New heights, new depths
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 “Humankind will almost certainly be superseded by machines, potentially biological machines based on humans (homo borg, a play on the artificial-biological villains from Star Trek bent on galactic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.”