This article is about the future of mankind. What will humans of the future look like? What is the future of the human body? And what is the future of mankind?
Future human beings
What will the humans of the future look like? Will we create and sculpt the ‘perfect’ human? In this article, I’ll zoom in on the future of humans – for instance by looking at different methods and techniques in the field of (biomedical) technology, the ethics behind them, and their impact. Here’s a short summary of some of the key elements of this:
#1. There is no single technology or method that will determine what the humans of the future will be or look like. Instead, they will probably embody a combination of techniques, such as pharmaceutical, electronic, neurological and genetic modifications.
#2. There is a very good chance that a new species will eventually emerge as the successor of our current species, the Homo Sapiens. This species will then be able to shape and model itself according to its own insights, for example extending their lifespan and/or having better cognitive and physical capabilities.
#3. Technological progress should not be seen in isolation, but is also influenced by cultural, moral, economic, political, legal and religious aspects. History shows that our morality concerning technology and human enhancement is dynamic and ever-changing. The arguments that we currently use for or against human enhancement might be outdated in 10 years’ time.
#4. Questions about our overall human values, needs, desires and incentives are just as important as our insight into the individual scientific and technological domains. If we can shape ourselves into whichever type of human we want to be, the question: what kind of human do you want to be, and what kind of humanity do you want to live in? becomes a key question.
#5. The impact of human enhancement technology also has implications for social and cultural aspects of our society. That’s why this topic calls for continued public debate. I will come back to these key elements later on in this article, with additional insights and arguments.
The future of mankind
What does the future hold for humanity? What will the future of mankind look like? That’s a question that has occupied the minds of philosophers and great thinkers, as well as writers, artists and filmmakers, for centuries. That is why I often like to refer to books, movies, TV shows and art when I talk about the future of mankind. In the last section of this article, I will come back to these creative takes on the future of humankind and briefly describe them.
Book on future of mankind
Are you interested in reading a good book about the future of humankind? In addition to the insights I refer to that are derived from my own book, I also like to use insights from other books [link below].
For example, I frequently refer to non-fiction books by professor Yuval Noah Harari and professor Michael Bess. I also like to use examples from fiction every now and then, such as Brave New World and Oryx and Crake. Below, you can find a list of the books that I consulted while writing this article.
Structure of this article
The structure of this article is as follows. In part 1, I describe several methods to enhance and modify the human body. Part 2 encompasses several predictions about the future of humankind and part 3 focuses on arguments against and in favor of human enhancement. Part 4 considers the impact of these developments. Part 5 takes into account the (legal) boundaries, and part 6 considers human values and motivations. After I describe several potential solutions in part 7, I ultimately present my conclusion in part 8. In part 9, you can see which books, movies and TV shows I would recommend on this topic. Finally, I’ll present a list of related and relevant articles, books and websites.
1. Which methods are available to significantly enhance yourself?
Future of the human body
What methods are available in order to modify and enhance yourself? In a previous article I wrote on human enhancement, I created an overview of the different methods you can use to upgrade and enhance yourself. You can also take a look at these in the mindmap above. At the moment, these are the most important methods:
- Replacing or augmenting body parts;
- NBIC convergence.
More on the potential of these methods and on how they work below.
Modifying your physical capabilities or enhancing your mood using pharmaceuticals no longer carries the social stigma that it used to. As scientist John Hoberman points out, we live in an era of ‘lifestyle medicine’, in which people feel empowered to change important aspects of themselves to better match their potential [link at the bottom]. According to him, this does not just apply to pharmaceuticals, such as hormones and steroids, but also to plastic surgery, diets, body-building, sexual improvements and anti-aging techniques. Pharmaceutical drugs can be divided into a number of categories: physical, cognitive, emotional or anti-aging.
A few examples of enhancing one’s physical performance are muscle growth (steroids), length (human growth factor), losing weight (Xenical), hair growth (Propecia), anti-wrinkle products (Q10), stamina (EPO) and sexual performance (Viagra). The enhancement of physical traits and capabilities is a very visible topic of discussion in the sports domain, especially with regards to doping. Professional athletes have gotten caught using substances they weren’t allowed to use on quite a regular basis. Take the use of steroids by baseball players, for instance, or the use of synthetic EPO by cyclists [link below].
The downside to Viagra
Using substances to enhance your physical capabilities can also have unintended side effects. Take improving your sexual performance with Viagra, for instance. In 1998, columnist Ann Landers published a letter from a group of elderly women in California who called themselves the “Senior Señoras of Sonoma”.
“The weren’t happy with the drug at all. They had reconciled themselves with the life they had and the natural deterioration of their husbands’ potency. Some even said that they had hoped to finally be done with it.” In other words: no modification or enhancement is or remains purely physical.
Another consequence of Viagra: the group among which the number of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) has risen the most, is that of elderly men between 50 and 70 [link at the bottom]. According to sewage analyses carried out by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in 2017, more than 150,000 men use Viagra in the Netherlands, while only 43,000 have a prescription for it.
Another type of pharmaceutical substances that is quickly gaining popularity, is cognitive pills. These can be used to improve your concentration skills, memory or creativity. Cognitive pills are also referred to as nootropics, smart drugs, brain boosters, brain pills or brain supplements. I previously wrote an extensive article on this, for which I tested a wide range of different brands of pills. I was also interviewed about this topic by the Men’s Health magazine and by Radio 3FM [link below].
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Heb je de @menshealthnl van deze maand al gekocht? Nee, ik sta niet op de voorkant 🤨 Ik word geïnterviewd over nootropics. Dit zijn breinpillen of hersensupplementen die je cognitieve prestaties kunnen verbeteren: zoals meer focus, een beter geheugen en meer concentratie.
In 2018, I participated in a ten-volume podcast series by BNR and the Dutch Financial Times, entitled Bionic Man [link at the bottom]. One of the insights I gained was that most of the tools and methods that we use to enhance ourselves, were initially developed to help patients with medical issues. Only later did it become clear that healthy people can also use these drugs to enhance themselves. This also applies to cognitive pills, which were originally created to help patients with narcolepsy (Modafinil), restlessness or issues with their attention span (Ritalin and Adderall).
The healthcare sector is not the only field where pharmaceutical enhancements are discovered and developed. I’ve personally experimented with microdosing LSD [link at the bottom].
LSD is a synthetic drug, but microdosing can also done with other drugs, such as magic mushrooms. According to fervent advocates of this method, taking a very small dose of LSD once every three days leads to improved concentration and more creativity.
I personally found the effect difficult to distinguish, and a journalist from Dutch daily de Volkskrant, who had a similar experience, also underlines this [link at the bottom]. That’s why I prefer to stick to other nootropics, which have a faster and more direct impact in those moments that I need a boost.
Cognitive pills fascinate and entice us. It’s no surprise that these pills and their mystique are often featured in movies, of which the best known examples are Limitless (2011) and Lucy (2014).
Limitless features Bradley Cooper playing the main character and Robert de Niro in a supporting role. In Lucy, the main character is played by Scarlett Johansson, with a supporting role by Morgan Freeman. Both movies have a similar premise: a pill or substance allows the characters to make use of their entire brain capacity. In Limitless it’s the NTZ-48 pill and in Lucy it’s the drug CPH4 that makes this possible.
Downside to smart drugs
What are the downsides of using pharmaceutical drugs to improve your cognition? At first sight, there doesn’t seem to be much of an issue there. Who wouldn’t want to improve their memory? However, there are a few downsides that I would like to point out:
#1. It requires (self-)discipline not to get used to using the supplements, or to get addicted to them. Apart from forms of mental dependence, it is also possible to become physically dependent on these drugs. In an article published on The Fix, a mother talks about her son who suffered from insomnia, depression and anxiety [link at the bottom]. It turned out that his nootropics contained the substance Tianaptine. Tianaptine attaches itself to the same receptors in the brain that react to morphine and other painkillers. After overexposure to this substance at a very high dosage, you can become physically dependent on (addicted to) it.
#2. What if taking these drugs becomes the societal norm? Will you still have the freedom of choice not to take them? This remark does not just apply to pharmaceuticals. For example, one in four students now appears to be using Ritalin [link at the bottom]. Will you still be able to keep up with the academic performance of your fellow students if you decide not to take these drugs? What kind of consequences could this have?
#3. During a lecture I gave on human enhancement, someone in the audience pointed out to me that forgetting also has its function. Selectively forgetting things, whether consciously or not, ensures that you keep trying new things and remain receptive to new ideas.
Moreover, the human memory is complex and not like that of a computer: when you expand your computer’s hard disk, it immediately has more memory. When it comes to the human brain, it’s also about the pace at which you can filter information from your memory, the way in which you assess what is important, and which part of a memory you remember most vividly.
Antidepressants such as Prozac, Paxil and Wellbutrin work by altering a patient’s mood and state of mind. As with the other types of pharmaceutical interventions, they are also frequently used by people who don’t have a doctor’s prescription [link at the bottom]. In this case, we’re talking about healthy people who use the drugs to feel even better, even more cheerful and even happier.
In his book Beyond Therapy, bioethicist Leon Kass is critical: ‘We want to perform better in life. But not by becoming bionic people and surrendering to meticulous chemical interventions. That’s not human.’
We want to perform better in life. But not by becoming bionic people and surrendering to meticulous chemical interventions. That’s not human.Leon Kass (bio-ethicist)
In a way, this also evokes the image of Soma, the drug from the book Brave New World by Michael Bess [link at the bottom]. In this dystopian book, people assert that they are happy and fulfilled – but apart from chemical substances, there is nothing in their lives that actually generates their happiness and sense of fulfilment. Their relationships are superficial, their thoughts and feelings are conditioned, and their work is routine and standardized.
But a novel is always more likely to explore the extremes. And helping and treating people who suffer from depression, anxiety disorders and/or other mental disorders is now quite commonly accepted. Why shouldn’t pharmaceutical means be allowed, to help you feel even better? So that you could enjoy even more valuable relationships, accomplish tasks that bring more satisfaction, or go through life with more creativity and imagination?
Lucy (2014) is about enhancing one’s intelligence using pharmaceutical substances. More about this in the ‘Fiction’ section.
The last category within this section on pharmaceuticals, has to do with slowing down aging processes. This is also known as ‘anti-aging’, a topic about which I’ve previously written an extensive article [link at the bottom]. I also talked to Andrea Maier about this subject in a podcast interview. Andrea is working on an anti-aging pill which, according to her, will easily enable humans to live to be 130 years old [link at the bottom].
This particular pill should be able to rid the body of aging cells, also referred to as ‘senescent’ cells. These cells are responsible for many of the diseases that go hand in hand with aging, ranging from cardiovascular diseases to dementia. I also talked about the development of this type of medicine with Peter de Keizer (UMC Utrecht), Aubrey de Grey (SENS Foundation) en Kris Verburgh (author and researcher).
At the moment, the most promising pharmaceuticals are rapamycine, metformin and NAD+. In an experiment with mice, rapamycine increased their life duration by 60%. Metformin appears to improve the production of oxygen in the cells. And lastly, a team of Harvard scientists provided older mice with NAD+ molecules, which led them to look younger and live longer. All of these pharmaceuticals are currently going through different research phases, in which the effects on humans are also being tested and researched.
Bioelectronics is about adding electronic devices or replacements to the body. This refers to internal devices and to devices that are permanently connected to the body, such as a piercing. That’s different from a temporary electronic application that’s connected to the body, such as an exoskeleton.
There are various types of bioelectronics available, which I will describe in the following paragraphs. Bioelectronic devices aren’t uncommon in the medical sector either; take pacemakers for example, or hearing and seeing aids, which I will discuss a bit later on. I also have some personal experience with bioelectronics; I had a small NFC chip implanted in my hand [link and video below].
A Canadian named Jens Naumann lost his sight when he was 20, due to two separate accidents [link at the bottom]. In 2002, he signed up as a volunteer for researcher William Dobelle. The prosthesis that was developed by Dobelle works as follows. Jens wore a pair of glasses that had a small camera mounted on the frame. The images captured by the camera were converted into electrical pulses, which connected to his virtual cortex through a hole in his skull. He was the first ever person in the world to have bionic eyes.
A more recent example is Jeroen Peek, a Dutch man who had completely lost his sight due to a genetic disease. During a medical procedure that took 4 hours, a highly advanced chip was placed on his retina. As the connection between his retina and his visual cortex was still intact, he was eligible for a chip produced by the American manufacturer Second Sight. Now he can see 60 pixels. In an article in Dutch daily De Volkskrant, he stated: “I can suddenly see contours and pretty lights again, it’s amazing.”
The chip is connected to a pair of glasses with a small camera. A computer that he carries with him, as big as an old camera, converts the images to signals that are wirelessly transmitted to the chip. The chip then converts the pulses to the brain, via the intact optic nerve, which results in Peek being able to see pixels.
Inserting electronic devices to restore people’s hearing isn’t just a modern occurrence. The first operation with cochlear implants took place in 1982. These implants have the ability to take over the function of the sensory cells in the inner ear, and electronically stimulate the auditory nerve [link at the bottom]. A cochlear implant consists of an external part and an internal part that is implanted in the inner ear (the cochlea).
Neil Harbisson’s case [link and video interview at the bottom] presents an interesting mix or blending of sight and hearing. He was born color-blind, but is now able to hear colours using a brain implant. What’s extraordinary about this is that he can’t just hear the spectrum of colors that healthy people can see, but is also able to hear colors such as infrared and ultraviolet.
The examples of visual aids and hearing devices have to do with how we receive signals. But this type of technology can also be applied to patients that need help with their speech capabilities. One of the best-known examples of this, is the late physicist Stephen Hawking. He could move a cursor around using jaw movements, and by doing so he could create words and sentences on a computer. Speech software then translated this into sound [link at the bottom].
Currently, scientists are doing research into transferring data from electrodes placed in the brain, and then using the data as input for speech software. According to researcher Nima Mesgarani of Columbia University (United States), it’s definitely not easy to map neurological activity and translate this into speech. In an article in Science Magazine she states: ‘The process and the patterns differ per patient. Computer models must be “trained” on each individual. We’re using artificial intelligence for this.’ [link at the bottom].
The examples I just discussed, concerning vision, hearing and speech, are about restoring the capabilities we already have as human beings. But what about acquiring new sensory abilities? Is that possible? Neuroscientist David Eagleman wrote an article on Wired about qualia [link at the bottom]. Qualia are qualitative characteristics of perception, such as taste and color.
Eagleman writes that the brain does not distinguish between signals from the ears, eyes or touch. To the brain, they’re all perceived as electrical signals, and it is difficult to distinguish between visual, auditory or kinetic signals. Another characteristic of the brain is that it’s neuroplastic, i.e. it can adapt itself. For example, it turns out that in people who go blind, the part of the brain known as the visual cortex gets taken over by touch and hearing.
How our brain converts electrical signals into sight, sound or touch is determined by the structure of the data. For example, the two-dimensional signals from the retina are different from the one-dimensional signals sent by our inner ear – and, in turn, from the multidimensional signals transmitted by the receptors in our fingertips.
That also allows us to play around with our senses. For example, Eagleman predicts that it won’t be long before we can introduce new types of data streams into the brain. As an example, he suggests that you could experience the height, movement, balance, speed and balance of a drone in your brain.
This could be done in two ways: either by directly inserting electrodes into the brain, or by using non-invasive methods. For instance, Eagleman’s company ‘NeoSensory’ is working on wristbands and vests to translate data such as image and sound into vibrations [link at the bottom].
Replacing brain parts
Another fascinating prospect is put forward by the work of biomedical engineer Theodore Berger [link at the bottom]. Together with an international team of experts in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, molecular biology, biomedical engineering, computer science and materials science, Berger is working to create replacement parts for the brain. For example, the team is currently working on a neural prosthesis to replace the hippocampus – a small organ in the brain, shaped like a seahorse, which plays an important role in converting our short-term experiences into long-term memories. In 2011, the chip was successfully tested on rats.
Berger: ‘Turn the switch on, the rat has the memory; turn it off and they don’t.’ This is the first time it’s been demonstrated that a chip is capable of restoring, and even improving, the cognitive and mnemonic processes of forming memories. The team of researchers, led by Berger, hopes that the first clinical trials among humans will take place in 2025.
Interpreting brain activity
Most of the methods I just described are considered ‘invasive’, which means that a part of the skull has to be removed to carry them out. These interventions are often difficult, messy, expensive, and usually leave the patient with a severe trauma. Therefore, scientists prefer to do research into non-invasive methods. At the moment, the most commonly used method is EEG, which stands for electroencephalography. EEG employs sensors on the outside of the skull to record the brain activity. This can be used in neurofeedback to train the brain [link at the bottom], to name one example, but it can also be used to mind-control games, to measure the quality of your meditation session, or to help you sleep better.
A next step could be to use this for operating equipment and vehicles. A company called Honeywell Aerospace, for example, is testing whether pilots could fly an aircraft using neurotechnology [link at the bottom]. By 2016, the technology had already been developed to a level where a Beechcraft King Air C90 could be operated using brain signals. The system measures and interprets the electrical signals transmitted by the brain, and translates them into steering commands.
EEG technology is used to monitor and interpret brain activity. But it’s also possible to intervene in the brain, both through invasive and non-invasive means. An example of an invasive method is Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). As the name indicates, this method involves electrodes that are permanently placed in certain brain regions. The electrodes are connected to a small device, which sends low electrical currents to the electrodes in a programmed rhythm.
This method was initially developed in France to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease. Nowadays, DBS is successfully used in patients with Parkinson’s as well as other conditions, including severe chronic depression, Tourette’s syndrome and severe obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Non-invasive methods to intervene in the brain are TDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation), TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) and optogenetics. As the names suggest, TDCS works by means of electrical stimulation, TMS by magnetic stimulation and optogenetics by light stimulation.
- In TCDS, electrodes are placed on the outside of the skull and a weak electrical current is emitted. Initially, this technology was developed to improve cognitive function. I was interviewed about this technique by Quest magazine [link at the bottom]. Scientists aren’t too sure about the efficacy of this method. Research by Professor Maarten Frens (Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam) shows that genetic predisposition, especially the degree to which you produce the protein BDNF, has a major influence on the extent to which TCDS affects your learning abilities.
- TMS uses small magnetic coils which are placed outside of the skull and target specific brain areas. Programmed magnetic pulses are then transmitted in order to stimulate certain brain regions. In the medical sector, TMS therapy is used in the same types of conditions as DBS is used. In the United States, TMS treatments have been approved by the FDA since 2008.
- Optogenetics is a brain stimulation method that uses light. The light is used to switch the neurons on or off. This technique uses various light-sensitive proteins that occur in nature, such as ChR2, which can be found in algae. Optogenetics is quite a recent scientific discovery; in 2010, Nature magazine declared it the ‘method of the year’ [link at the bottom].
Theodore Berger, the biomedical engineer I mentioned before, focuses on creating brain prostheses that can take over memory functions in the brain. His ultimate goal is to be able to replace the long-term memory in a human being with an artificial alternative. In an interview, he does emphasize that these technologies won’t enable you to plant memories in someone’s brain, like in movies like Inception or the episode The Entire History of You of the series Black Mirror [link at the bottom]. He states: “We’re expanding your brain’s capacity to store things.”
We’re expanding your brain’s capacity to store thingsTheodore Berger (biomedical engineer)
Together with his team, he has come up with mathematical equations on how the electrical signals from the neurons in the hippocampus are converted from short to long-term memory.
Berger: ‘You don’t have to recreate the entire brain, but can you recreate the essence? The next question is whether we can make a model of this and simulate it in a device. Finally, the last question is whether we can place that device in the brain and connect it to other brain functions.’
We’ve talked about expanding your memory, but is it also possible to improve your intelligence with a chip? It will be, according to Elon Musk, about whom I’ve written extensively in my article on neurotechnology [link at the bottom]. He regularly argues in interviews that we, as humans, have to connect our brains to artificial intelligence. It’s no surprise then, that he is also one of the investors in neurotechnology start-up Neuralink [link at the bottom].
According to Musk, the biggest challenge lies in bandwidth: how do you set up a fast connection between biological intelligence and artificial intelligence? Will you be able to access the internet directly through your thoughts in the future, e.g. Wikipedia for knowledge, Spotify for music, Netflix for movies and Instagram for your social life?
The episode The Entire History of You by Black Mirror on Netflix is about an eye chip that constantly records everything.
Musk isn’t the only one who believes in this, by the way. Bryan Johnson is the founder of a company called Kernel [link at the bottom]. In interviews he frequently asserts that the question is not whether we are going to implant electrical chips in the brain, but when. Similarly to Neuralink, Kernel primarily focuses on the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
Bryan Johnson: “Intelligence is the most precious and powerful resource for humans. We’ve always built these tools, starting with the rock, thermostat, calculator. Now we have AI. Our tools and digital intelligence are increasing at great velocity. On the flip side, human intelligence is just about the same as it’s always been.”
Our technological tools and digital intelligence are developing at a faster and faster pace. On the other hand, our own biological intelligence has always remained more or less the sameBryan Johnson (Kernel)
Johnson and his colleagues at Kernel – including Theodore Berger, who worked there as a scientific advisor for a while – also see that there is still a long way to go. “The computations and algorithms carried in the brain are still largely a mystery to us.” Another complication is the fact that the brain is constantly changing. In the book Mindfield, Lone Frank writes that every second, a million connections are formed in the brain.
Connecting the brain
In an interview, Elon Musk stated that linking human intelligence to artificial intelligence could also lead to a new form of communication. “With our current ways of communicating, such as typing, you are limited to 10 bits per second. A computer can communicate at a trillion bits per second.”
If we start using such technologies, humans will also start to communicate with each other differently, perhaps through a kind of telepathy. According to Musk’s utopian vision, this would mean that people could always understand each other, which would lead to more new ideas and fewer conflicts.
Musk’s idea may seem like a page out of a science-fiction story, but there’s some fascinating research taking place in the realm of brain-to-brain communication. Some leading publications in the past few years:
- In 2013, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis (Duke University) already demonstrated that he could connect rats to each other via a computer, using an implant in their motor cortex [link at the bottom];
- In the same year, neuroscientist Seung Schik Yoo (Harvard University) established that people with EEG electrodes on their skull could get rats to wiggle their tails [link at the bottom];
- One year later, professors Rao en Stocco (University of Washington) demonstrated that they could communicate with each other via EEG electrodes and a TMS headband [link at the bottom]. One simply thought of pressing a button, and the other actually pressed it after he received a magnetic pulse through the headband.
- In 2019, Cornell University researchers developed a Brain-to-Brain communication program, building on the aforementioned research by Rao and Stocco. The platform is called BrainNet.
Once again, we shouldn’t forget the fact that the brain is ever-changing and evolving. That means that, at least in the short term, downloading knowledge like in the movie The Matrix is not feasible or realistic. Memories aren’t just stored in one specific place in the brain, but are formed through associative connections between different brain regions.
Theodore Berger says that his research can help restore normal memory function in people who have lost it, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s [link at the bottom]. In an interview with Dutch daily newspaper NRC, he states: ‘It is an interesting question whether people should be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to use this technique for brain enhancement purposes. And whether they are equipped to make such decisions about this for themselves. That’s up to ethicists and society.’
This concept is also frequently explored in fiction, such as books, movies and TV shows: Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, Transcendence, The Matrix and Nexus are just a few examples [link at the bottom]. In almost none of these works, however, does brain-to-brain connectivity bring out the rosy utopian world described by Musk – although that may also just be typical of science fiction. I can personally relate to this as well: movies, TV shows and books that sketch some kind of gloomy dystopia of the future, do tend to hold my attention and fascination longer.
Genetics, as the name implies, is all about genes. I’ve previously written an extensive article about this [link at the bottom]. To sum up the essence of it: almost every cell of our body contains 3.2 billion base pairs. These base pairs consist of AC and TG molecules, and they are intertwined in the form of a double helix.
The shape of the double helix, which was discovered by Francis Crick and James Watson together with Rosalind Franklin, is now considered an iconic image of DNA. DNA contains hereditary information: in the case of biological reproduction in humans, you get half of your DNA from your father and the other half from your mother.
The base pairs are packaged into 23 chromosomes, which in turn construct about 25,000 genes in total. A gene is made up of DNA code, which codes for a particular function or characteristic. For example, the DNA sequence in the HERC2-gene determines the color of the eyes [link at the bottom].
Because of the double helix structure, DNA code can easily be copied to either new DNA or into RNA. The best known form of RNA is messenger RNA. The mRNA molecule is an important link in the transcription, or reading, of the genetic code. The mRNA is read by the ribosome outside of the cell nucleus, after which the ribosome starts to build one of the twenty possible amino acids.
The amino acids form proteins, which in turn perform all kinds of functions in the cell, such as building, maintaining, decomposing and communicating tissue, transporting amino acids to other cells and much more. This entire process, from DNA to the production of proteins, is also known as the ‘Central Dogma’ of molecular biology.
The genotype is what we call the collection of genetic or hereditary information. The phenotype, on the other hand, is the composite of the organism’s observable characteristics. In a podcast interview with the Flemish comedian and science journalist Lieven Scheire, he gave the following example: ‘If you’re curious about the influence of the genotype on the phenotype, look at identical twins. You could say that what they have in common in terms of appearance and behavior, is encoded in their DNA.’
If you are curious about the influence of the genotype on the phenotype, look at identical twinsLieven Scheire (comedian and presenter)
Geneticists roughly distinguish three factors that influence a person’s characteristics: genes, the shared family environment, and non-shared environmental factors outside of the family (such as school, friends and unique experiences). The extent to which these factors influence our characteristics varies enormously. For example, my gender is completely dependent on my genes, while the fact that I speak Dutch has nothing to do with my genes.
When the Human Genome Project (HGP) was completed in 2003, the expectations were high. The HGP meant that the entire human genome would be mapped. When they presented the project, President Clinton (United States) and Prime Minister Blair (United Kingdom) referred to it as ‘the book of life’.
However, it soon turned out that physical traits, diseases and other characteristics, such as intelligence, speed and empathy, could not be identified that easily within the DNA code. In fact, scientists were amazed by the number of genes each individual has. The total number of genes is now estimated at 20,000 to 25,000, which is similar to that of a mouse [link at the bottom].
So how is it possible that we as humans are much more complex organisms than a mouse, but that the number of genes we possess is more or less the same? One reason for this is probably the additional layer of code on top of our DNA; the field of study that looks into this, is called epigenetics.
To sum it up: when, to what extent and how genes are expressed, depends to a large extent on cell environment and – on a higher level of abstraction – also on the environment in which the organism is located. In a podcast interview with PhD student Désirée Goubert (whose research focuses on epigenetics), we talked about this in detail [link at the bottom].
Research into the relationship between the genotype (the DNA code) and the phenotype can be done through DNA sequencing. This means that the DNA is analyzed and converted into the code of AC and TG base pairs. Researchers then look at the phenotypes: does the piece of genetic code they’ve selected influence the characteristics of an organism?
Let’s look at an example of the HREC2 gene I mentioned before, which occurs in humans [link at the bottom]. The layer of code on this gene, the so-called SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism), has a significant influence on the color of your eyes – but less on, for example, hair color and whether or not you get sunburned easily.
Teams of scientists all over the world are researching these processes and the relationships between them. The Chinese government and Chinese companies in particular are very active in this field. This was captured very well in the documentary ‘DNA Dreams’ by Bregtje van der Haak [link at the bottom].
The company Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) has plans to genetically examine all organisms in the world. Furthermore, the institute is also looking specifically for the genes that influence positive characteristics such as intelligence. In the documentary you can see how young children undergo all kinds of IQ tests at the company, after which BGI compares the results of the tests with the DNA of the child.
Genetic modification, also known as genetic engineering or genetic manipulation, takes things a step further than just examining and analyzing DNA. I’ve previously written an extensive article about the interesting developments in this field [link at the bottom].
When I give a keynote, I often explain that modifying DNA is something that we as humans have actually been doing for a long time. Think, for example, of how we first started breeding plants and breeding animals. Of course these were initially very unrefined methods, in which there was a large degree of unreliability – after all, at that time we didn’t know what the underlying DNA code looked like.
Modifying DNA in a lab is a lot more accurate and precise. A big scientific breakthrough can be ascribed to the work of Cohen and Boyer in 1973, who were the first scientists to use a technique called recombinant DNA [link at the bottom]. Recombinant DNA refers to artificially combining DNA from multiple sources. In the past few decades, additional methods have been developed, such as TALEN (Transcription activator-like effector nucleases) and Zinc finger nuclease.
The biggest breakthrough took place in 2014, when Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier presented their discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 in Science Magazine [link at the bottom].
Compared to TALEN and Zinc finger nuclease, CRISPR/Cas9 is much cheaper, faster and more effective. Because of that, the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 was a huge step for the scientific community and was quickly applied in research on crops, animals and humans.
The TV show Orphan Black on Netflix is about genetics and cloning. In the section Fiction, I’ll write about that in more detail.
Modifying human DNA
DNA modification in humans is primarily used in the healthcare sector. A few examples, although the CRISRP/cas9 technique wasn’t used in all of these particular instances:
- Genetically modifying the white blood cells of leukaemia patients to better target and destroy cancer cells. In 2011, the American Emily Whitehead was the first to be successfully treated using this technique [link at the bottom];
- In 2017, a British patient who was blind was cured after DNA modification of the retina [link at the bottom];
- Several biotechnology start-ups are working on gene therapies for the treatment of infectious diseases, hereditary diseases and HIV [link at the bottom].
The vast majority of research using genetic modification techniques concerns crops, bacteria and smaller organisms. There are high expectations of this field; more than ever, we as humans are able to be in charge of biology. The most exciting part is the possibility to apply these techniques to ourselves as well. What possibilities do we have there?
Types of human DNA modification
It’s clear to me: in the future, we (humans) will want to enhance and modify ourselves. The most pressing question, which I will return to later when I discuss the ethical implications, is to which extent we will want to do so. Do we restrict the use of these techniques to, for example, when the health of a patient is at stake? Or will they soon be available to everyone (commercially)? I have roughly divided genetic modification in humans into the following categories:
- Somatic modification (editing people’s DNA);
- Germline modification (DNA modification in embryos, the so-called ‘designer’ babies);
- Epigenetic programming;
- Modification of intestinal flora (microbiota);
I’ll elaborate on these different categories below and conclude by looking at their proven efficacy. Categories 1 and 2 are already being used in medical and biological research, whereas the ones from number 3 onwards are much more speculative and hardly proven (as of now).
1. Somatic modification
‘Soma’ is a Greek word for ‘the body’. Somatic modification, then, refers to genetically modifying the body. The British patient I mentioned before, with an eye impairment, is a good example of this. In his case, the genes that are responsible for maintaining the light-sensitive cells in the back of the eye, missed half of their DNA code. Researchers were able to reprogram the genes in the lab and then insert them in the right place, behind the eye, using a virus.
The experimental CRISPR/Cas9 procedures that are currently being used to treat leukemia patients employ a similar method. Blood is administered, the bloods cells are genetically modified, and the modified blood is interjected into the patient’s body again.
As both examples illustrate, the greatest challenge is to deliver the modified genes or cells to the right place in the body. We’re still a long way from a scenario in which you can place a syringe of modified cells in your arm, and have the modifications arrive exactly at the right organs, at the right cells and at the selected DNA.
At the same time, this doesn’t stop some people from experimenting on themselves with these methods.
People who genetically modify themselves are also called biohackers. I personally think of the term ‘biohacking’ as a broader concept though. If you’d like to know more about this: there’s a link at the bottom of this article, where you can read more about the book I wrote about this topic, titled ‘Biohacking, the future of the makeable human being’ [link at the bottom]. That’s why I’ll refer to people who experiment with genetic modification on themselves ‘CRISPR biohackers’ for now.
The most well-known CRISPR biohackers are Josiah Zayner and Tristan Roberts. Two other well-known biohackers that I discussed in my article about biohacking, are Brian Hanley and Lizz Parish [link at the bottom].
Josiah Zayner created quite a controversy at the end of 2017, when he injected himself with modified cells. In particular, it was the context of his action that caused a great deal of commotion. He broadcasted it live on video on Facebook, and his goal was to grow extra muscle mass [link at the bottom]. He wanted to gain muscle mass by suppressing the activity of the gene that codes for the muscle growth inhibitor myostatin.
While muscle mass might be more of an aesthetic goal, some people think of do-it-yourself genetic modification as the ultimate way to improve their health. That’s also true for Tristan Roberts. He was diagnosed with HIV and became frustrated with the daily medication regime.
Some time ago, a group of scientists published research on a certain genetic mutation that exists and which protects people from HIV. That’s possible because the body can produce the antibodies against the HIV virus, called N6, itself. Roberts’ idea was to genetically modify himself, so that the fat cells in his belly would also start producing N6 themselves. I interviewed him for my YouTube channel, so feel free to check out the interview – link at the bottom of the article.
2. Germline modification
Germline modification refers to the modification of genetic material in the embryonic state, the sperm and/or the egg cell. The essential difference compared to somatic modification, is that any modifications in the DNA are passed onto the next generation. So the consequences of such modifications are not limited to an individual, but also extend to the offspring. This type of treatment is done in combination with in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). This means that scientists modify the embryo in the laboratory and then insert it into the uterus. In 2017 such a treatment took place in England, which led to newspaper headlines saying that a three-parent child had been born [link at the bottom].
Replacing embryo DNA
During the treatment, the mother’s mitochondrial DNA in the embryo was replaced by the DNA of another woman. The mitochondria in the cell are responsible for energy supply, have their own DNA, and are passed on exclusively by the mother. In the scenario in England, the mother had a hereditary mutation in her mitochondrial DNA. By replacing this in the laboratory, her child, and then all of their offspring, was relieved of this disorder.
Lulu and Nana controversy
The treatment in England that I described in the previous paragraph, was carefully discussed, debated in politics and enshrined in legislation. The same does not apply to the best-known case (so far) of germline modification. This doubtful honour is reserved for the Chinese scientist Jiankui He [link at the bottom].
In the autumn of 2018, he announced that he had given birth to two babies under the names Lulu and Nana, which had been genetically modified as embryos. The aim of the treatment was to modify the CCR5 gene, which would make the children resistant to HIV. The father of both children was himself a carrier of the virus.
Later, however, stories appeared stating that this particular gene also influences the development of one’s cognitive capabilities [link at the bottom]. If that is the case, then there’s certainly a moral, ethical and political discussion about genetic modification, and using it for enhancement purposes, to be had. More on that later.
At the end of 2018, I spoke to Sjoerd Repping, Professor of Human Reproductive Biology at the Amsterdam Academic Medical Centre, and we discussed a few developments in reproductive technology – including the genetic modifications to embryos I mentioned before. Watch the interview or listen to the podcast at the bottom of the article.
During the interview, he talked about the revolution we’ve already experienced with regard to in vitro fertilisation (IVF). IVF is a fertility treatment in which fertilization takes place outside the body. Another term for this is test tube fertilization.
The first treatment using this technique in the Netherlands took place in 1980, but nowadays, an average of one child in every school class was born in this way. In the eighties there was a big commotion about this method. After all, having a baby was a gift from God. These days, the use of IVF is hardly a topic of discussion; could the same apply to the genetic modification of embryos in the future?
Politicians and bioethicists all over the world were tumbling over each other to condemn Jiankui He’s action. They argued that the modifications were sloppy, that he didn’t have permission from the government or his research institute, and that there are much easier ways to stop the HIV virus from being passed onto future generations [link at the bottom].
Another reason for the commotion, however, may stem from a primary human reaction: jealousy. At an event organized by the Feather Foundation in Delft, where I also gave a lecture myself, Professor Robert Zwijnenberg of Leiden University suggested this as well. He mentioned that Harvard University (Boston, United States) itself is in the process of modifying sperm cells to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s [link at the bottom]. The reactions to He’s news are probably affected by a twinge of envy. It’s no coincidence that there seems to be an arms race going on between China and the United States concerning genetics and genetic modification. More about that later.
One of the leading experts in this field, George Church, has a much more nuanced point of view [link at the bottom]. He argued earlier in an interview that 10 relatively simple genetic modifications should be allowed, such as those for stronger bones (LRP5 G171V/+), a higher pain threshold (SCN9A), a reduced chance of Alzheimer’s (APP A673T/+) or diabetes (SLC30A8).
3. Epigenetic programming
According to professor Michael Bess, author of the book Make Way for the Superhumans, it is unlikely that germline modification will be used much [link at the bottom]. That’s because it raises all kinds of moral issues regarding the autonomy of the unborn child. With this in mind, he expects more from so-called epigenetic programming.
Changing the DNA of the embryo raises many moral issues regarding the autonomy of the unborn childProfessor Michael Bess
Epigenetics is like a piano. Michael Bess: “The DNA can be compared to the piano. But the pianist plays the piano. You get a different melody and rhythm, depending on which keys the pianist plays. Now that’s actually epigenetics.” Epigenetics is a layer that lies on top of the DNA and influences the DNA expression. I’ve previously written an extensive article about epigenetics.
In the future, scientists will probably find out more and more about the effects of epigenetics and, in due time, how to influence them. This is also called epigenetic programming. Perhaps a scenario would arise where people are allowed to make (epi)genetic changes at a certain age, for example when reaching the age of being a legal adult. In the podcast I did with Désirée Goubert, I talked extensively about epigenetics and its possible future applications [interview at the bottom].
4. Gut flora
In the book Evolving Ourselves, Enriquez and Gullans write about the ‘Omen’ model. This model includes the genome (DNA), the epigenome (epigenetics), the microbiome and the virome [link at the bottom]. The microbiome stands for the composition of the intestinal flora.
Your intestinal flora consists of bacteria (about 700 to 1,000 strains), yeasts, viruses and parasites. Each person’s intestinal flora is unique – as unique as a fingerprint. These microorganisms don’t just live in your gut; they are found on all of our body’s surfaces and form an ecosystem of their own everywhere. It is comparable to a jungle: a huge forest area with plants, herbivores and carnivores.
And it’s a crowded jungle too. There are 10 times more bacteria than cells in your body. Your intestinal flora weighs an average of 2.5 to 3 kilos and contains 360 times more DNA than the rest of your body. This has led some scientists to say that we as humans are carriers of bacteria. But what kind of influence do these bacteria have, and how do they work?
Role of intestinal flora
The intestinal flora breaks down molecules from the food we eat, and produces biologically interesting molecules that are useful to our bodies. Like short-chain fatty acids, for instance, which serve as a signalling agent for the metabolism. The bacteria also produce vitamins (K, B12 and folic acid) and amino acids.
The intestinal flora also plays an important role in maintaining your immune system. In addition, more and more knowledge has become available in recent years that shows that the role of the intestinal flora is much greater than we initially thought. At the beginning of 2019, for example, the Catholic University of Leuven published a study in which it demonstrated that two types of intestinal bacteria, Dialister and Coprococcus, occur less frequently in people who report that they are depressed [link at the bottom]. The researchers haven’t fully made up their minds about this though: it could also be the case that people with a depression eat differently and therefore have a different intestinal flora.
I had my intestinal bacteria tested myself, and I’ve also interviewed an expert on the subject: Tom van den Bogert of MyMicroZoo. You can find a link to the article about my own intestinal flora and to the interview at the bottom of this article (available in Dutch).
Gut flora transportation
The intestinal flora has a huge influence on our health (especially in chronic conditions, from obesity to rheumatism and depression), although there experts have different opinions experts about the degree of this influence and whether there is a causal link there. However, multiple patients have successfully been treated with intestinal flora transplants, i.e. faecal transplants. According to an article in Dutch daily the Volkskrant such transplants have occurred in China since centuries ago, in Western countries since the 1950s and within a medical and scientific setting since the past few years [link at the bottom].
The operation is simple: the patient receives part of the intestinal flora from a healthy donor. The donor can also be the patient himself, for example when the intestinal flora is stored before the patient starts a heavy antibiotic treatment. In the Netherlands, this technique is only used for very specific medical situations, which is why patients often have to go into the alternative circuit. In the article in de Volkskrant, the patient went to the Taymouth clinic in England to get their treatment.
Josiah Zayner, whom I mentioned earlier when I described how he applied genetic modification on himself, went one step further. In 2016 he prepared his own intervention, which was described in an extensive article on the website of The Verge [link at the bottom]. He collected the faeces of a (healthy) friend, with the aim of adjusting the composition of his intestinal bacteria for the better.
It remains somewhat unclear whether – and if so, to what extent – it has helped him, but he has noticed some other effects. For example, he’s mentioned that after the transplantation he is much more inclined to eat sweets, even though he had never had such a sweet tooth before.
Since he hasn’t immediately reported huge improvements (and it seems a bit gross to me anyway), I wouldn’t be quick to have such an operation. However, I do try to keep my intestinal flora in good condition by eating well: enough fiber from vegetables and whole grain products, fermented food such as kefir and sauerkraut, and occasionally special supplements in the form of pro- and prebiotics.
The human virome consists of all viruses in and on the body. Compared to the microbiome, the virome constitutes an additional step in the order of magnitude. It’s estimated that the virome consists of 380 trillion viruses [link at the bottom]. The vast majority of the virome is made up of bacteriophages. A bacteriophage (or ‘phage’ for short) is a small virus that only infects a specific bacterium.
Viruses are not considered to be living organisms, unlike bacteria. That’s because a virus is actually a piece of floating DNA. The only purpose of the virus is to inject itself into a bacterium, then duplicate and spread. Because of this mechanism, viruses are often used in molecular biology to introduce foreign DNA into bacteria.
Another technique that is currently being studied, is the use of bacteriophages as an alternative to antibiotics in bacterial infections. Specific bacteriophages can then infect and destroy the bacteria. The advantage of this method is that bacteria cannot become resistant to bacteriophages by mutation, because the phages also mutate themselves. This is the so-called evolutionary arms race.
At the moment, little is known about how all of the different viruses in our bodies work. We do know, however, that there is no point in destroying all viruses. Although viruses have a bad reputation, think of Ebola and Dengue for instances, they also play a vital role in symbiosis with bacteria in and around the body.
We know even less about the effects of viruses in the body than we do about the microbiome – especially in combination with bacteria, the epigenome, the genome and situational factors such as nutrition and lifestyle. Nevertheless, I do expect that as we learn more about the virome, we will also see other uses of bacteriophages in the future. Not just in the healthcare sector, e..g. as an alternative to antibiotics, but perhaps also as a method to keep the condition of the microbiome (and so the health of the body) in order.
4. Replacing or augmenting body parts
Exoskeletons or prostheses are tools to restore or augment human capacities. A prosthesis replaces a body part such as a hand or foot, while an exoskeleton supports the body in performing a certain movement or task.
The difference between this category and bioelectronics, is that the latter often encompasses external operations or interventions – although prostheses and exoskeletons are sometimes also linked to the brain or nerve endings of the body.
Prosthetic implants exist in many different varieties. Three good examples that illustrate this are athlete Oscar Pistorius, musician Jason Barnes and Tilly Lockey.
The most famous examples can be seen in the Paralympic Games. South African runner Oscar Pistorius, for example, has two prostheses that replace his lower legs and feet. He was also known as the Blade Runner, although he can’t exercise his sport now because of a prison sentence [link at the bottom].
Interestingly, non-Paralympic athletes protested during his active career when Pistorius himself suggested that he wanted to participate in the regular Olympics. Athletes called this a distortion of competition, citing that Pistorius would have an unfair advantage with his prostheses.
In addition to the sports realm, there are also a few examples from the music industry. Drummer Jason Barnes lost his hand in an accident. The Georgia Institute of Technology helped provide him with a bionic hand, which allows him to make music again [link at the bottom]. The extraordinary thing is that he is now the fastest drummer in the world. His bionic arm can move faster than humanly possible.
The third example is Tilly Lockey. As a baby, she lost both her forearms due to meningitis. Her bionic arms have pressure sensors and precise motion motors. These even enable her to paint and to apply her own make-up [link at the bottom].
Future of prostheses
In the podcast Bionic Man, moderator Robin Rotman asked me if I would want to replace one of my healthy body parts with a bionic one. I replied that I was still too attached to my current biological limbs and that I won’t be replacing them anytime soon. But what will the future look like?
Perhaps there will be people who will want to exchange their hands for an artificial variant.Samantha Payne (Open Bionics)
Samantha Payne of Open Bionics is convinced that artificial body parts will eventually be better than biological ones [link at the bottom]. In an interview she says: ‘It’s quite a task, because the human body is incredibly complex. The strength, skill and feel of a hand are very difficult to replicate. But we will achieve that. And then? Maybe there are people out there who who would want to trade their hands for an artificial variant.”
An exoskeleton is intended to support or improve the body or specific limbs. Usually the limbs are still there, but the patient is unable to control them because of a nervous system disorder. Exoskeleton are used in the healthcare to restore bodily functions, and in domains such as business or the military to improve or enhance bodily functions.
Spinal cord lesion
When it comes to restoring bodily functions, think for instance of patients who can no longer move their limbs due to paralysis. A well-known example in The Netherlands is Ruben de Sain [link at the bottom]. In 2005, he suffered a spinal cord lesion due to a motorcycle accident. With a crowdfunding campaign he financed an exoskeleton for himself. Ruben de Sain in an interview: ‘It makes me feel much fitter. I’m not sick as often as I was before and I’ve also had much fewer back pains since I used the suit.’In the Netherlands, the Technical University of Delft is working on further developing the exoskeleton. Marissa de Baar, Project March: ‘We hope that in the future, we’ll be able to give people with a spinal cord lesion their full mobility back. The goal is that people will put on the exoskeleton underneath their clothes when they get ready in the morning, and are able to live a normal life.’
The use of exoskeletons in the business sector is about improving and enhancing human functions. At the beginning of 2019, it was announced that Amazon is rolling out the so-called Robotic Tech Vest in warehouses in the United States [link at the bottom]. This is an electronic vest that is equipped with sensors, to prevent accidents with falling objects or with robots in the warehouse.
Car manufacturer Ford uses a different type of exoskeleton, aimed at supporting employees who work in the assembly of cars. This skeleton was designed by Ekso Bionics and provides the employees with a maximum of 7.5 kilos extra lifting capacity.
In the Netherlands, the navy uses a Laevo vest to reduce back strains. The vest distributes the pressure that normally weighs down on the chest and back, to the hips and legs instead [link at the bottom].
The movie Edge of Tomorrow is about soldiers with exoskeletons
When I think about the use of exoskeletons, it’s mainly images from movies like Elysium and Edge of Tomorrow that come to mind. In these science fiction movies, soldiers wear exoskeletons to run faster, move around for a longer time or jump higher. That might actually not be such a futuristic vision.
DARPA is the innovation agency of the U.S. Army. Together with manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, they’re working on exoskeletons that support soldiers in their lifting power [link at the bottom]. They mainly focus on supporting the leg muscles, which relatively speaking are used much more often than the muscles in the upper body.
Combination with BCI
On a personal level, I am very interested in the combination of bioelectronics with prostheses and exoskeletons. DARPA’s N3 programme, which stands for Next Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology, is looking into the possibilities of reading and interpreting brain signals. Now, brain-computer interfaces are being used to help patients to move or communicate. In a military setting, this could be used to control machines, aim for a target and even fire guns.
5. NBIC convergence
The acronym in ‘NBIC convergence’ stands for the convergence of developments in the neuro-, bio-, information and cognitive sciences. I first came across this term after reading a publication by the Rathenau Institute [link at the bottom]. The consequences of the convergence of these different fields are difficult to estimate, but it is exactly in the (re)combination of technology where the power lies.
The NBIC convergence follows a similar pattern to previous ICT convergences:
- Robotics: combination of mechanics and electronics;
- ICT: combination of information and communication technologies;
- Internet of Things: combination of Internet and physical reality;
- NBIC: combination of information and biotechnology.
It’s usually not just one technology that brings about a major change, but a combination of several technological developments. A good example of this can be found in the section on prostheses and exoskeletons, where we saw the combination of electronics together with biotechnology and neurotechnology (the connection to the brain and/or nerve endings).
What are some examples of NBIC convergence? In his book, Michael Bess talks about a number of so-called ‘wild cards’. These are technological developments that, at first sight, are not directly applicable to humans or of which the application/implementation lies a bit further in the future:
- Nanotechnology is technology at the smallest possible scale, that of atoms and molecules. Futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that in the future, we will be able to send small robots through our bloodstream, right towards an infection or a specific organ [link at the bottom]. This may seem like a very long-term idea, but researchers in Zurich demonstrated at the beginning of 2019 that they could program small elastic robots that adapt their shape to the environment they’re in [link at the bottom].Artificial intelligence is a driving force behind the developments described above. Take genetics: algorithms can analyze an incredible number of datasets to examine DNA for connections and correlations. One possible scenario to which I referred in the section on bio-electronics, is that in the future, we will be able to link the human brain to artificial intelligence.At the moment, synthetic biology is the highlight of the convergence between information and biotechnology. This entails, for instance, modifying, constructing and redesigning living matter such as cells, tissues and organisms.
I also wrote a separate article on all of the developments in this list [link at the bottom]. With regards to literature on this topic, the novel Nexus by Ramez Naam is an interesting read. In the book, a synthetic drug is used as a nanotechnology that acts on the brain and allows the protagonists to communicate with each other.
The TV show Westworld, available on Amazon, is about artificial intelligence and robots. More about this in the Fiction section.
Updates that stand out
Most of the methods I described are about improving skills that we already possess as human beings. That’s not surprising, because that is our starting point. But perhaps in the future, humans will use some of these technologies for very different purposes. In addition to TV shows and books that explore this idea, there’s also plenty of artists and designers that are unleashing their creativity on the limits and possibilities of our future as humans. A few examples:
- Martin Sallières created a futuristic design to improve the lung capacity of marathon runners. He invented an outfit with extra air sacs that are connected to the lungs [link at the bottom]. In an interview about this, he remarked: ‘I’ve copied this from birds.’
- Lucy McRae made all kinds of adjustments to baby dolls, such as adding extra lobes to their heads that give off heat. During the Brave New World conference in 2018, I interviewed her for my YouTube channel [link at the bottom].
- Liviu Babitz is the CEO of Cyborgs Nest. One of the projects this company is working on, is the creation of a breast implant with a compass in it. Each time the compass is facing north, the implant gives off a small vibration. During the Biohacker Summit 2017, I talked to Liviu about this [link at the bottom].
- Moon Ribas is a cyborg artist. She has a sensor that is connected to seismographs via a Bluetooth connection and her smartphone. If there’s an earthquake anywhere in the world, she feels it [link at the bottom]. Like Lucy and Liviu, I also interviewed her, together with her partner Neil Harbisson (I wrote about him in the article on bioelectronics).
I don’t know what the humans of the future will look like. Scientists, companies, artists and designers will likely develop new ideas and applications with the knowledge and insights that will be available at that time.
Therefore, all the references to fiction that I talked about myself are more a reflection of the time in which they were made, than of the future itself. The reason for that is that authors and creators have built upon what they’ve seen before in science and technology. The real human of the future probably looks very different. Nevertheless, fiction is an excellent way to think about the possibilities and impact of human enhancement.
How long will it take before the human enhancement methods I mentioned before become available? Is it possible to predict the looks and capabilities of the humans of the future?
Prediction human of the future
New technologies are developing in a much faster, more radical and more unpredictable way than social, economic and cultural institutions can keep up with. Take the internet for example, which in just under 20 years has developed into a force with a huge impact. Social, political or cultural changes generally take place much more slowly, often spanning several generations.
The combination of genetics, nanotechnology and information technology will create a new speciesRay Kurzweil (author and transhumanist)
What does this discrepancy in pace say about the future of mankind? Let’s take transhumanist Ray Kurzweil’s vision on this [link at the bottom]. He thinks that the combination of genetics, nanotechnology and information technology will create a new species. People will be able to redesign their own bodies and brains, along with new forms of artificial intelligence. As a result, a new artificial species will be created that is much stronger, more versatile and more capable than its biological predecessors.
Kurzweil’s vision mostly focuses on the future of humans as individuals. Professor Braden Allenby mainly considers the perspective of our species from that of the collective [link at the bottom].
In an interview he stated: ‘We are used to thinking about ourselves as Cartesian individuals, separated from nature and other people. But if you look at our cognitive processes, you see that those have already changed. We’ve already outsourced a lot of our thinking to technology. Some people can no longer read a map because they always use an app to navigate. That’s just the beginning.”
According to him, this will ultimately lead to a world where individual humans are no longer the center of everything. Individuals are simply part of a much larger system there. Is that the human of the future?
Allenby: ‘The body will still have human components, but it will in no way resemble what we now call ‘human’. That might sound crazy, but it’s already happening. See how merged we are with our phones. This means we’re already partially integrated into a larger network outside of our bodies.’
The play Brave New World 2.0 by theater company Noord Nederlands Toneel presented a good way to illustrate the moral choices and impact of human enhancement. For that reason I use a few pictures of the play in this article. These pictures and other pictures, like the one at the top, were taken by Lex Vesseur and Jelmer Buitinga [link at the bottom].
Michael Bess has a few critical notes on the ideas of Kurzweil, Allenby and other transhumanists. History has shown, for example, that developments follow an ebb and flow pattern, and are often not linear. For example, there was a lot of progress in the nuclear physics field in 1940, but a lot less in the years after. Moreover, developments are interlinked (and can therefore accelerate or inhibit each other) and technological progress is, to a large extent, shaped by human choices.
I look at the concept of human choices from a broader perspective. These choices can be institutional, religious, political, legal, commercial, economic and individual decisions.
This is also supported by Professor Majid Tehranian. He argues that technology is always developed from an institutional need, and that its impact is always mediated by a system of institutional arrangements and social forces, of which technology itself also forms a part.
In short, technological developments always takes place in a much broader context. Technology and science about human enhancement and modifications are no exception.
Case study: embryo modification
Take, for example, the modification of the DNA of embryos, an example that I described earlier on in this article. At the end of 2018, the discussion about modifying the genes of embryos gained a huge momentum as a result of the work of the Chinese scientist He. And many more factors play a role in these discussions than just rational scientific arguments.
For example, there are rumors that the criticisms of other scientists are also related to jealousy and envy, there are companies that see commercial opportunities this, religious leaders have condemned the deed, and there is an economic arms race around genetic modification going on between China and the United States.
What are the arguments for and against using technology for human enhancement?
Arguments – for and against
These are the arguments that are often put forward by advocates of human enhancement:
- It is a logical next step in the evolutionary process in which humans have gained more and more control over nature and life;
- There is no fixed palette of qualities or characteristics that make us human. In fact, our most distinctive features are our restlessness, endless curiosity and search for new capabilities and experiences.
- Evolution by natural selection has provided us, as humans, with arbitrary favorable and unfavorable characteristics. It is better to control the evolutionary process ourselves, so that we can adapt our bodies according to our values.
- We should strive to minimize human suffering and maximize human well-being. Using technology, we can achieve this and break free from our limitations
- The pursuit of our unlimited potential (with the help of science and technology) is what gives meaning to human life.
These are the arguments that are often put forward by opponents of human enhancement:
- Modifying the human body is tantamount to playing God (or for secularists: disturbing the natural balance).
- We risk destroying or interfering with the core of what makes us human.
- By modifying mankind, we disrupt our own human dignity.
- Human nature finds its origin in processes that we cannot explain. It’s reckless to think that we can control everything on earth.
- Our limitations make us human. Our mortality, our faults and our limited understanding of ourselves and the world, is precisely the essence of being human.
What about you? Which team would you pick? I personally agree with some of the arguments put forward by both the proponents and the opponents, but I’m more inclined towards the pro-enhancement team.
Using science and technology, humans have controlled nature in different ways for centuries. Think for example of agriculture and breeding, or helping sick people with medicine and operations. On the other hand, I do also agree with the argument that human beings shouldn’t become overconfident, and that our limitations define us.
The key question is therefore: what kind of person do you want to be, and what kind of humanity do we want to become together?
Later in this article I will return to this question, considering both about how you can answer it for yourself and how we can address it as a society.
The theater play Brave New World 2.0 by the Noord Nederlands Toneel
Enlightenment and Romanticism
The polarization between supporters and opponents of these developments might seem to be a contemporary phenomenon, but as is often the case, it actually dates back to an older discussion about our ideas on mankind. Michael Bess refers, for instance, to the Enlightenment thinking of the 18th century and the conservative and Romantic reactions that followed.
For many Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, Locke and Kant, the core of humanity lies in concepts such as progress, the pursuit of perfection and the development of social and moral evolution. Ultimately, human rationality would provide better people, a better life and a better social order.
In response to these theories, conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke proposed an alternative view of mankind. The central point in his work was the limitations of mankind. In Burke’s view, humans consist of a complex mix of positive traits, such as generosity, and negative traits such as greed and cruelty.
If these philosophers and their contemporaries were alive now, the Enlightenment thinkers would be enticed by the possibilities of human improvement. The conservative intellectuals of then would rather join the enhancement-opponents of today.
Yet using technology is also a human characteristic. In the podcast Bionic Man, in which I also participated, Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek explained that technology makes us human. Unlike other animal species, we are fairly limited physiologically. We don’t have a thick coat (but we do have clothes) and we don’t have sharp claws (but we do have knives and weapons). Above all, we have the awareness and the imagination to invent techniques and technologies that make our lives better and easier.
Peter-Paul and I also gave a presentation at an event in the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam [link below]. Peter-Paul gave several historical examples that illustrate our changing morality when it comes to using technologies and techniques in our lives. In the past, bad eyesight was something that you just had to live with. Peter-Paul stated, semi-jokingly: ‘God gave you good or bad eyesight, and only Jesus can change that.’
Another example is anaesthetics. Gerard de Vries, emeritus professor of Philosophy of Science, wrote about the introduction of anaesthesia in the middle of the nineteenth century [link at the bottom]. According to De Vries, this was accompanied by ‘fatalistic specters’ and ‘apocalyptic rhetoric’. The reason at the time was that pain was considered undeniably part of healthcare. And so the logic was: if there is any type of intervention in the human body, you must feel it. ‘It’s immoral to use anesthetics.’
If there’s any type of intervention in the human body, you must feel it. It is immoral to apply anestheticsGerard de Vries (University of Amsterdam)
Nowadays, our society finds it inhumane not to help someone with glasses or contact lenses if they have vision impairments. Let alone that we would consider it immoral these days not to use anesthetics during a surgery.
These examples illustrate that the techniques we use for human enhancement are influenced by the historical context. What we now consider abnormal and unacceptable, could be regarded as normal and acceptable by future generations.
If, as a result of scientific and technological progress, people decide to improve and enhance themselves, what could the potential impact of this be?
Impact future human
I’ve divided the impact into the developments I just mentioned, into 5 different scenarios.
- Biological differences
- Living longer
I’ll elaborate on these scenarios below.
1. Biological differences
Up until now, differences between people have been limited to factors such as income or culture. In his book Homo Deus, author Yuval Noah Harari warns that in the near future, ‘economic differences could lead to biological differences’. He refers to a scenario in which methods for human enhancement are only available to the rich.
These richer people, for example, could live longer and improve their cognitive capabilities. This would give them better jobs that they could fulfil for longer, thus making more money and subsequently being able to pay for other and additional types of upgrades.
Economic differences may soon lead to biological differencesYuval Noah Harari (author)
On the other hand, Michael Bess doubts whether this form of biological inequality is actually going to become a reality. In Western democracies, egalitarianism and equality are highly esteemed values. This is reflected both in the legal system, e.g. the principle of equality in the Dutch constitution, and in our culture. Think of the promise of the ‘American dream’, which holds that everyone should have equal opportunities and be able to work their way up in society through hard work.
The previous section dealt with vertical segregation, the difference between modified and non-modified people. Another (additional) scenario that might occur is that of horizontal segregation. By this, I mean that different groups of people will adapt in different ways.
People in certain professions will probably be the first to notice this. In order to exercise a specific profession then, you, as an employee, will need to make certain modifications. These are a few groups that are likely to modify themselves with technology:
- Military personnel with prostheses for more muscle strength and better walking and running capabilities;Medical specialists whose nerve pathways are modified for better motor skills;Astronauts who have been genetically modified so that their bodies are better at withstanding radiation;Stock traders who are connected to financial information flows and to each other via a brain implant.
These examples may seem peculiar, but with a little imagination, it’s possible to get into them. In addition to differences between professions, however, this separation can also occur along cultural or national lines. The first signs of this can already be seen in clothing and other forms of identity expression. But even when it comes to human modification, we can see the first outlines of these differences:
- In some fitness communities, e.g. bodybuilding, doping in the form of anabolic steroids has become commonplace;In Jewish culture, boys are circumcised on the eighth day after birth;In South Korea, it is common among young women to undergo plastic surgery.
These examples demonstrate that modifications in certain groups can be driven by religion, beauty ideals or competition. A disadvantage of horizontal segregation is that it can lead to new forms of discrimination. Where discrimination now takes place on the basis of gender, skin colour and sexual orientation, in the future it might be possible for human beings to differentiate groups based on even more external characteristics.
The theater play Brave New World 2.0 by the Noord Nederlands Toneel
How do these technologies influence the appreciation we have for others? At the moment, we realize that some characteristics people have are the result of effort and training. Of course, a genius like Einstein was lucky, but he also put a lot of time and effort into his education and research. The same goes for the musicality of Bach and Beyoncé.
When it comes to physical characteristics or achievements, the focus already starts to shift a little. Do we think it’s acceptable that Arnold Schwarzenegger, in addition to spending a lot of time in the gym, has boosted his muscle growth with anabolic steroids? Or that Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times before it was revealed that he also used doping?
In the future, someone’s cognitive, physical, emotional and personality characteristics may be the result of a modification that they have purchased. Would we still feel the same respect and appreciation for that person or their achievement then?
It is likely that in some ways, human enhancement methods will be no different from regular products and services. For example, the government will be able to impose certain restrictions, and our choices will also be influenced by others.
Let’s start with the government. Will they impose the enhancement methods on everyone and make them compulsory, like in the book Brave New World? In the fictional world of this book people are born through artificial techniques, undergo audiovisual indoctrination during their youth, and use the drug Soma to always feel happy and cheerful [link at the bottom].
Role of the government
According to Michael Bess, people will probably make their own individual decision when it comes to enhancing themselves. I asked him about this during the podcast interview. His answer: ‘In North Korea, it might possible for the government to impose this, but that is not the case in most democratic countries.’ Not that the role of the government is insignificant. It’s all about which treatments and modifications will be reimbursed by the government. In that way, the government will influence which types of enhancements will be available in a country.
In North Korea, it might be possible for the government to impose this, but that is not the case in most democratic countriesProfessor Michael Bess
An interesting thought experiment is to think about improving the morality of a country’s inhabitants. In 2012, Singer and Sagan published a controversial article in The New York Times [link at the bottom]. They proposed a situation in which everyone in society behaves more morally and considerately by swallowing a pill. Would we have a better world with less violence, crime, terrorism and conflict?
Apart from the question of who decides whether and how you can enhance yourself, there will still be rules and agreements. To me, a simple rule would be that your modifications shouldn’t be allowed to have a negative impact on others, e.g. using bio-electronics that could interfere with the electronics of others.
Another matter related to this is that we as humans are easily influenced by marketing and by other people’s opinions. This could lead to crazes and rages, which we currently also see in music, fashion and other popular media phenomena. What does that mean for human enhancement? In his book, Bess makes a few references to ‘the musical seventies’ or the ‘California surfer style’. Are we going to look at modifications or enhancements in the same way as we look at smartphone brands?
5. Living longer
Looking at our future as human beings, on average, we will probably start to live much longer than previous generations. I’ve previously written other articles about longevity and interviewed experts like Aubrey de Grey and Kris Verburgh about this [link at the bottom].
There are different perspectives on how fast biomedical technology for life extension is developing. In the video interview that I did with Aubrey de Grey, he said that he believes that the first human being who will turn a thousand years old has already been born. This may be a little exaggerated, but for the purpose of this article, I will suggest that the average life expectancy is likely to double in the coming decades, to about 160 years.
By this, I mean that we will live an active life until we’re about 145 to 150 years old, after which our health will deteriorate relatively quickly until death. Researchers call this “compressed morbidity”. So it wouldn’t be the case that the state we are in now when we turn 70, would continue until one reaches the age of 150.
Whenever I give a presentation on this subject, many people in the audience argue – and rightly so – that the planet cannot cope with the impending increase in the population, as shown by the climate crisis. In fact, this question revolves around two variables, namely the fertility rate and the carrying capacity of the planet.
The fertility rate is currently 2.55 children per woman and is expected to fall to 2.02 per woman by 2050 [link at the bottom]. In that case, life extension is not as fatal as it seems at first sight, when we extrapolate the current rate of population growth.
If the entire growing world population has the same ecological footprint as we – the inhabitants of Western countries – do, this will indeed have a fatal impact on the climate and the earth. The carrying capacity of the planet is therefore more of a political and ethical question. Are we prepared to reduce our carbon footprint, possibly with the help of new technology?
Consequences of living longer
Living longer will have consequences beyond the physiology of the body itself. A few ideas of what could happen within society:
- Institutions such as marriage and the concept of family will change. A family might span across 6 to 8 generations, instead of the current 3 to 4. Perhaps women will be able to have children at a much later age and people will choose to have multiple relationships throughout their lives.
We can already see the first signs of this in the current day and age, if we look at the increase in the number of divorces (especially among older people) and new forms of relationships such as an ‘open relationship’ or ‘polyamory’ (where you have several romantic relationships).
- Career. The retirement age in the Netherlands is already under pressure, but this will only increase if the average age at which people die rises dramatically. We will probably have several different careers and professions then, as described in the example below. This would require some mental flexibility and resilience to undergo retraining later in life. Perhaps that will be the most important skill: can you start learning and studying again?
For example: after you finish primary school and high school, followed by a Law degree, you start working as a lawyer. You take a year off when you turn 50 and start a degree in Medicine. You graduate when you’re 90 and throw a big party, and after you’ve traveled the world for 10 years, you start a degree in Journalism. When you’re 140 years old, you decide that you’re ready for retirement and dedicate your time to your great-great-great-grandchildren. As you already started saving up during your first career, with the cumulative effect of compound interest, you have more than enough savings.
- Power. What if you start a company or if you’re appointed as CEO of an organization? With a much longer lifespan, there will probably be maximum terms for this, regulated by law or statutes.
There are already examples of this in today’s politics, such as the maximum of two terms for the President of the United States. On the other hand, the leaders of Russia and China have actually allowed a law to be passed which no longer restricts their reign to a maximum period of time.
- Renewal. German physicist Max Planck once made the famous statement: ‘Science advances one funeral at a time.’ By this he meant that as a scientist, you tend to remain stuck in your own points of view and paradigms after a while. Will innovation and scientific progress stagnate if mankind, on average, lives much longer?Meaning and purpose. Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote the book All Men Are Mortal, which was later turned into a movie as well [link at the bottom]. The story revolves around the immortal Raimon Fosca. His tragedy is that he survives all his loved ones. He realizes that the temporality of life is actually what gives meaning to love.
How will mankind deal with the large amount of time we’ll get? Will we get bored more easily? Or will we feel fulfilled, because we’ll have more time for hobbies such as sports, culture and travel?
- Death. With a much longer lifespan, death itself will also have a different meaning. In a way, we are already seeing the first signs of this right now. For example, euthanasia used to be unthinkable, but due to the increased average age, there is more and more social acceptance for it [link at the bottom]. Will the right to live and the right to die also be enshrined in the law in the future?
Just like the previous scenarios I discussed, concerning the consequences of human improvement, these predictions are also based on our current world view. The fact that people will get much older in the future, may turn out very differently from what we can imagine now.
Do we have a choice?
Perhaps you are wondering now, whether we should want biomedical technology to advance in the first place. I think that question is justified, but irrelevant. I will make a case for this on the basis of two arguments:
First of all, imagine that 99.9% of humanity wants to refrain from human enhancement: then we still need strict regulations to ensure that the 0.1% stick to the rules.
An example of this is the trade in human body parts. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari writes that the technology for commercializing organs has been available for decades, but that regulation does limit this to a considerable extent. The question is, of course, whether this same premise applies to technology for human enhancement.
Secondly, stopping science and technology means that we would make no or less progress in areas such as information technology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence. That would be undesirable from a scientific, political and economic point of view. In addition, it doesn’t seem feasible to come to global agreements on this matter. Scientists and companies will simply establish themselves in those countries where they will be able to continue their research and development.
The choice that remains is to explore the effects of human progress, from a technical and technological point of view then, and to compare them with current social, economic, legal, political and ecological values. It is therefore up to us, scientists, politicians and industry, to use these technologies for mental, moral, emotional and spiritual progress as well. In part 6 on Ethics, I will formulate a few recommendations and suggestions for this.
What are the limits of human modification techniques and methods?
Laws and boundaries
Which legal provisions currently apply to the enhancement of the human body? The first thing that comes to my mind is Article 11 of the Dutch Constitution [link at the bottom]. This article stands for the inviolability of the body and for the fact that you, as an individual, get to decide for yourself what happens to your body. From this perspective, you are allowed, as an individual, to make changes to your body such as a piercing or tattoo.
On the other hand, Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution enshrines the principle of equality [link at the bottom]. Enforcement of this section of the law would mean that individuals are not allowed to enhance themselves at the expense of others.
In addition to these two articles in the Dutch Constitution, the Dutch and European governments have also formulated laws concerning, for example, product safety and the safety of procedures in the healthcare sector, such as the Commodities Act on General Product Safety [link at the bottom].
Laws and regulations on genetics
Since genetic modification provides an interesting example here, I will zoom in a little further on the legislation on this subject. I will do so in a short summary, to demonstrate the complexity of such laws:
- According to the 1997 Oviedo Convention, modifying an embryo is forbidden;The Dutch Embryo Act (2002) strikes a similar note; During a course on Genetic Modification at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Professor Martina Cornel explained that the protection of humans’ so-called ‘genetic identity’ will be confirmed in the European Clintrials regulation at the end of 2019. Strictly speaking, this means that an individual is not allowed to genetically modify himself;In addition to laws and regulations, there are agreements about some genetic methods, such as PGD, meaning that these can be used to treat specific genetic diseases [link at the bottom]. These are, for example, Huntington’s or Duchenne’s disease. A committee is responsible for assessing which disorders or diseases qualify for this.
How all of these rules, regulations and laws will be applied, will become apparent in lawsuits and court rulings. Nevertheless, I think it would be a good idea to start thinking about future legislation and regulations, in order not to get too far out of step with scientific and technological developments.
The theater play Brave New World 2.0 by the Noord Nederlands Toneel
Although I’m not a lawyer or a politician, I will try to come up with some potential scenarios regarding future laws and regulations. As the most important legal starting point, I would like to argue in favor of the principle of ‘responsibility’ as proposed by the German philosopher Hans Jonas [link at the bottom]. This principle has different definitions, but this is the essence of it: if the probable risks are catastrophic, it is better to remain on the cautious side, even if you do not have all the information yet. In addition to this principle, these are a few other ideas for future laws:
- The right to mental privacy. The right to privacy is formulated in Article 10 of the Dutch Constitution. Currently, this law mainly concerns ‘the personal sphere’ and personal data [link at the bottom]. If technology would ever enable us to connect our brains to each other, to the Internet or to (commercial) services, this article would have to be extended. After all, it seems quite undesirable – at least to me – for others to have access to your dreams, thoughts and feelings.
- Prohibition of discrimination. Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution, as previously mentioned, states that everyone shall be treated equally. Right now, this is particularly relevant for characteristics such as gender, age, religion, sexual orientation and race. In the future, the scope of these characteristics might need to be extended to include cognitive or physical enhancements through technology. For example, will we allow companies to only hire applicants with a certain type of brain implant in the future?
- Solidarity in our society. Article 2 of the Dutch Constitution states that solidarity is one of our most important values. But to what extent do society and the government want to accommodate individuals? The current health care system in the Netherlands is based on solidarity. We contribute to the treatment of others with the idea that they generally can’t do anything about their condition. Is that going to change with the advent of human-enhancement technology? Just as smokers pay a higher health care premium now, this might also apply to people who choose not to maintain or enhance themselves on a regular basis.
The examples I mentioned before concern the protection of individuals against a potential abuse of power. But legislation can also have implications for the development of human enhancement. In the book De Maakbare Mens (The Makeable Human), Bert-Jan Koops states – with some exaggeration – that perhaps we could deduce the right to makeability from our fundamental rights. Take the government’s duty to stimulate scientific research into slowing down or halting ageing (promoting public health), or to examine genes for altruistic behaviour or responsiveness to art (social and cultural development).
Besides (legal) boundaries, I think that we could also look at human enhancement from a more ethical or philosophical perspective. What does it mean to be human?
Human enhancement and identity
The more opportunities we have to modify ourselves or our offspring, the more important ethics become. Ethics is defined as the science that examines whether certain actions can be qualified as right or wrong. I’ve previously written an extensive article on technology ethics [link at the bottom].
A starting point in this is our identity as humans. Can we use that as a framework to compare and assess the ethics of different enhancement methods and techniques? Although this might seem like a good idea at first glance, it is very difficult to define ‘identity’ as a concept.
What makes us human?
I’ll start from the concept of identity nonetheless. Something that has inspired me in this, is a course by the VU Amsterdam about genetic modification. Matthias Smalbrugge is Professor of European Culture and Christianity at the VU. In his lecture, he pointed out that it is difficult to determine what makes us human.
In the past, philosophers and thinkers spent their time looking for the essence or the core of being human. Modern theology has rejected this concept, and instead looks at characteristics, behavior, stories and connections.
This is also in line with the ideas of Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek. He was one of the other speakers at Talkshow De Idee in the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam, where I also gave a keynote myself [link at the bottom]. Humans are able to design themselves, to be aware of this and to take responsibility.
Humans are able to design themselves, to be aware of this and to take responsibility.Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek
Identity is privilege and doubt
During his lecture, Smalbrugge also referred to the concept of identity. According to him, identity is not only a privilege, but also a field of doubt and struggle. In addition, identity is more dynamic and less fixed than in the past (think of gender for example) and can also be made-up (on social media).
Identity does not stand in the way of medical care and curing diseases. Professor Martina Cornel also indicates this in an interview with Trouw [link at the bottom]. Cornel: ‘In order to develop as a human being, in the fullest sense of the word, you need to be restricted as little as possible by diseases. [Sickness] does not make you who you are, it doesn’t produce your identity, it’s actually more likely to suppress it.”
Climbing with Plato
When it comes to using technologies for enhancement, rather than curing diseases, that’s a different matter. One way to put this in perspective, is to look at what differentiates us from animals. As an organism, one way humans can be distinguished from animals is through our thinking capacity.
Our capacity to think enables us to imagine and picture the future, but also to shape ourselves as individuals. According to Smalbrugge, this is a centuries-old notion.
Plato argued that humans need to break free of their chains and climb out of the cave. But I personally wonder: would Plato also feel this way if he looked at all the different human enhancement opportunities we have now, and will have in the next few decades?
Together with Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek, whom I mentioned before, I was a guest in a ten-part podcast series by BNR and Het Financieel Dagblad, titled Bionic Man [link at the bottom]. A few things stood out to me from out conversations. These insights are mainly related to Peter-Paul’s academic domain, which is technology ethics.
The first insight is that we, as humans, must be cautious when it comes to overconfidence. The words hybrid and hybris originate from the same etymological source. The Greeks already realized that blending (of man and technology) can lead to overconfidence. Peter-Paul has also incorporated this idea in his book Op de Vleugels van Icarus. The premise of this book – which covers more than just human enhancement technology – is that, like Icarus, we should not be too cautious, nor too overconfident.
The second insight concerns the pace at which ethics moves. The Collingridge dilemma refers for the constant race in which ethics tries to keep up with technology. Moving either too slow or too fast is not desirable: ideally, ethics would move at the same speed as the developers and development of a technology.
Challenging our values
Building onto those two insights from the Bionic Man podcast, I also think it’s good to investigate the impact of each technology individually. I will elaborate on this later, but in my opinion, it is pointless to talk about human enhancement technology in overly general terms, and it is better to assess technologies on a case-by-case basis.
In order to find the right equilibrium between being too cautious or too overconfident, it would be nice to juxtapose the technology with the values that we, as a society, consider important. Then we could decide if, when, where, and how we could use that technology. In other words, how does the technology in question challenge our values, and how do we feel about that?
The theater play Brave New World 2.0 by the Noord Nederlands Toneel
Before we can contrast technology with our values, we have to answer the question of what our most important human values are. Michael Bess has defined ten values, six of which are focused on the individual and four of which are focused on collective characteristics. These are the individual values, with a short description:
- Safety: physical and mental safety;
- Dignity: to be seen and respected as an individual;
- Autonomy: freedom in shaping your life;
- Fulfilment: using your human capabilities, such as your imagination and curiosity;
- Authenticity: knowing your personal traits, interests and motivations;
- Practical wisdom: actively dealing with setbacks and learning from them;
These are the collective values:
- Honesty: equal rights and duties in society;
- Connection: in the form of friendships, love and family relationships;
- Citizenship: participation and involvement in social and political issues;
- Transcendence: transcendence of your own life through, for example, faith or spirituality.
After assessing the importance of these values, the next step is to see how they match up with a new technology. It is possible that some values are at odds. Take a technology that connects you to others and to the internet using a chip in your brain. This could have a positive effect on your sense of fulfilment (combining ideas more quickly) and connection (communicating directly with your friends), but a negative effect on your autonomy (organizations will have access to your brain) and honesty (not everyone wants to or can use this technology).
From values to behavior
The solution to see how a technology holds up when we compare and contrast it with our values is definitely attractive from a theoretical point of view, but it does have some drawbacks in practice. Apart from dealing with values that are at odds with each other, there are several other difficulties as well.
First off, it is difficult to reach a collective agreement on which values we consider important. Everyone agrees that a new technology should not kill or injure another person. But once we start making national or even global agreements about what should and shouldn’t be allowed, other interests such as economics, politics and power soon begin to play a role.
Also related to this is who actually makes the decision. For example, there are cases of deaf parents who, on the basis of genetic tests, would like their child to be born deaf [link at the bottom]. These parents fear that otherwise, their child might not fit in with their community. This is an interesting case, because who should be in the lead when making this decision? The parents, the physician or society?
Secondly: people, including myself, make irrational or contradictory decisions. For example, I might think that citizenship is a very important value, while I myself am not involved in civil society in any way. Or I might say that honesty should not be trivialized, but still want to buy an expensive bionic arm from a competitive point of view, so that I get a head start over others.
In the podcast with Lieven Scheire, about DNA and genetic modification, he stated at the end that perhaps the most important question is ‘what kind of humans we want to be’ [link at the bottom]. The question is what being a ‘better human’ means. I don’t think that’s necessarily about being a smarter human, but what is it about then? What (and who) determines what makes a person good or better?
The human condition, in its wonder as well as its woe, is defined by uncertainty and risk, ambiguity and intuition, stupidity and spectacular creative intelligenceStephen Greenblat (author)
This is in line with a strong statement by author Stephen Greenblat in The Guardian. He was asked about his opinion on Neuralink, the chip in the brain that connects you to the internet and to others. Greenblat: ‘The human condition, in its wonder as well as its woe, is defined by uncertainty and risk, ambiguity and intuition, stupidity and spectacular creative intelligence.’
Greenblat fears that the potency of a chip in the brain will destroy all of this. That’s an excellent statement to end this section with. For Greenblat, these uncertainties, risks and other characteristics are precisely what makes us human. He argues that we shouldn’t tamper with that.
What are some potential solutions to the dilemmas and challenges that human enhancement poses? What is the role of government when it comes to citizens’ freedom of choice to enhance themselves?
The idea in the previous section – to compare technology with human values and see how it holds up – has its merit, but we can’t stop there. Then we would risk getting stuck assessing the direct impact of a single technology.
In their book The Techno-Human Condition, Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz distinguish three levels on which technology has an influence [link at the bottom]. In addition to the direct impact of a technology (level 1), they also distinguish the influence on sociotechnical systems, social and cultural patterns (level 2) and the impact at global level (level 3).
An example of the second level is the way in which technology is driven by economic or military motives. Then we can no longer talk about the individual’s free choice from level 1. An example of the third level is the previously described biological difference between enhanced people and non-enhanced people.
In my lectures, such as the one I gave in May 2019 at the University of Twente, I like to discuss the impact of (human enhancement) technology:
In an essay published by the Rathenau Institute, Van Keulen and Van Elst argue that the second and third levels of influence should be given a more prominent place in the debate on human enhancement technology [link at the bottom]. ‘There is a lot at stake here, and it is important to look much further than just looking at the individual instrumental level.’
There is a lot at stake and it is important to look much further than just looking at the individual instrumental level.Ira van Keulen en Rinie van Est (Rathenau Institute)
The authors also make a number of suggestions that I support, about technological citizenship, the role of institutions and social debate. I have explained these notions below, together with my own arguments and justification. For a more detailed description and explanation of their suggestions, I’d like to refer you to the essay itself [link at the bottom].
The main question is how we can develop technologies for human enhancement in a social and responsible manner. This means ensuring that the technology is in line with the shared moral principles in society and determining this among ourselves democratically. According to Van Keulen and Van Elst, this quest for the right balance is still a human job or effort.
In order for everyone to be able to participate, we need technological citizenship. This term refers to a set of rights and obligations that protects citizens from the technologies’ risks and threats, allows them to benefit from the advantages and allows them to participate in the decision-making.
Education plays a crucial role in the development of technological citizenship. This isn’t just limited to higher education, but also goes for primary and secondary schools. The aim is to provide children and young adults with tools that enable them to have an informed debate with each other (and with the rest of society) about the role of technology in their lives and in society.
That not only includes having basic knowledge about science and technology, but also gaining insight into your personal motives and core values. This provides good opportunity for subjects such as philosophy, ethics and meditation in the school curriculum.
On my Keynotes page, I talk more about the role of education [link at the bottom].
At ‘Talkshow De Idee’, at the International Theater Amsterdam, I spoke about Humans 2.0 (photo by Esmee Doense)
The words ‘rights’ and ‘duties’ also appear in the definition of technological citizenship. This is not without reason. Van Keulen and Van Elst argue that rights and obligations must be affirmed, put in writing, and implemented democratically. This is reflected, for example, in laws and regulations and their enforcement.
Perhaps we would need a new assessment body for this in the Netherlands and in Europe, in addition to the Personal Data Authority and the Institute for Human Rights. This new body, which has yet to be set up, would monitor and assess the research on and application of human enhancement techniques.
It might sound naive and idealistic, but it would be even better if such an institute were to operate globally. International agreement reduces the risk that individual countries, be it due to military, political or economic interests, formulate and enforce their own national legislation less strictly.
The role of the government is broader than just legislation and regulations. As I already mentioned, the government plays a large role in steering research into technology and its application, for instance through taxes and subsidies. How far governments want to go in this respect is in essence a political and social choice once again.
More about my vision on the role of the government on my Keynotes page [link at the bottom].
The development and application of technologies for human enhancement requires a continuous public debate. Senior lecturer Britta van Beers also advocates for this in Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad. She refers specifically to germ line modification in the article, but in my opinion, her statement is widely applicable [link at the bottom].
A technology that affects the future of human reproduction merits a democratic debate.Britta van Beers (VU Amsterdam)
Van Beers: ‘A technology that touches on the future of human reproduction merits a widely supported democratic debate, in which everyone, and not just the scientific community, is invited to reflect on the question of what kind of future we want for ourselves and future generations.’ She argues for this because technology – in addition to the health risks, of course – also puts several fundamental values at stake.
Essential to the debate
I’ve already talked about several important elements, including technological citizenship, education and the role of the government. But what about the debate itself? According to Bert-Jan Koops, co-author of De Maakbare Mens (The Makeable Human), the public debate calls for clarification, broadening and deepening.
- Clarification. As you’ve read in the first part of this article, there are many different technologies that could be used for human enhancement. Talking about ‘the’ superhuman in general terms, doesn’t make much sense. It’s better to determine for each application in what phase of development the technology is, and what the ideas about its (future) use are based based on.
- Opening up. Everyone looks at technology from their own perspective. At the moment, the scientific and technological points of view dominate the debate. But it’s better to answer fundamental questions from a multidisciplinary perspective, which also includes humanities, philosophy and the social sciences.
- Deepening the debate. Even more relevant than focusing on individual technological developments, is to discuss more in-depth questions with each other. This concerns, for example, the question of what we want the human of the future to look like, what role our beliefs about life should play in our decisions, and who gets to set the boundaries.
In my keynotes and presentations about the future of mankind, I always try to bring these elements to the fore myself as well. These are very complex issues, but they do concern the future of ourselves, our society, and us as a species.
What is my (preliminary) conclusion?
Scientific and technological developments have a huge impact on the world. Their impact is not limited to the outside world in the form of self-propelled or flying cars, smartphones, cryptocurrencies and space travel, for example. The term ‘Jetson Fallacy’ means that all of these developments will also have an impact on ourselves, as humans.
The term ‘Jetson Fallacy’ stems from the cartoon series The Jetsons. The essence of this fallacy is that the family in this show lives a hundred years into the future, but haven’t changed at all as humans. Nor have their relationships or their social and cultural behaviors.
Given the scientific and technological developments that are taking place, it is highly likely that future generations will be able to shape and modify themselves more and more. The aim of this article was, in particular, to make it clear that these new opportunities also go hand in hand with many more responsibilities.
Will the human enhancement methods I described result in a richer, longer, more beautiful and fulfilled life? Or will they lead to a divided society, the loss of human dignity or even the destruction of our species? The choice is up to us as human beings, in our individual and our collective choices.
I was interviewed at ‘Talkshow De Idee’, at the International Theater Amsterdam, after my lecture on the topic Humans 2.0 (photo by Esmee Doense).
I hope that this article provides an impetus to dealing with these choices. Individually, by subjecting and comparing new technologies to your own values, and collectively by means of a clear, open and in-depth public debate.
A concept that can prove useful in this is human sustainability. In the essay I mentioned before, by Van Keulen and Van Est, this is defined as follows: ‘Human sustainability is about the preservation of human individuality: which aspects of humans and our humanity do we see as makeable, and which aspects do we want to preserve?’
The best way to guarantee human sustainability is not to naively embrace technological and scientific developments, but also not to simply bring everything to a halt. Progress has given us, as human beings, an awful lot; think of examples such as glasses, anaesthesia, and the increase in prosperity and longevity in the world.
I myself have chosen to opt for a strategy of ‘cautious progress’. This is a combination of trust and humility. Trust and openness towards the opportunities for the future. Humility to slow ourselves down, with some help from our lessons of the past.
The moral of this strategy is to embrace progress. At the same time, we have to make sure to try and implement the use of these technologies critically, with incremental steps and sufficient caution.
In the previous sections I’ve occasionally referred to fictional books, TV shows and movies. In the section below, I talk about a few additional shows, movies and books that deal with the future of mankind. Please note: every now and then I do share spoilers.
Which TV shows, movies and fiction books touch upon important subject matter when it comes to the future of mankind?
TV show future humans
It’s no surprise: Black Mirror, on Netflix, is one of my favorite TV shows. The most impressive element of the show is that its creators are stretching the limits of (technological) developments in our current society.
Staying within the realm of this particular article, the episode San Junipero really appealed to me [link at the bottom]. The episode Real Life of the show Electric Dreams on Amazon Prime deals with a very similar concept [link at the bottom]. Both episodes are about virtual life in a simulation.
This concept of a true to life simulation has been around for a while, think for instance of the ‘Experience Machine’ by philosopher Robert Nozick in 1974 [bottom left]. This is the idea: what if you get into a machine and then you experience the life of your dreams? However, there is one but: the moment you get into the machine, you forget that it’s a simulation. Life inside the machine is then experienced as real life. What would you choose?
Another show, which uses a different technology, is Orphan Black – again available on Netflix. The process of cloning creates multiple genetically identical characters. The protagonists, played by actress Tatiana Maslany, are separate individuals with the same DNA. The show plays around with this idea, which makes you, as a viewer, wonder about what the influence of genetics is on your identity.
When it comes to the show Westworld on HBO, I sometimes found the first season a bit hard to follow. In the second season, it became more visible how the (fictional) world came into being and what the consequences would be if machines started to act autonomously. Is being alive substrate-independent, i.e. not bound to biological organisms? In other words: can human life be simulated in machines, and can machines also develop their own consciousness?
Movie future humans
In one of the first sections, I wrote about the movies Lucy and Limitless, which are about using your brain’s full cognitive capacity [bottom left]. In Lucy, the main character (played by Scarlett Johansson) can even influence the outside world with her brain. She can use her thoughts to take over televisions and pick up all the telephone calls in her surroundings.
Limitless focuses a bit more on the characters themselves, where the protagonist Eddie (played by Bradley Cooper) works his way up from being a loser to a successful writer with the help of pills.
Brain uploading and androids
The movie Transcendence revolves around a brilliant computer scientist (played by Johnny Depp). His specialism is artificial intelligence, and his vision is to model an artificial system after the human brain. Because of a fatal disorder he doesn’t have long to live, and so he, his wife and a friendly colleague make the decision: they will copy his brain and use it as the basis for super-intelligence.
The movie Blade Runner 2049 is the successor of the original Blade Runner. Both movies are set in a future in which androids exist. These androids are artificial, but barely distinguishable from real people. Just like the show Westworld, this movie made me think about whether the future of mankind is in our current biological form. Apart from that, I loved the dystopian images of the Los Angeles wasteland. Especially combined with the futuristic music composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.
In addition to TV shows and movies, numerous fiction books have been written about our future as human beings. At the time of writing this article, I’m reading the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood [link at the bottom]. In the books, a deliberately planned biological disaster has almost completely destroyed mankind. In the stories, modifications to humans aren’t discussed that often, but the consequences of our modifications to animals, crops and the rest of the planet are.
The book Neuromancer by William Gibson is a compelling mix of technology and espionage. According to critics, this 1983 book describes the Internet for the first time. The author was ahead of his time with a story about hackers, artificial intelligence systems and the power of large corporations.
In a list of influential fiction on this subject, Brave New World is definitely one that needs to be mentioned. The book was written by Aldous Huxley in 1932 and describes a completely rationalized world. Both reproduction and education are artificial and all human aspects such as love, art and emotions have been banned from the world.
I also wrote the following articles on this subject:
- What is the superhuman?
- What is human enhancement?
- What is engineering humans?
- What is transhumanism?
- What is biohacking?
I also give keynotes and presentations on these subjects:
These are related articles:
I have also made the following videos on this subject:
- Interview with Aubrey de Grey about living longer
- Interview with Agi Haines about the art of human enhancement
- Interview with Liviu Babitz’ implanted compass
These are related courses I have followed and events I have participated:
- Training Biohack Academy
- Genetic modification course at the Free University of Amsterdam
- Conference CRISPRcon
I’ve used the following non-fiction books in this article:
- Book Homo Deus
- Book Make Way for the Superhumans
- Book Beyond Therapy
- Book Evolving Ourselves
- Book De Maakbare Mens (in Dutch)
- Book Op de vleugels van Icarus (in Dutch)
- Book Het gen (in Dutch)
- Book The Techno-Human Condition
These fiction books, TV shows and movies were discussed in the article:
- Movie Lucy
- Movie Limitless
- Movie Transcendence
- Movie Blade Runner 2049
- Movie Elysium
- Movie Edge of Tomorrow
- Series Black Mirror
- Series Electric Dreams
- Orphan Black TV show
- TV show Westworld
- Book Oryx and Crake
- Book Neuromancer
- Book Brave New World
- Book Nexus
- Book All Men are Mortal
These are external links that I have used, categorized per section. Technology: pharmaceutical
- Article about the use of steroids in sports
- Article STDs in the elderly
- Article Viagra in the Netherlands (in Dutch)
- Article LSD microdosing (in Dutch)
- Article disadvantages nootropics
- Article Ritalin students (in Dutch)
- Article use of antidepressants
- Metformin research
- Research into rapamycin
- Website Jens Naumann
- Article Jeroen Peek (in Dutch)
- Website cochlear implants (in Dutch)
- Article speech computer Hawking
- Article Eagleman
- Company Neosensory
- Website Berger
- Article pilots using neurofeedback
- Article optogenetics 1 (in Dutch)
- Article optogenetics 2
- Article Salvage 1
- Article Salvage 2 (in Dutch)
- Article Neuralink
- Website Neuralink
- Research Nicolelis
- Article brain signals people to rats
- Article brain signals people to people
- BrainNet website
- Website Kernel
- Article genes eye color
- Article number of genes mice and humans (in Dutch)
- HERC2 gene information
- Documentary DNA Dreams
- Article recombinant DNA
- CRISPR/Cas9 Research
- Article Emily Whitehead
- Article Genetic modification of the eye
- Overview CRISPR/Cas9 startups
- Article Josiah Zayner
- HIV gene research
- Article DNA mitochondria embryo modification
- Article Jiankiu He 1
- Article Jiankiu He 2
- Article Jiankiu He 3
- Article genetic modification sperm cells
- Article genetic modification embryo George Church
- Research into the correlation between intestinal flora and depression
- Article transplantation intestinal flora (in Dutch)
- Article transplantation intestinal flora DIY
- Article size virome
Technology: body parts
- Website Oscar Pistorius
- Article bionic drummer
- Website Tilly Lockey
- Website Samantha Payne
- Interview Samantha Payne
- Article Ruben de Sain (in Dutch)
- Website Project March
- Article exoskeleton Amazon
- Article exoskeleton Ford
- Article exoskeleton marines (in Dutch)
- Article exoskeleton DARPA
- Article BCI DARPA
- Report Rathenau Institute
- Article lung simulation birds (in Dutch)
- Project Moon Ribas
- Website Moon Ribas
- Article nanorobots Kurzweil
- Research nanorobots
- Website Braden Allenby
- Article plastic surgery South Korea
- Article modifying morality
- Article global reproduction rate
- Article quote Max Planck
- Article euthanasia in the past (in Dutch)
Borders and laws
- Website Dutch Constitution (in Dutch)
- Website Commodities Act (in Dutch)
- Website Ovidiedo Convention
- Website Dutch Embryo Law (in Dutch)
- Website PGD disorders (in Dutch)
- Article principle Hans Jonas (in Dutch)
How do you look at our future as humans? Leave a comment!