Who doesn’t like to imagine themselves with super powers? No-one, that’s who. Even young Superman, as he flew around rural America shooting communists with his laser eyes, had a dream of someday being able to talk to animals.
Oh how I envy Doctor Dolittle…
Such dreams are no longer in the realm of comics however. Paradigm-shattering advances are being made in various fields of human augmentation, so here’s a list of my favourite ways to go ‘Homo-Sapien++’.
1: Powerful Prosthetics
Literally since life began losing a limb has sucked. Evolution spent millions of years giving you that damn appendage so you could feed yourself and once its gone eating/living/procreating becomes that much harder. The extent to which a society can mitigate the physical disadvantage is a good measure of how advanced it is, since it means your relying more on brain and less on brawn. We (humans) have been getting better and better at this, but the loss of a limb will always remain a tragedy.
Until now (or at least, soon). A threshold is being crossed as increasingly prosthetics are being designed which in many ways exceed the capabilities of natural limbs. Most recently: The ‘Terminator Arm – A prosthetic arm which operates basically as a regular hand. Take it a step further and we’ve got tiny hands for small-scale work, strong arms for heavy lifting and ridiculously fast running blades for legs (cf. Oscar Pistorius – his first mention anywhere this week which didn’t reference the trial… Ooops…). And why stop there? Flamethrower arms projector eyes and sonar ears are just around the corner, and that means that increasingly people will see having a limb amputated as a better option than keeping a healthy limb.
Sounds wonderful for those who choose it, however there is one concern. If practical effectiveness is increased by prosthetic enhancement (as it inevitably will be) then the competitive market will begin to favour workers who sacrifice limbs in order to increase productivity. We’re a long way off from evil overlords grabbing babies and experimenting on them, but we’re pretty close to the point where some job somewhere will be done better by an amputee with a prosthetic and people competing for that job will confront an awkward choice.
2: Smarter, Quicker, Less Defective!
A recent Royal Society publication entitled ‘Human Enhancement and the future of work’ (the Academy of Medical Sciences, Royal Academy of Engineering and British Academy helped too) outlines various ways to enhance the workforce. Prosthetics and exoskeletons are covered for the physical stuff, but it also details various ways to make workers smarter, such as cognitive training via computers (I know Kung Fu!), collective cognition (What did you just think to me?!?), brain stimulation to increase learning and (this last one seems a little crude) drugs for old people.
Equal parts terrifying and amazing. So much could go wrong! So much could go right! Mental enhancement offers possibilities that are literally undreamed of (since our brains aren’t advanced enough yet… see what I did there?) and will undoubtedly shape the future of this sorry rock.
It seems pointless to harp on about the details of a recent publicly-available publication so I’ll just point out some salient facts. One conclusion of the report was that policy makers need to be thinking about this stuff NOW if not sooner – mind-enhancing drugs are already available in chemists and the rest of these technologies are not far off. This is not a distant reality to ponder over, it is something that will happen within our life time (possibly in the next decade) and the people alive today will determine how our first steps into mental enhancement go. These are delicate issues, and once human/computer interfaces are a practical reality there will be hundreds of dangers, but if these technologies are used sensibly for the benefit of all we’ll be in Utopia before we know it.
Read the report! : http://royalsociety.org/news/2012/human-enhancement/
3: Telekinetic Tattoos*
*NOT ACTUALLY TATTOOS – I’m not sure why they called it that. This is basically a new tech the size of a hair which you can stick to your scalp and it’ll read your brainwaves. Tie an emitter to the end and set it to transmit wireless to some machinery and BAM – you are controlling stuff with your mind. Harry Potter can go back to Hogwarts.
This one is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand being able to control stuff with your mind is cool, but it seems to require a great deal of set-up time so would only be used for certain tasks – not much of a multi-purpose upgrade. The tasks which would be controlled in this way would probably be the boring/repetitive/simple tasks we hate anyway, and this just gives you the option to do them while sitting quietly and thinking about them. Fun.
If the tech became pervasive and was standardized though it would be awesome – walking through a city where your little ‘Tattoo’ was rigged to open doors, hail taxis, and make purchases would be amazing. Equally, since they are so small and removable, you could have a selection (one for the office, one for the car, one for the deluxe orbital asteroid condo) to get almost the same effect.
Another big advantage this enhancement has is it isn’t permanent – no ethical concerns like with the prosthetics. Since you can take it off at any time if you felt like having a real stone age style weekend you could unplug the phone, take off the ‘Tattoo’ and play Xbox360 on a 37″ Plasma like your Grand Pappy used to.