Hollywood movies from Limitless, Gattaca, Robocop, and even Iron Man have promoted a fascination with transhumanism and human augmentation. Still, many ask where this desire for perfection and self-improvement will take us? And what will happen to those that get left behind?
Human augmentation, or "Human 2.0" as it is often referred to, explores how technology can implement cognitive and physical improvements to the human body. Although the idea of heading to a cyborg future initially sounds disturbing, it's important to highlight how in the right hands, technology can solve real-world problems and help improve the lives of millions of people.
For example, The New York Times recently reported that a 34-year-old man in a completely "locked-in" state could formulate words and sentences using his thoughts by using brain-computer interface technologies and electrode brain implants. Elsewhere, prosthetic intervention technology is transforming the lives of amputees.
Bioprinting company TissueLabs is attempting to create bioartificial organs, and Timekettle is on a mission to allow anyone to become a polyglot and communicate with people in any language. If we remove all perceived limitations of human capabilities, we will also tear down the barrier boundaries of the interactions between a human brain and a computer.
Elon Musk is already attempting to build neural interfaces at Neuralink, which could create an entirely new future with near-limitless human possibilities and a multi-planet species. Musk has already released a video of a monkey playing Pong using its brain, suggesting this technology is will become a reality much closer than many realize.
Replacing a limb that has compromised human ability or providing a fully paralyzed patient with the ability to communicate is genuinely ground-breaking and exciting. But there is also increasing concern around how the same technology could be tweaked and used for nefarious purposes.
The Dark Side of Transhumanism
One of the biggest ironies in life is that young people spend their time dreaming of being wealthy, while rich people dream of being young again. Unsurprisingly, Jeff Bezos reportedly is very interested in longevity research and famously quoted biologist Richard Dawkins in his final letter to Amazon Shareholders, "Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at."
Predictably, Bezos has put his money where his mouth is by investing in a biotech company working on cellular rejuvenation programming to restore cell health and resilience. Some transhumanists take this further by believing that immortality will be made possible when we begin transferring the human mind to servers, other bodies, or machines.
Billionaires heavily investing in anti-aging research or searching for the key to immortality is a timely reminder of the Harvey Dent quote, "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." It's also quite telling that many transhumanists appear to lack self-awareness around the philosophical problems they might unwittingly create.
Despite the moral and ethical maze around these advances in technology, a study by Kaspersky revealed that 92 percent of respondents would be happy to upgrade a physical aspect of themselves. But the bigger question is, would augmentation only be limited to the super-rich? And what happens to everyone else?
Governments are also faced with the reality that the winners of future wars will not only be determined by who has the most advanced technology but those who can leverage the unique skills of both humans and machines. Of course, just debating the topic will raise complex ethical and moral arguments. But it will not stop those in power from at least considering human augmentation and transhumanism.
The British government is already beginning to explore how genetic engineering, bioinformatics, and brain-computer interfaces could potentially impact the future of society, security, and defense. Despite the overwhelming good that human augmentation could bring to the world, it’s quite telling how little we have progressed as a human race when some ponder the concept of cyborg armies like the nineties Van Damme movie Universal Soldier instead of solving real-world problems.
The road to human 2.0
We often forget how our smartphones and smartwatches have already transformed our natural abilities. We can make data-driven decisions about a lifestyle based on calorie intake, exercise, and heart rate. Although our minds are less cluttered by the need to memorize mundane information or remember telephone numbers, it doesn't necessarily make us smarter.
In our quest to be genuinely limitless or the best version of ourselves, we also risk sacrificing attentive types of thinking that make intelligent humans. Everything from contemplative and introspective thought to the ability to empathize with others or reflect and learn from our actions are areas we should never lose focus.
We have more tools and personal data at our disposal than ever before. Although technology works best when it brings people together, we live in a digital age where the need to talk and understand each other has never been more important. Maybe we need to perfect Human 1.0 before we are ready to move forward. If we don't, we are arguably nothing but children playing with some very dangerous toys, blissfully unaware of the dangers.