What will hu­mans look like in 100 years?

Me­chan­i­cal ex­oskele­tons, bionic limbs, up­load­able brains: a few ex­perts’ vi­sions of 2118.

Friday - - TECHNOLOGY - By Richard God­win

Pre­dict­ing the fu­ture is a fool’s game at the best of times. Right now it’s mad­ness – so much is up in the air tech­no­log­i­cally, po­lit­i­cally, eco­nom­i­cally, eco­log­i­cally and spir­i­tu­ally, it seems as likely we’ll be shiv­er­ing in caves as en­joy­ing our new bionic ex­oskele­tons by 2118. For all the talk of hu­mans liv­ing longer, life ex­pectancy has flat­lined in re­cent years. The near fu­ture doesn’t look younger and fit­ter so much as older and fat­ter, as the me­dian age in the de­vel­oped world pow­ers past 40 to­wards the mid­dle of the cen­tury.

But of all the de­vel­op­ments emerg­ing now, it’s tech­nol­ogy fo­cused on the hu­man body that would ap­pear to in­tro­duce the most chaos into the sys­tem. Cal­i­for­nia biotech star­tups talk of mak­ing death “op­tional”. Face­book is work­ing on tele­pathic in­ter­faces. Bionic limbs will soon out­per­form hu­man limbs. Crispr-Cas9 gene-edit­ing tech­nol­ogy the­o­ret­i­cally al­lows us to fid­dle around with genomes. We could look, think and feel in rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent ways.

Are we ready to treat our bod­ies as pieces of hard­ware? We might be get­ting there. I asked six sci­en­tists and thinkers to share their vi­sion for the body in the next cen­tury: Saman­tha Payne says: ‘Able-bod­ied peo­ple will use pros­thetic limbs’.

Saman­tha is co-founder and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Open Bion­ics, a Bris­tol-based ro­bot­ics firm.

When we started in 2014, we de­cided to fo­cus not only on bring­ing down the cost of pros­thet­ics, but also on tack­ling the so­cial stigma around dis­abil­ity. We found the best way to do that was to har­ness the nar­ra­tive of su­per­heroes and to make the de­vices su­per-stylish and en­vi­able. We wanted chil­dren to walk into school and show off their new bionic hand and make their friends en­vi­ous. It’s the ex­act op­po­site of the ex­pe­ri­ence am­putees had be­fore, where they’d have a fake hand with zero func­tion­al­ity, or a pros­thetic hook.

Now we’re see­ing this in­ter­est­ing so­cial phe­nom­e­non where bionic de­vices have be­come cool. They’re more em­bed­ded in pop­u­lar cul­ture, more cel­e­brated. And we’re see­ing how this tech­nol­ogy might be used for able-bod­ied peo­ple. The Ger­man cor­po­ra­tion Ot­to­bock has pro­duced pros­thetic limbs for med­i­cal use and is now mak­ing me­chan­i­cal ex­oskele­tons for VW work­ers to en­hance their per­for­mance in the fac­tory. Roam Ro­bot­ics has cre­ated an ex­oskele­ton for skiers. We’re go­ing to see more of this. All we need is smaller mo­tors, bet­ter bat­ter­ies; once the com­po­nents ad­vance, the prod­ucts will come to mar­ket.

I’m of the opin­ion that the hard­ware is go­ing to get to the point where it can out­per­form the hu­man body. That’s not a small chal­lenge - the hu­man body is un­be­liev­ably com­plex. The strength, dex­ter­ity and sen­sory feed­back of the hand is re­ally hard to repli­cate. But we will get there. And then what will stop peo­ple want­ing to swap their limbs? We’ve al­ready had plenty of peo­ple on so­cial me­dia say­ing they’re tempted to re­place healthy limbs with bionic ones.

I feel there has been a huge cul­tural shift. We’ve found a very dis­tinct gap be­tween younger am­putees and those aged 40 and older. The older ones wanted a bionic hand as close to real skin as pos­si­ble. The younger gen­er­a­tion all want highly per­son­alised hands. We’ve moved from a so­ci­ety that val­ued con­form­ity to one that cel­e­brates in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Peo­ple are more will­ing to ex­per­i­ment with their body. It’s wide open.

Zoltan Ist­van says: ‘By 2030, I ex­pect hu­mans to be reg­u­larly go­ing into body shops for up­grades’.

Zoltan is a tran­shu­man­ist au­thor and cam­paigner.

I got a chip im­plant in­jected into my hand while run­ning for the 2016 US pres­i­dency as the nom­i­nee of the Tran­shu­man­ist

party. At the time, I only knew a hand­ful of peo­ple who had them. Now tens of thou­sands do - and some com­pa­nies en­cour­age their em­ploy­ees to get chipped, so bosses can bet­ter track work­flow. Im­plants are a small part of our tran­shu­man fu­ture. Al­ready bio­hack­ers I know plan to am­pu­tate healthy limbs and re­place them with brain-con­trolled robotic ones. Robotic limbs are still 15 years from be­ing more func­tional than hu­man limbs - but that won’t stop peo­ple who de­sire to be cy­borgs. Robotic limbs can be up­graded as new tech­nol­ogy be­comes avail­able.

The real gamechanger for fu­ture hu­man health is bionic or­gans. Al­ready dozens of med­i­cal com­pa­nies are sur­gi­cally fit­ting hu­mans with robotic de­vices that mimic and re­place spe­cific or­gans, such as the pan­creas, eyes and heart. Within 20 years, all th­ese bionic or­gans will syn­chro­nise via per­sonal in­struc­tion from one’s smart­phone, al­low­ing hu­mans to achieve feats they never imag­ined: climb Mount Ever­est at 80, stay awake for days. Bionic or­gans can and will out­per­form their bi­o­log­i­cal coun­ter­parts; by 2030, I ex­pect hu­mans to be reg­u­larly go­ing into body shops for up­grades.

The fu­ture of work is more com­pli­cated. Ro­bots threaten to steal all our jobs. Com­pa­nies in Cal­i­for­nia such as Ker­nel and Neu­ralink are al­ready tack­ling the prob­lem, try­ing to make hu­mans more ef­fi­cient work­ers.

They aim to cre­ate neu­ral pros­thet­ics that al­low the hu­man brain to com­mu­ni­cate in real time with ma­chine in­tel­li­gence, in­clud­ing AI and the in­ter­net. And if our thoughts are con­nected di­rectly to ma­chines - su­per­com­put­ers can al­ready do 200,000 tril­lion cal­cu­la­tions a sec­ond - where does that lead hu­man­ity? Tran­shu­man­ists be­lieve it leads to the Sin­gu­lar­ity, a mo­ment in time - likely around 2045 - when the ex­po­nen­tial evo­lu­tion of ma­chine in­tel­li­gence grows be­yond the com­pre­hen­sion ca­pac­ity of the bi­o­log­i­cal brain. Like an ant try­ing to un­der­stand peo­ple, homo sapi­ens won’t un­der­stand AI that gets too smart. The only way for hu­mans to stay at the top of the food chain will be to merge di­rectly with AI - by up­load­ing our thoughts and en­tire per­son­al­ity into it.

This fu­ture, some­times called the hive­mind - be­cause ev­ery­one is jacked into AI and one an­other si­mul­ta­ne­ously - is a con­tro­ver­sial out­come. But eco­nomics might force more of the tran­shu­man fu­ture than peo­ple want. To be bet­ter than ro­bots, we’ll have to beat them, and that means join­ing them. Bi­ol­ogy is sim­ply too lim­ited for us to re­main com­pet­i­tive for much longer. Aubrey de Grey says: ‘You could have peo­ple liv­ing for thou­sands of years’.

Aubrey is bio­med­i­cal geron­tol­o­gist and chief sci­ence of­fi­cer of the Sens Re­search Foun­da­tion, a char­ity fo­cused on agere­lated dis­ease

I’d say there is a 50/50 chance we will have brought age­ing un­der de­ci­sive con­trol within 20 years. In 100 years, there’s an 80 per cent or 90 per cent chance we will have achieved that goal. There will still be as­pects of age­ing we can’t con­trol - var­i­ous types of cel­lu­lar and molec­u­lar dam­age - but we will be able to stay well within a com­fort zone where that dam­age doesn’t bring sig­nif­i­cant risks.

Once we don’t have age­ing, our longevity will be de­fined by other fac­tors. The pro­por­tion of peo­ple who die at 26 is now less than one in a thou­sand. If we elim­i­nate age­ing, that rate will stay the same with each pass­ing year: ex­trap­o­late from that and you could have peo­ple liv­ing for thou­sands of years. We’ll also be bear­ing down on car ac­ci­dents, pan­demics, as­ter­oids so it makes no sense to put a num­ber on how long peo­ple will live on av­er­age.

I don’t see any ex­is­ten­tial risks. I’m in­ter­ested in other risks, such as as­teroid im­pacts; once we be­gin to un­der­stand that age­ing is be­ing elim­i­nated, we will care much more about those risks and feel more in­vested in them. I’m not too wor­ried about over­pop­u­la­tion, ei­ther. Over­pop­u­la­tion is re­ally about pol­lu­tion – the dam­age that peo­ple do. But we are ac­quir­ing so­lar tech­nol­ogy, de­sali­na­tion, many things that will re­duce the harm we do to the planet and there­fore in­crease its ca­pac­ity. There’s no rea­son it couldn’t house 70 bil­lion peo­ple.

Moon Ribas says:‘ ‘My part­ner and I iden­tify as cy­borgs’. Moon is co-founder of the Transpecies So­ci­ety in Barcelona.

Hu­man be­ings will evolve. We haven’t al­ways been hu­man. We were sea crea­tures, then we were liv­ing in the trees, then we be­came hu­man. Soon we will be­come some­thing else. Tech­nol­ogy is part of our lives and it will be­come part of our evo­lu­tion­ary jour­ney, too.

In 2013, I de­signed an ex­tra sense for my­self. I have sen­sors on my feet so I can per­ceive the seis­mic ac­tiv­ity of the planet: when there’s an earth­quake some­where, I feel it. I call it the seis­mic sense. I don’t con­sider it a body-hack but a mind-hack - my aim was to use tech­nol­ogy to change my per­cep­tion of re­al­ity.

We’re mov­ing into an age where we can use tech­nol­ogy

Ro­bots threaten to steal all our jobs. Com­pa­nies in Cal­i­for­nia such as Ker­nel and Neu­ralink are al­ready tack­ling the prob­lem, try­ing to make hu­mans more ef­fi­cient work­ers

to per­ceive things we couldn’t oth­er­wise. It’s ex­cit­ing that ev­ery­one will be able to de­sign their own senses. My busi­ness part­ner, Neil Har­bis­son, has an an­tenna im­planted in his skull that al­lows him to hear colour waves. It picks up colour fre­quency, which cre­ates vi­bra­tions in his skull, which he per­ceives as sound. His colour per­cep­tion is now greater than or­di­nary hu­man per­cep­tion as it in­cludes ul­tra­vi­o­let and in­frared. A friend has ex­tra senses in his ears that can de­tect at­mo­spheric pres­sure and al­low him to pre­dict the weather. We’re de­sign­ing a retro-cep­tive sense so you can see what’s hap­pen­ing be­hind you; cars have it al­ready. In­stead of up­load­ing new senses for our phone we will soon be up­load­ing new senses for the self.

My part­ner and I iden­tify as cy­borgs as we are no longer 100 per cent hu­man. We have new body parts that give us ac­cess to per­cep­tions that are be­yond usual hu­man per­cep­tion. It’s not about aug­ment­ing re­al­ity, or liv­ing in vir­tual re­al­ity; it’s more about re­veal­ing a re­al­ity that al­ready ex­ists.

I’m sure there will be com­pa­nies of­fer­ing this com­mer­cially in fu­ture - but for me, that’s not as in­ter­est­ing as the cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties. I now have two beats in my body, a heart­beat and an earth beat. I don’t feel closer to ma­chines; I feel closer to na­ture and other an­i­mals. I think it’s per­fectly con­ceiv­able that we will be able to al­ter our bod­ies in such a way that we feel closer to the planet. We can be in­spired by other crea­tures and how they per­ceive re­al­ity. That’s my op­ti­mistic point of view.

Braden Al­lenby says:‘ ‘The body will have hu­man el­e­ments, but will be in­te­grated with tech­nol­ogy’. Braden is en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer at Ari­zona State Univer­sity and co-au­thor of The Techno-Hu­man Con­di­tion.

We are en­ter­ing the An­thro­pocene – an era in which it is hu­mans who are the most crit­i­cal to the way life on the planet evolves. But hu­mans are not only al­ter­ing the Earth – we’re also de­sign­ing our­selves. Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and gene-edit­ing tech­nol­ogy mean the hu­man be­ing has be­come a de­sign space. I be­lieve the split be­tween the hu­man world and the nat­u­ral world that we’ve all grown up with will be­gin to look ob­so­lete. The hu­man will be­come very dif­fer­ent, as we fuse our in­di­vid­ual selves into techno-hu­man net­works.

We’re used to think­ing of our­selves as Carte­sian in­di­vid­u­als: sep­a­rate from na­ture, sep­a­rate from other hu­man forms. But if you look at what’s hap­pened to our cog­ni­tive pro­cesses in the last cou­ple of decades, you’ll see that’s al­ready chang­ing. We’ve al­ready out­sourced much of our cog­ni­tive abil­ity to Google. Peo­ple can’t read maps any more be­cause Google Maps tells them where to go. Darpa (the US mil­i­tary’s De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency) re­cently chipped an in­di­vid­ual so he could tele­path­i­cally con­trol mul­ti­ple drones. That’s just the be­gin­ning.

At the same time, our in­di­vid­ual iden­ti­ties have be­come a new bat­tle space - and the im­pli­ca­tions for cog­ni­tion are huge. Ev­ery­thing we learn about the brain shows how flawed our de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cesses are, par­tic­u­larly when we’re un­der stress. Our cog­ni­tion is not as ef­fec­tive as we think. The mod­ern in­for­ma­tion en­vi­ron­ment is far more com­plex and faster than any­thing we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced. Peo­ple are re­spond­ing by fall­ing back into sim­ple nar­ra­tives and iden­tity pol­i­tics as a de­fence against this com­plex­ity. Ma­lign ac­tors are learn­ing how to ma­nip­u­late th­ese iden­ti­ties.

If we can sur­vive this mo­ment, I think we will move to­wards a world where man is no longer the mea­sure of all things. It will turn out we’re sim­ply com­po­nents of large op­er­at­ing sys­tems. Rather than the Franken­stein im­age of tech­nol­ogy de­stroy­ing hu­mans, we will in­te­grate the two. The body will still have hu­man el­e­ments; but it won’t look like any­thing you and I call hu­man. It sounds hard to imag­ine - but it is al­ready hap­pen­ing. Look at any city street. At least half the peo­ple are look­ing at their phones. We’re al­ready in­te­grated into net­works be­yond our phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

Bryan John­son says: ‘I’d like to bring the brain on­line’. Bryan is founder of Ker­nel, the Cal­i­for­nia startup that de­signs brain-ma­chine in­ter­faces.

What we will be like in 100 years is one of the most rel­e­vant ques­tions we could be ask­ing as a species. It’s gen­er­ally been the case that hu­mans could rea­son­ably pre­dict the cir­cum­stances of their life and their chil­dren’s lives, too.

Now, the rate of change is such that we can’t see fur­ther than a decade or two ahead. The aim is not to get peo­ple to pre­dict the fu­ture. It’s to get them to ap­pre­ci­ate that they can’t pre­dict the fu­ture and to cre­ate al­ter­na­tive mod­els to think about the fu­ture.

We’re just a few tool dis­cov­er­ies away from be­ing able to rad­i­cally im­prove our­selves. I’m build­ing brain-ma­chine in­ter­faces that will bring the brain on­line, in a sim­i­lar way to how other bod­ily func­tions are now on­line. Your foot­steps are “on­line”, if you want them to be. The nu­tri­tional value of the food you eat can be “on­line”, too. But your brain is of­fline. If I want to know what’s go­ing on in­side your brain, I have to ask you: “What’s go­ing on in your head?”

You will then query the small por­tion of your brain you’re aware of. What I’d like to do is bring as much of the brain as pos­si­ble on­line, and make it as much of an in­ter­me­di­ary of our ex­is­tence as smart­phones are.

We can mea­sure what com­put­ers are do­ing with megabytes and gi­ga­bytes. I’m try­ing to imag­ine a sce­nario where we can quan­tify our brain ac­tiv­ity in “at­te­bytes”. At the end of the day, you can down­load a pie chart of your brain’s neuro-pro­cesses. You might find you’ve al­lo­cated 737,000 at­te­bytes of at­ten­tion to a con­ver­sa­tion about the fu­ture. You might dis­cover you thought about an ar­gu­ment you had with your part­ner 45 times that day. Think of it as a step counter for the brain.

If that data goes on­line, what would hap­pen? There is a dystopian sce­nario where the brain be­comes open for busi­ness. You can imag­ine the goods and ser­vices that could evolve around know­ing what’s hap­pen­ing in some­one else’s brain. Face­book is cur­rently work­ing on brain­ma­chine in­ter­faces, but adding some­thing like this into their ecosys­tem would be a re­ally ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion for every­body. We can­not be care­ful or thought­ful enough about how we do this.

If we could es­tab­lish a sin­gle pri­or­ity for the hu­man race, it would be im­prov­ing our cog­ni­tion. Ev­ery­thing we are, ev­ery­thing we are do­ing, is down­stream from the brain. How we gov­ern our­selves, how we deal with cli­mate change, how we man­age the econ­omy - ev­ery­thing de­pends on our cog­ni­tive pro­cesses.

Hu­mans have been re­mark­ably skilled at mak­ing enor­mous progress. We strug­gle with a lot of things. We’re prone to neg­a­tive dis­po­si­tions and bi­ases. But it wouldn’t be smart to bet against the hu­man race. I’m very bullish about our po­ten­tial.

Aubrey de Grey

Bryan John­son

Moon Ribas

Saman­tha Payne

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