New heights, new depths

Idealog - - CONTENTS -

Elly Strang talks with James Cameron and Peter Beck about ex­plor­ing new fron­tiers

real im­pacts will prob­a­bly take 50 years to be re­alised.”

John­ston says part of the rea­son it could take a while is be­cause of our in­nate de­sire to want to en­hance our­selves, rather than sim­ply make our­selves health­ier. In other words: our own van­ity.

“Treat­ments make you less sick, en­hance­ments make you bet­ter than well,” she ex­plains. “I think most peo­ple would like an en­hance­ment of some kind.”

John­ston de­scribes the dif­fer­ences like this: while wear­ing glasses or con­tact lenses to cor­rect your vi­sion would be an ex­am­ple of a treat­ment, be­cause they would help you see nor­mally, cor­rect­ing your vi­sion by wear­ing glasses that also gave you in­frared vi­sion would be an en­hance­ment, be­cause hu­mans don’t nat­u­rally have in­frared vi­sion.

Cos­metic surgery – such as breast aug­men­ta­tion, rhino­plasty (nose jobs), dye­ing one’s eyes, but­tock lifts and more – could also loosely be con­sid­ered a form of en­hance­ment, John­ston ex­plains, es­pe­cially if they give the per­son some­thing (such as a larger cup size) that they would not oth­er­wise have nat­u­rally. Un­like in­frared vi­sion, for the peo­ple who want these pro­ce­dures and can af­ford them, these surg­eries are within their fin­ger­tips.

The quest to live for­ever

With all of these ad­vance­ments in mind, and re­search into other ar­eas such as cryo­genic preser­va­tion and mind up­load­ing, the ques­tion arises: could we one day live for­ever? The ques­tion has dogged philoso­phers and ethi­cists al­most since the dawn of hu­man­ity. And for good rea­son: our mor­tal­ity, some ar­gue, is what makes us hu­man. We’re born, we live, and no mat­ter what – re­gard­less of who we are or how much or how lit­tle of a dif­fer­ence we make or what our life is like – we die.

Kode’s Henry, for one, doesn’t think liv­ing for­ever is a pos­si­bil­ity, re­gard­less of our tech­no­log­i­cal progress.

“Liv­ing for­ever in the hu­man-form in­clud­ing an ad­vanced hu­man-form is not likely,” he says.

So what’s more likely? “Hu­mankind will al­most cer­tainly be su­per­seded by ma­chines, po­ten­tially bi­o­log­i­cal ma­chines based on hu­mans (homo borg, a play on the ar­ti­fi­cial-bi­o­log­i­cal vil­lains from Star Trek bent on ga­lac­tic dom­i­na­tion), and in that form im­mor­tal­ity is cer­tainly pos­si­ble. But I am sure it won’t take long for in-sil­ico evo­lu­tion to have dis­carded the hu­man form for a much more ef­fi­cient and func­tional form. But by then hu­man­ity will have long since ceased to ex­ist.”

In other words, a Borg in­va­sion – or a Ter­mi­na­tor-like sce­nario where ma­chines de­cide hu­mans are not needed – of a kind is at least a pos­si­bil­ity, if we don’t de­stroy our­selves first.

Our his­tory is lit­tered with sto­ries of at­tempts to live for­ever by chang­ing our­selves – of­ten with dis­as­trous re­sults. For ex­am­ple, ac­cord­ing to an an­cient Greek myth, the ti­taness Eos asked Zeus to make her hu­man lover Tithonus im­mor­tal. But, she for­got to ask that he also be granted eter­nal youth. As the years went by, Tithonus slowly be­came shrunken and shriv­elled, even­tu­ally turn­ing into what we know to­day as a grasshop­per. One can rea­son­ably as­sume his qual­ity of life was not ex­actly ideal.

NZeno’s Dr Tan also cites myth and lit­er­a­ture in his be­lief as to why pur­su­ing im­mor­tal­ity might not be the best idea.

“In the fore­see­able fu­ture, it is unlikely that we can live for­ever,” he says.

“Many of us would not want to. Some­one may write a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of Faust (Jo­hann Wolf­gang von Goethe/ Charles Gounod), The Pic­ture of Do­rian Gray (Os­car Wilde), The Makrop­u­los Af­fair (Karel apek/Leoš Janá ek) or Back to Methuse­lah (Ge­orge Bernard Shaw).”

Im­mor­tal­ity aside, Dr Tan says it’s im­por­tant not to “mess up” tech­nol­ogy – and, again, stresses that we need to use it for the right rea­sons. “Our in­ten­tion [with NZeno] is to use lim­ited gene edit­ing on pigs – ex­ces­sive gene edit­ing will likely dis­rupt their genome,” he says.

“Others are gene edit­ing the hu­man genome. For se­lected dis­eases this would be ap­pro­pri­ate – while this may be hack­ing the genome it need not ‘hack hu­man­ity.’ His­tor­i­cally, hu­man­ity can be and has been messed up with the tech­nol­ogy of the day or with­out tech­nol­ogy (by just look­ing away).”

Bioethi­cist John­ston also stresses the im­por­tance of un­der­stand­ing what it is we’re do­ing to avoid catas­tro­phe.

“We can se­quence a genome and edit it, but it would be a mis­take to say we fully un­der­stand ge­nomics,” she ex­plains.

John­ston points to nu­clear as an ex­am­ple of a tech­nol­ogy that can have pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive uses, but also was not en­tirely un­der­stood when it was first de­vel­oped. While it can have pos­i­tive uses – such as X-rays and energy – it can also have neg­a­tive uses, such as be­ing used as a weapon of war. Plus, at least in the be­gin­ning, the grave health dan­gers posed by ra­di­a­tion weren’t well-known. “That hap­pens a lot with tech­nolo­gies – we don’t al­ways un­der­stand it.”

But liv­ing for­ever, even with tech­nol­ogy? John­ston is quick to an­swer – and her an­swer isn’t ex­actly the kind of thing that would get fu­tur­ists’ imag­i­na­tions flut­ter­ing. “I don’t think we’ll be liv­ing for­ever.”

John­ston also says no mat­ter how great our tech­nol­ogy be­comes, there are other more ba­sic com­modi­ties re­spon­si­ble for help­ing us live longer now than how much we are able to mod­ify our­selves – things which hu­mans would do well not to lose sight of.

“Peo­ple are liv­ing longer not just be­cause of tech­nol­ogy, but be­cause of ba­sic san­i­ta­tion and med­i­cal care.”

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