Human Enhancement Examples. What are methods, technologies and ideas for human enhancement? How do we enhance humans with implants, genetic mod. & more? What will humans of the future look like? What is the future of the human body? And what is the future of mankind?
How can you engineer yourself into a superhuman? Are there limits to engineering human beings? And what are the ethics and philosophy behind the development of a superhuman species? 5 methods explained with examples, including embryo selection and designer babies. How will these developments influence our future? What kind of impact will they have?
Examples of human enhancement
What is the definition of a “superhuman”? The ‘superhuman’ is a human that is not just shaped by biology. The concept holds that through different types of interventions, humans will be able to modify, enhance and improve themselves in the future. In other words: engineering themselves into superhumans.
What kind of modifications would you want to make, if you had the chance? Perhaps you would opt for having a higher level of intelligence. Or for extending your life expectancy [link at the bottom]. Maybe you would want to change your personality, because you wish you weren’t so introverted? In fact, that’s something that I can personally relate to. Or perhaps you would like to enhance your physical and athletic performance.
New technologies, such as gene therapy, adding electronic devices to your body, and medical and pharmaceutical breakthroughs, open up a whole new range of possibilities.
Enhancement Examples (5x)
How can you become a Superhuman? The fact that we can even ask ourselves this question in the first place, is thanks to a myriad of scientific and technological developments. It’s also a question that is closely related to schools of thought such as transhumanism and posthumanism [link below].
Essentially, these philosophical movements assert that humans have taken evolution into their own hands, and that we are now able to ‘engineer’ human nature.
Proponents of transhumanism believe in a utopian society, in which everyone has been upgraded. They also believe that we should do everything in our power to enhance and improve humanity – be it through mechanical, genetic or pharmaceutical methods.
So what does that mean? This are a couple of examples:
- Designer babies
- Increased longevity
I elaborate on these examples below.
Essentially: replacing body parts with electronic materials. Think of a digital eye or mechanical legs, for instance, which would enable us to jump higher or run faster. I personally refer to this form of enhancement as ‘Human Augmentation’.
In addition to implantable electronics, there are other options for adjusting the body. Take prostheses and artificial body parts. For example, Blay Whitby from the University of Sussex thinks it is a matter of time before paralympic athletes with leg prostheses complete the 100 meters faster than Olympic sprinters [link below]. Yet he sees the voluntary replacement of a body part for an artificial variant as abnormal and ridiculous.
Yet not everyone shares that vision. During lectures, I sometimes ask the audience if they want to donate a natural body part for an improved variant. Hardly anyone goes into this, but Kevin Warwick from the University of Warwick sees no problem at all. “What’s wrong with it if it allows you to perform better or live longer?”
DNA strands are the building blocks of life. At the moment, we are already capable of using gene therapy to cure deadly diseases caused by a defect in one specific gene. In the future, we might also be able to analyze and edit genes in order to enhance ourselves.
In his wonderful book The Answers to the Big Questions, the late Stephen Hawking writes that “we are entering a new phase of what we may call self-designed evolution, in which we are able to change and improve our DNA” [bottom link]. In the first instance we will do this for genetic disorders. But he foresees that despite regulation, there will be people who want to use this technique to improve themselves physically or cognitively.
We are entering a new phase that we may call self-designed evolution, in which we are able to change and improve our DNA.Stephen Hawking
Despite laws and regulations, there will be people who cannot resist the temptation to improve themselves, such as better memory, disease resistance, and lifespan.
Hawking expects that with the rise of these super people, political problems will arise with non-improved people who cannot compete with the newcomers. The non-improved people will become extinct or no longer matter. “Instead, a self-designed race of people is emerging that will improve themselves with ever-increasing speed.”
3 Designer babies
What if we don’t necessarily want to be superhumans ourselves, but we do want to create them? A term that is often cited by media outlets these days, is ‘designer babies’. This refers to parents selecting the best possible embryo when conceiving a child.
In a way, this is already happening right now, through something called ‘amniocentesis’. Amniocentesis is a prenatal test that assesses whether a baby has chromosomal abnormalities, such as Down’s syndrome. In the United States, this process is already being taken one step further. An American company called Counsyl offers the possibility to do a full prenatal screening, which also detects any mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes [link below]. Mutations of these genes are associated with a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
So what if we, as humans, would go one step further? Imagine if we wouldn’t just use these developments to eliminate certain diseases, but to specifically select desirable genetic characteristics and traits in our offspring. For instance, selecting our children’s biological sex, their physical traits – such as length and disposition to obesity – or cognitive skills such as intelligence and memory.
That could lead to a scenario like the one in the science fiction movie Gattaca. In this movie, the ‘valids’ are people who are born with enhanced and superior genes; they hold the best jobs in society and have the highest quality of life. There is a big disparity with the ‘invalids’, those who are conceived naturally and without any genetic enhancements – they are doomed to a life of inferiority and poverty.
In today’s society, we are already facing huge challenges with regards to social and economic inequality. What if only the rich will be able to carry out embryo selection or genetic modification? That would only amplify the inequality gap.
Pharmaceutical companies are gaining more and more insight into the efficacy of various medications and supplements. Apart from moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach and moving towards personalized medicine, we’ll also increasingly start using pills in order to boost or upgrade ourselves.
Taking health supplements or nootropics – pills that enhance your cognitive skills – is a well-known example of this.
5 Increased longevity
Aubrey de Gray is a British gerontologist and director of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). SENS focuses on stimulating scientific research into aging and the methods to combat aging. At the bottom of this article is an interview that I had with Aubrey de Gray during the EHA congress in 2018 in Brussels.
According to him, it will be possible in the future, with biomedical technology, to achieve the so-called longevity escape velocity. This is the concept that the pace at which technology is evolving will be so high that with each passing year, the average life expectancy of humans increases by more than a year.
Many companies and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley invest in SENS and life research. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has set up the Calico company. The goal of Calico is to prevent aging [link below].
Entrepreneur, venture capitalist and libertarian Peter Thiel is a wealthy private individual who invests in research. Given his political preference, it is not surprising that he sees no risk that only the wealthy will soon have the means for life extension. In an interview with the New York Times from 2011, he reacts laconically: “The biggest inequality is between people who live and who are dead.”
Limits to engineering the human species
What are the limits to engineering Superhumans? Futurologist Gerd Leonard has proposed some interesting ideas about that, looking at the role of a whole range of new technologies that are currently being developed.
Take ‘brain computer interfacing’ for instance. Serial entrepreneur Peter Diamandis predicts that in 2034, we’ll be able to connect the human brain to the internet.
In 2034, we’ll be able to directly connect our brain to the internet.Peter Diamandis
Another aspect that could play a major role in the formation of an ‘engineerable’ superhuman – in addition to brain-related interventions – is genetic manipulation. On the one hand, gene therapy raises the possibility to cure a number of terrible diseases, such as Huntington’s disease. In fact, by modifying genes at the germ cell level, we could even stop such diseases from being passed on to future generations.
On the other hand, we also need to ask ourselves: how far are we willing to go? Where do we draw the line? And who gets to decide? How do we define health and disease?
It’s clear that this is a very complicated question. That’s why I’ve recently become even more interested in the philosophy of technology and in bioethics [link below].
Ethics and philosophy
According to futurologist Gerd Leonard, we’re reaching an era where ethics and philosophy are becoming increasingly important. If technology opens up the possibility to engineer ourselves, does that automatically mean that we should?
I personally really enjoyed a Dutch documentary series called “the Perfect Human” (De Volmaakte Mens). One episode featured political philosopher Michael Sandel, who was interviewed by Dutch journalist Bas Heijne. Sandel called the recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering “promising and incredibly dangerous”. In his opinion, we need to be very cautious, as we could end up living in a world that only caters to the superhumans.
Is that the kind of world we want to live in? Or are these technological breakthroughs inevitable anyway, and would we be selling ourselves short if we didn’t benefit from all the options out there? After all, wanting to enhance, augment and develop ourselves, is inherent to being human.
Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?Yuval Noah Harari
It’s also important to realize that technological developments and innovation aren’t always driven by ‘objective’ incentives. In ‘Sapiens’, author Yuval Noah Harari explains that science always develops in relation to power dynamics, as well as economic, cultural and religious dynamics. In light of this observation, the current obsession with military technology – such as DARPA in the United States – is somewhat worrying [link below].
When it comes to the desire to upgrade ourselves, it’s very important to know why we want to do so and what kind of consequences this might have. Right now, we actually know very little about either of those aspects. It’s not surprising, then, that Harari writes: ‘Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?’
In a popular science magazine called ‘Skepter’, emeritus professor Piet Borst explained why he isn’t sold on the idea of a ‘Superhuman’: “The concept of an ‘engineerable’ Superhuman isn’t just nonsense from a biological point of view, but it’s also counterproductive on a political level – policy makers are so focused on creating equal opportunities for everyone, that they fail to take into account the huge differences in starting capital.”
Concerning ‘starting capital’, Borst is referring to the genes that we inherit from our parents and the environment that we grow up in. If we were to create a superhuman society, we would face the risk that these opportunities would be even more unfair and asymmetrical – enhancement opportunities might only be accessible to those who can afford them. So if you already have ‘good’ genes and a ‘good’ environment at your disposal, you’ll essentially be able to give yourself an extra, additional upgrade.
Why should anyone want to stop me from growing wings? Or a tail?Josiah Zayner
How do we define which upgrades we consider ‘normal’ and which ones we perceive as ‘excessive’? In a Dutch documentary series, biohacker Josiah Zayner shared his thoughts on that [link below]. Josiah is the founder and owner of a biohacking startup called ‘The Odin’. He was featured in an episode that focused on genetic modification and CRISPR/Cas9. “This technology should be accessible to everyone, not just to scientists or the health sector. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to decide how I want to modify myself, like we do with piercings or tattoos? Why should anyone want to stop me from growing wings? Or a tail?’
I also gave a presentation on this topic at the Biohacker Summit 2018 in Stockholm. You can find a link to the slides at the bottom of this page.
Whose responsibility is it, ultimately, to determine whether a technology should or shouldn’t be used? Should such decisions be made by a person, a government, a doctor or someone else? Marli Huijer is a doctor and a philosopher. In an interview with ‘De Volkskrant’, she expressed her concerns. “Governments don’t have a say in this anymore. […] Corporations will always promote new technologies, because that’s how they can make a lot of money.”
According to her, we can already see this when it comes to individuals who use apps and gadgets to track and monitor their health or lifestyle. “At the end of the day, money is the main motivation. It’s economic forces that determine which apps and gadgets are on the market. There aren’t enough social and political counterforces to balance that out.”
I do understand her point, but I personally have a more optimistic perspective on this. That’s because we’ve experienced unexpected, rapid technological progress before. Plus, we actually have commercial enterprises to thank for a lot of those innovative technological developments. The way Tesla disrupted the car industry is just one example.
I do agree with Marli that it’s important to have some social counterforces in place to preserve the balance. After all, it isn’t always clear yet what kind of impact a technology might have. No one can predict the consequences or implications of new technologies – I previously elaborated on this in an article about technology ethics as well [link at the bottom].
In the beginning of Michael Bess’ book ‘Make way for the superhumans’, Bess mentions something called the ‘Jetson fallacy’. This refers to an American cartoon show called ‘The Jetsons’, which was created in 1967. In the Jetsons’ world, which is set in 2067, everything has changed: there are flying cars, printers that can print our food, and there are robots everywhere.
The only thing that hasn’t changed, are humans themselves. Essentially, the fictional characters living in 2067 are completely similar to how people lived in 1967. Not just physically, but also in terms of cognitive, emotional and cultural traits.The father of the family is clumsy and awkward at dealing with his family, and the mother is still the one who does the housekeeping.
Technology is changing what it means to be human.Professor Michael Bess
In a way, it makes sense. We tend to expect that we humans won’t really change all that much in the future. But in fact, the technological developments that I wrote about at the beginning of this article, are going to have a gigantic impact on our human traits as well. Technology is going to change our understanding of what it means to be human.
Yuval Noah Harari wrote about this notion extensively in his book ‘Homo Deus’ [link below]. In the future, there will be a contrast between the ‘natural‘ humans and the ‘superhumans’. This will lead to social and political tensions. What if you don’t have the financial means to upgrade yourself? Or what if you simply don’t want to?
If you choose not to use a smartphone in today’s society, you’ll have a relative disadvantage compared to the rest of society (who are using one). But this is just a small discrepancy compared to the inequalities that could be generated by the technological upgrades of the future: what if you could suddenly become much smarter, stronger and healthier?
The biggest mistake we could make, is to think that the inevitable technological developments that are taking place regarding the medical sector, electronic devices, genetics and the pharmaceutical sector, will not change us as humans. Because all of those developments will change us one way or the other: be it in a physical, cognitive, emotional or social capacity.
Even if we won’t live to experience these changes ourselves, they will definitely play a role in the lives of the next generations to come. I personally have no idea how those changes and developments will play out. Will our children (generally speaking – I personally don’t have any kids yet) and grandchildren live in a world like in ‘Brave New World’? In this book, all humans are genetically and pharmaceutically customized to such an extent, that they live in a fully controllable and containable environment.
Would that make our lives as human beings boring? Or would it be the other way around: can the existence of superhumans make our lives more exciting? Because they can use their infinite cognitive capabilities, physical strength and perfect health to the fullest?
Which option would you prefer? And do we actually still have a choice?
Human Enhancement expert
As part of the Elevate Talks series, at the Photo Festival in Breda (the Netherlands) in 2018, I gave a keynote on ‘the Superhuman Society’. Check out the video below.
At the Biohacker Summit 2018 in Stockholm (Sweden), I also gave a presentation on this topic. You can find the slides later on in this article. Check out the video below.
Do you want to know more about human enhancement?
Please contact me if you have any questions! Like if you want to invite me to give a lecture, presentation or webinar at your company, at your congress, symposium or meeting.
Or if you want to book a session with me as an expert consultant on this area.
I previously wrote these related articles about human enhancement:
- What is human enhancement?
- What is the definition of human enhancement?
- What are human enhancement technologies?
- What is human genetic enhancement?
- What are human enhancement drugs?
- What is human enhancement research?
- What are arguments in the human enhancement debate?
- What are the ethics of human enhancement?
- What are the best human enhancement books?
I’ve previously written the following articles related to this topic:
These are the external links that I’ve used:
How do you feel about the concept of ‘engineerable’ humans? Leave a comment!