Ever dreamed of flying like Superman, or shooting webs out of your wrist like Spiderman? Well, soon enough, these far-fetched fantasies could be our reality. Pallavi Biju probes into the phenomenal world of Human Augmentation and how it will impact our life in the near-future
Did you know that humans can run at 27.5 km per hour? Or dive the depth of four leaning towers of Pisa stacked atop each other, roughly 700 feet underwater? Or that our bodies are naturally equipped to fight millions of diseases, including cancer?
At our best, we can compose music and write mathematical equations that shape our understanding of the earth and universe beyond. To evolve is the law of all living creatures. But for sentient beings like us, we’ve pushed past natural evolution and are now testing further barriers with artificial augmentation.
Thanks to genetic engineering, medicine, science, and technology, human augmentation builds a towering edifice of capabilities atop our innate abilities. The human augmentation market was projected to grow from 71 billion dollars in 2019 to over 206 billion dollars by 2024 (Source: MarketWatch). Not to get ahead of ourselves, but does it mean we have a shot at a future where we will be able to teleport, fly, and read minds, not unlike a real-life Avenger?
A FACE-LIFT OF OUR ABILITIES
The modification or addition to our natural bodies is not a new phenomenon. The oldest evidence of tattoos was found in 3370 BC, and piercings were etched on stone depictions of humans dating back to around the 9th century BC. Plastic surgery began in 800 BC, first as a cruel punishment, later on, to reconstruct soldiers’ faces after World War 1. While we started with aesthetic or cosmetic inclinations, we quickly went beyond it.
Human intelligence no longer lingers within its outdated confines. With the advent of smartphones and connected devices, we’ve gone “where no man has gone before” in terms of the avalanche of knowledge that hovers at the touch of our fingers. And most recently, the next bastion in the arena of brain-computer interfaces was stormed when Philip O’Keefe, a paralyzed man, made his first ‘direct-thought tweet’, using a chip implanted in his brain developed by neurovascular bioelectronics medicine company Synchron.
What does it all mean? Simply put, we now wield technologies that inch us closer and closer to an exalted state of human potential.
EVERYBODY GETS TO BE SUPERMAN
Some augmentation technology primarily works to replicate typical human abilities. Routinely, these technologies have aided the differently-abled live a more comfortable, independent life, such as prosthetic limbs and hearing aids. Replicating human augmentation technology is now even being developed to create body tissues! This still-nascent technology, known as Bio-printing, creates organic tissues by a method reminiscent of 3D printing. Carrying the potential to completely revolutionize the healthcare industry as we know it, it can help create bones, skin, or organs to replace damaged ones. So, in a few years, if you shatter a bone beyond repair, you don’t have to tolerate a scratchy cast for several weeks. Just go to the doctor, wait for 5 – 10 mins, and lo and behold, you have a new bone to replace the old one with!
The next kind of human augmentation supplements human abilities, taking you from Clark Kent to Superman. To grasp the concept, imagine running at 25 km/hr without any training or lifting 200 pounds with one hand, without even stepping foot at the gym!
Beyond challenging physical and intellectual capabilities, you can also fathom other languages artificially. With the aid of augmentation devices like the WT2 Plus AI Real-time Translator Earbuds or the MOGOI Language Translator Headset, one can follow spoken jargon and communicate in up to 45 languages, sans training. Filling a dire need, these can be of great help to travelers or employees of multi-national corporations, bridging the awkward communication gap to create a more inclusive, communicative, and understanding environment.
As the name suggests, Exceeding Human Augmentation technology exceeds our physical and intellectual capability to perform tasks, entirely blazing past human limitations. This category of augmentation strives to make the rhetorical ‘impossible’ possible, such as being invisible or even flying! Much of the tech here has theoretically been in the works for years, like creating a real-world version of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.
Despite there being considerable scientific enthusiasm to invent these gizmos, we’re still a way away from the finish line. The ones that are in the market cost an arm and a leg, like the Zapata Flyboard Air, which is a turbine-powered hoverboard costing a cool 250,000 dollars, fashioned like a surfboard and able to fly up to 500 feet in the air, much like the mischievous titular character of ‘Subway Surfers’. Nevertheless, the rise in popularity of these technologies means that everything you innocently penned in your childhood “If I had a superpower” essay will soon become a reality.
OUT IN THE OPEN
From dreams to reality, technologies that enhance human abilities are knocking on our door, with a few already available in the market for both personal and professional use.
Exoskeletons are external frames that strengthen or shield the outside of the body. Crabs, grasshoppers, and shellfish have exoskeletons, and now, humans can too. These suit-like exoskeletons that fit over our body to help us carry more weight and move faster are currently being utilized by soldiers and heavy-industry workers. Developed by Sarcos Robotics, the Sarcos Guardian XO is a 24-degrees-of-freedom full-body robotic exoskeleton that is fully electrical and battery-powered, granting you the ability to lift 200 pounds of weight like it was nothing. Released in 2019, the Guardian XO costs $100,000 a year to rent. Being a kind of self-supporting humanoid-robot, it is fully automated and combines “human intelligence, instinct, and judgment with the power, endurance, and precision of machines”, essentially packing the advantages of both humans and machines. Remind you of a certain Avenger?
Seeing that we find repetitive clicking and typing on a computer a total hassle, imagine the hardships of warehouse and factory workers, whose job requires continuous grasping and un-grasping motion. The RoboGlove, a wearable human grasp assist device, reduces the grasping power required to operate tools for long periods. Developed in collision between NASA and GM Motors, the technology was a spinoff of the first humanoid robot in space, Robonaut 2 (R2), and is a self-contained unit with actuators in the glove that provide grasping support to one’s fingers. To a layman, it may not sound as cool as the Sarcos Guardian XO, but the glove comes as a great relief to construction workers, hazardous material workers, or assembly line operators, while also harboring the potential to be of help to people with impaired or limited arm and muscle strength.
Vision Augmentation is one, if not the most popular kind of human augmentation. The Google Glass, equipped with mind-boggling features including Artificial Intelligence, is aimed towards manufacturing workers. Endowed with verbal coherence like a personal Alexa, it understands questions asked by workers and offers verbal responses in return. It acts as a logical and convenient option for the factory floor, where traditional technologies like smartphones and laptops would be distracting. This factory-friendly version, developed by the Israeli software company Plataine, is already used by industrial heavyweights like GE, Boeing, and Airbus. Workers will be able to scan barcodes, receive reports on production materials, and supervise what is happening on the production floor, all with the help of this wearable tech. Furthermore, it simplifies training, quality control inspections, and maintenance.
As we enter a trans-human era, where technology and biology play and meld across the man-machine barrier, instances of augmentation become both quantitatively immense and innovatively exciting. However, ethical conundrums loom.
IN A QUANDARY
Although technology-based human enhancement is new territory, exercise, education, diet, and curated supplements can all be considered ways that humans have used to augment themselves. So, how do we distinguish these “accepted” methods of enhancement from those that cause concern, like using drugs to improve performance or genetically modifying a foetus? Apart from the implication that humans should not “play God”, the ethical and moral dilemmas of human augmentation do rear their heads.
One argument is that the route we take to achieve our goals matters. For example, would you feel the same sense of satisfaction climbing Mt. Everest as opposed to getting dropped at its peak by a helicopter? Or being in a game of chess, with you having undergone years of hard work and practice, facing off against an opponent whose game is better simply because he has a fancy chip implanted in their brain? Simply put, an accomplishment loses value when a technological shortcut is used to achieve it. There is also a lingering fear that an overdeveloped use of augmentation might lead to our human abilities getting stunted until, unfortunately, augmentation becomes a necessity.
We also grapple with the question of its governance. With the rise in the numbers of available augmentation technology also comes the increase in the number of policymakers in charge of making decisions for their use and implications. Moreover, since these technologies are not limited to any region, they will require global policies. And while there has been a hike in research leadership, we have a long way to go till we achieve a clear picture of the implications of these enhancement technologies and, by extension, develop a reasonable management strategy.