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Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future

By Prof. Michael Bess

Over the coming decades – probably a lot sooner than most people realize –the next great wave of technological change will wash over our lives.  Its impact will be similar in scope to the advent of computers, cell phones, and the Web; but this time around, it is not our gadgets that will be transformed – it is we ourselves, our bodies, our minds.  This will be a shift that cuts even more deeply than the great industrial revolutions of the past.  It will not only alter how we make a living, communicate, and interact with each other, but will offer increasingly direct and precise control over our own physical and mental states.

Through the use of pharmaceuticals, we are learning how to modulate our moods, boost our physical and mental performance, increase our longevity and vitality.  Through the application of prostheses, skull caps, wearable headsets, and other bioelectronic devices, we are not only healing the blind and the paralyzed, but beginning to reconfigure our bodies, enhance our memories, and generate entirely new ways of interacting with machines.  Through genetic interventions, we are not only neutralizing certain diseases long thought incurable, but opening up the very real possibility of taking evolution into our own hands – redesigning the human “platform” of body and mind in a thoroughgoing way.

If you talk to the authors of this revolution – the scientists, doctors, and engineers who labor tirelessly at the vanguard of biotechnology – most of them will deny that this is what they have in mind.  They are not seeking to bring about the transmogrification of the human species, they insist: they are simply doing their best to heal the sick, to repair the injured.  But once you stand back and look at the big picture, sizing up the cumulative impact of all their brilliant efforts, a different conclusion emerges.  Whether they intend it or not, they are giving our species the instruments with which to radically redesign itself.  Those instruments are already becoming available in crude form today, and they will more fully come into their own over the next few decades.  By the time our grandchildren have grown to adulthood, this wave of change will have passed through our civilization.

The results will be mixed.  Some of the new bioenhanced capabilities will be splendid to behold (and to experience).  People will live longer, healthier, more productive lives; they will connect with each other in seamless webs of direct interactivity; they will be able to fine-tune their own moods and thought-processes; they will interact with machines in entirely new ways; their augmented minds will generate staggeringly complex and subtle forms of knowledge and insight.

At the same time, the advent of these new technologies will confront our society with formidable questions and challenges.

• Will the most potent and effective enhancements be prohibitively expensive, and therefore remain accessible only to the privileged few?  And if so, would this not result in a radical exacerbation of the division between haves and have-nots, inscribing that division in biology itself?

• Will these technologies continually raise the bar of “normal” performance? Will they force all of us to engage in constant cycles of upgrades and boosts merely to keep up with the ever-rising levels of capability among the people around us?  Humans 95, Humans XP, Humans 7, Humans 10?

• What happens to those who refuse such enhancements?  Will they become akin to obsolete technologies, hopelessly outclassed by modified humans in health, talent, dexterity, mental acuity, the ability to communicate, the ability to interact with machines?  Will such unmodified humans be able to coexist alongside the modified ones?

• Might the widespread adoption of diverse enhancement packages result in increasingly distinct lineages of modified humans?  Could this trend ultimately culminate in the fragmentation of homo sapiens into a series of separate successor species?

• If I can sculpt my moods at will, simply by choosing from a wide array of sophisticated pills, or by using a bioelectronic skull cap to manipulate my brain, which emotional state will constitute an “authentic” me?

• Will there be genetic fads – the “musical Seventies,” the “blond Nineties”?

• Will corporations hold patents on the enhancement packages they offer – and will this result in a certain component of my body or mind being partially owned or legally controlled by those corporations?

• What new forms of violence might we expect, in a world of physically and mentally enhanced soldiers (and of similarly enhanced criminals and terrorists)?
• If people live healthy and mentally vigorous lives that span 130 or 160 years (and perhaps longer), what impact will this have on marriage and the family?  On population levels and ecological pressures?  On work and intergenerational relations?  On the stages of life and our sense of our lifespan’s meaning and purpose?

Of these three domains – pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics, and genetics – it is probably genetics that will offer the most potent forms of modification.  Most geneticists today believe that both nature and nurture – genes and environment – are critically important in making us who we are.  Nevertheless, scientists have also discovered that, by altering individual components in certain systems of genes, they can directly affect complex and intangible traits such as intelligence and emotion in predictable ways.

Let’s take intelligence and learning as an example.  In 1999 the Princeton neuroscientist Joe Tsien engineered a strain of transgenic mice with elevated levels of expression for the NR2B gene.  When he subjected those mice to tests of learning and memory, they performed five times better than unmodified mice.  Tsien demonstrated that the genetic intervention had augmented activity of the synaptic receptor NMDA in the animals’ forebrains, and he attributed the striking leap in their cognitive abilities to this fact.  Tsien did not possess (nor does anyone today possess) a full understanding of how mice brains work.  He merely tweaked the gene, and the animals’ performance changed dramatically – in precisely the ways that Tsien had hypothesized it would.  The mice became smarter.  Tsien’s finding was further confirmed in experiments conducted by University of Texas researcher James Bibb in 2007.

To be sure, we have no reason to believe this kind of feat will be applicable to humans anytime soon: apart from the practical challenges, the ethical problems involved in attempting such a thing are multiple and profound.  Nevertheless, the precisely-targeted genetic interventions achieved by scientists like Tsien and Bibb suggest that we may eventually be able to do much more than just tinker around the edges of the human constitution, altering relatively minor traits like height or hair color.  We may be able to reach far deeper, modifying or re-engineering some of the traits that render us most distinctively human: emotion, cognition, and character.

It is also possible that many genetic interventions will not be based on altering DNA at all, but will use epigenetic mechanisms to achieve enhancement goals.  The more scientists learn about the functioning of genes, the more they have come to emphasize the crucial role played by the molecular factors that regulate genetic expression – the activation of certain segments of DNA code, the deactivation of others.  By manipulating these regulatory or epigenetic factors, they are able to change the functioning of an organism’s genes without having to change the underlying DNA sequence at all.  Such modifications can be made at any point in a person’s lifetime, and they would in principle allow for a far more flexible form of genetic intervention.  Epigenetic science is still too young today for us to foretell how effective an instrument it will become – whether for healing the sick or for enhancing the healthy.  But if it pans out, it will probably transform the nature of bioenhancement, allowing you to sculpt your body and mind on an ongoing basis, as a lifelong project – a genetic work-in-progress.

Until recently in human history, the major technological watersheds all came about incrementally, spread out over centuries or longer.  Think for example of the shift from stone to metal tools, the transition from nomadic hunter-gathering to settled agriculture, or the substitution of mechanical power for human and animal sources of energy.  In all these cases, people and social systems had time to adapt: they gradually developed new values, new norms and habits, to accommodate the transformed material conditions.  But this is not the case with the current epochal shift.  This time around, the radical innovations are coming upon us with relative suddenness – in a time frame that encompasses four or five decades, a century at most.

Some of the factors propelling this process will reflect our baser nature: greed, competition, envy, and the lust for power.  Others will arise out of noble sentiments: the desire to see our loved ones succeed; the thirst for novelty; the aspiration to attain higher forms of achievement, knowledge, and sensation.  These forces will be hard enough in themselves to resist, but they will be further strengthened by the involvement of large-scale business interests, for whom these technologies will offer major profits.  Influential libertarian voices will also add to the mix, as they invoke the inalienable right of each individual to modify her own body and mind as she sees fit.  This nexus of impulses and ideals, economic and social forces, will generate a seemingly irresistible pressure to go faster, faster, faster.

And yet, restraint is the smarter path: the deliberate postponement of radical forms of self-modification until our society has had a chance to gauge the consequences and acclimate to them.  If we permit these kinds of technologies to advance too quickly, the resultant social stresses could end up massively destabilizing our civilization.  The likelihood of major unintended effects should impel our society to proceed slowly, and with great humility, as we go down this road.