demoralization among the competitors; an ongoing arms race between regulatory bodies and the developers of illicit pharmaceuticals as they struggle to stay ahead of each other—with no end in sight. Clearly, enhancement pharmaceuticals already have destabilized the moral frameworks surrounding one of the most ancient and beloved arenas of human social life.

Could something similar happen in the fields of augmented cognition, learning and memory? Already, a first generation of smart pills beckons to those citizens who would like to modify their cognitive profile. None of these chemicals was originally intended as an enhancement pharmaceutical; they were developed to help people with basic functional deficits, such as narcolepsy, extreme restlessness, or an inability to stay focused. Nevertheless, for many people who have no such deficits, they also seem to work remarkably well in boosting their perceived cognitive ability.

During the past 15 years, pharmaceutical and genetic interventions have resulted in significantly extended lifespans for such creatures as yeast cells, fruit flies and mice. Will it work in humans?

Getting old, as anyone my age knows, is the ultimate un-enhancement. All traits—physical, cognitive, emotional—come under assault. What if we could dramatically increase not just our lifespan but our health span—the number of years we live in full possession of our physical and mental faculties? During the past 15 years, pharmaceutical and genetic interventions have resulted in significantly extended lifespans for such creatures as yeast cells, fruit flies and mice. Will it work in humans?

The notion of dramatically altering the human health span, not just by a few years but by doubling or tripling it, remains controversial today. Some experts believe after decades of research that this idea remains nothing but science fiction. Others take the very different view articulated by Michael Rose, a biologist at the University of California, Irvine: “In 25 years we could see the creation of the first products that can postpone human aging significantly. This would be only the beginning of a long process of technological development in which human lifespan would be aggressively extended. The only practical limit to human lifespan is the limit of human technology.”

Replacement Parts for the Brain

The research in bioelectronics being done today in labs around the world focuses on electrical, prosthetic or informatic devices that connect directly with the human brain or sensorium to achieve new functional effects. Such devices are being developed for a wide variety of purposes: boosting the senses, controlling machines, augmenting memory and cognition, and monitoring or even manipulating the internal states of the mind.

During the past 20 years, for example, biomedical engineer Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California has been working with an international team of researchers in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, molecular biology, mathematics, biomedical engineering and materials science to build what he calls “replacement parts for the brain.” Berger and his co-workers are well on the way to creating a neural prosthesis for the human hippocampus, the small seahorse-shaped organ deep within the brain that plays a key role in converting short-term experiences into long-term memories.

In 2006, Berger and a group of colleagues developed a microchip that could accurately reestablish electrical processing across gaps or lesions in the hippocampal tissue of lab rats. By 2011, Berger and his colleagues had successfully tested the device in live rats, demonstrating that the hippocampal prosthesis could be used to selectively activate and deactivate the rats’ ability to form long-term memories.

“Flip the switch on,” Berger noted, “and the rats remember. Flip it off, and the rats forget.” Berger believes that, somewhere around the year 2025, the first human trials of a hippocampal prosthesis could well be taking place.

James Steinberg

What, then, might some of the bioelectronics of the year 2050 or 2075 look like?

Our five senses probably will be augmented in startling new ways. Alongside visual-system enhancements, for example, we can imagine using a cochlear sound augmenter to hear what dogs and cats hear, or what bees and moths hear, tapping directly into their sonic universe for a visit to see what’s up. A tactile enhancement technology would offer extensions of our body through touch-sensitive haptic devices, allowing us to manipulate objects in outer space or another continent, while “feeling” them as if they were at arm’s length.

Researchers also are developing interfaces that will allow us not only to converse directly with our machines using spoken language (“How ya doin’, Siri?”), but also to interact with robotic devices that have highly expressive faces capable of communicating complex states such as curiosity, satisfaction or surprise. Beyond the world of spoken interaction, one possibility would be a computer-generated, interactive, virtual environment projected for me—a sphere of objects and symbols that I could manipulate at will using the two-way communication channel of a skullcap interface.

In lieu of encountering the machine by sitting in front of a monitor as I do today, such an interface would situate me inside a three-dimensional place that I would temporarily inhabit. This interactive space could, perhaps, offer me the ability to imagine a visual image or a situation and have the machine instantly pick it up, project it, and start engaging me about it. In this sense the machine would be connecting with my mind and sensorium on a much broader spectrum than today, allowing me far greater degrees of freedom in my interactions with it.

Novel forms of sensation, powerful prostheses, sophisticated robots and drones controlled by thought, interactive knowledge-spaces following our movements, radically new modes of interpersonal communication—these are only the most likely and foreseeable extensions of our bioelectronic selves.

Epigenetics Awakens

The third major area of human enhancement is, of course, genetics. Most geneticists today believe that both nature and nurture—genes and environment—are critically important in making us who we are. Nevertheless, scientists also have discovered that, by altering individual components in certain systems of genes, we can directly affect complex and intangible traits in predictable ways.

Let’s take intelligence and learning as an example. In 1999, Princeton neuroscientist Joe Tsien engineered a strain of mice with elevated levels of expression for the NR2B gene, which is tied to learning and memory. When he subjected those mice to tests of learning and memory, they performed five times better than unmodified mice. Tsien did not possess (nor does anyone today possess) a full understanding of how mice brains work. He merely tweaked the gene, and the animals’ performance changed dramatically—in precisely the ways Tsien had hypothesized it would. The mice became smarter.

James Steinberg

To be sure, we have no reason to believe this kind of feat will be applicable to humans anytime soon: Apart from the practical challenges, the ethical problems involved in attempting such a thing are multiple and profound. Nevertheless, the precisely targeted genetic interventions achieved by scientists like Tsien suggest we eventually may be able to do much more than just tinker around the edges of the human constitution, altering relatively minor traits like height or hair color. We may be able to reach far deeper, modifying or re-engineering some of the traits that render us most distinctively human: emotion, cognition and character.

It is also possible that many genetic interventions will not be based on altering DNA at all. The more scientists learn about the functioning of genes, the more they have come to emphasize the crucial role of factors that regulate genetic expression: the activation of certain segments of DNA code, the deactivation of others.

It turns out that many of our 20,000 genes are constantly being switched on and off in complex chronological sequences of combinations. When scientists speak about an epigenetic process, they are referring to any of these molecular mechanisms that change the expression of genetic information without altering the underlying DNA sequence itself. In other words, the DNA code stays the same, but certain portions of it are selectively silenced while others are spurred to action.

Scientists are only just beginning to understand the intricate dance of molecular mechanisms through which epigenetic modifications take place. But as their understanding deepens, a major new vehicle for genetic enhancement may gradually become available to humankind. Instead of directly modifying the underlying DNA code, we would instead modulate the expression of the DNA code.

The advantages of this indirect method would be significant. Epigenetic modifications would be much easier to carry out than alterations of the underlying genome because one’s epigenome is already primed to respond quite sensitively to shifting environmental conditions or trigger events. These modifications could, therefore, be made at any point in a person’s lifetime, and they would be far more flexible in nature. You could refine them over time, as your knowledge of how they work became more sophisticated. You could reverse earlier changes that you made, undoing them and replacing them with new modifications. You could tweak, adjust, boost and upgrade at will.

Epigenetic science is still too young today for us to foretell how effective an instrument it will become—whether for healing the sick or for enhancing the healthy. But if it develops along its current path, it will probably transform the nature of bioenhancement, allowing people to sculpt their bodies and minds on an ongoing basis, as a lifelong project—a genetic work-in-progress.

James Steinberg

Enhancing Our Humility

Until recently in human history, the major technological watersheds all came about incrementally, spread out over centuries or longer. Think, for example, of the shift from stone to metal tools, the transition from nomadic hunter-gathering to settled agriculture, or the substitution of mechanical power for human and animal sources of energy. In all these cases, people and social systems had time to adapt; they gradually developed new values and habits to accommodate the transformed material conditions.

But this is not the case with the current epochal shift. This time around the radical innovations are coming upon us with relative suddenness—in a timeframe that encompasses four or five decades, a century at most.

The results will be mixed. Some of the new bioenhanced capabilities will be splendid to behold (and to experience). People will live longer, healthier, more productive lives. They will connect with each other in seamless webs of direct interactivity. They will be able to fine-tune their own moods and thought processes. They will interact with machines in entirely new ways. Their augmented minds will generate staggeringly complex and subtle forms of knowledge and insight.

If only the rich have access to the most potent bioenhancements, this will exacerbate the already grievous rift between haves and have-nots. Competition will be keen for the most sophisticated enhancement products—for an individual’s professional and social success will be at stake.

At the same time, these technologies also will create formidable challenges. If only the rich have access to the most potent bioenhancements, this will exacerbate the already grievous rift between haves and have-nots. Competition will be keen for the most sophisticated enhancement products—for an individual’s professional and social success will be at stake.

As these technologies advance, they will continuously raise the bar of what’s considered normal performance, forcing people to engage in constant cycles of upgrades merely to keep up—Humans 95, Humans XP, Humans 10. People will tend to identify strongly with their particular enhancement profiles, clustering together in novel social and cultural groupings that could lead to new forms of prejudice, rivalry and outright conflict. Some bioenhancements will offer such fine-grained control over feelings and moods that they risk turning people into emotional puppets. Individuals who boost their traits beyond a certain threshold may acquire such extreme capabilities that they no longer will be recognized as unambiguously human.

Some of the factors propelling this process will reflect our baser nature: greed, competition, envy, and the lust for power. Others will arise out of noble sentiments: the desire to see our loved ones succeed, the thirst for novelty, and the aspiration to attain higher forms of achievement, knowledge and sensation.

These forces will be hard enough in themselves to resist, but they will be strengthened further by the involvement of large-scale business interests, for whom these technologies will offer major profits. Influential libertarian voices also will add to the mix, as they invoke the inalienable right of each individual to modify her own body and mind as she sees fit. This nexus of impulses and ideals, economic and social forces, will generate a seemingly irresistible pressure to go faster, faster, faster.

And yet, restraint is the smarter path—the deliberate postponement of radical forms of self-modification until our society has had a chance to gauge the consequences and acclimate to them. If we permit these kinds of technologies to advance too quickly, the resultant social stresses could end up massively destabilizing our civilization. The likelihood of major unintended effects should impel our society to proceed slowly, and with great humility, as we go down this road.