Human enhancement is at least as old as human civilization. People have been trying to enhance their physical and mental capabilities for thousands of years, sometimes successfully – and sometimes with inconclusive, comic and even tragic results.
Up to this point in history, however, most biomedical interventions, whether successful or not, have attempted to restore something perceived to be deficient, such as vision, hearing or mobility. Even when these interventions have tried to improve on nature – say with anabolic steroids to stimulate muscle growth or drugs such as Ritalin to sharpen focus – the results have tended to be relatively modest and incremental.
But thanks to recent scientific developments in areas such as biotechnology, information technology and nanotechnology, humanity may be on the cusp of an enhancement revolution. In the next two or three decades, people may have the option to change themselves and their children in ways that, up to now, have existed largely in the minds of science fiction writers and creators of comic book superheroes.
Both advocates for and opponents of human enhancement spin a number of possible scenarios. Some talk about what might be called “humanity plus” – people who are still recognizably human, but much smarter, stronger and healthier. Others speak of “post-humanity,” and predict that dramatic advances in genetic engineering and machine technology may ultimately allow people to become conscious machines – not recognizably human, at least on the outside.
This enhancement revolution, if and when it comes, may well be prompted by ongoing efforts to aid people with disabilities and heal the sick. Indeed, science is already making rapid progress in new restorative and therapeutic technologies that could, in theory, have implications for human enhancement.
In her 30-year battle with breast cancer, Carmen Teixidor thought she had experienced every treatment doctors could hurl at the disease. She had endured multiple bouts of radiation and multiple courses of hormone therapy. She tried chemotherapy once, about 25 years ago, but it diminished the quality of her life so much that she’s tried to avoid it ever since. She had multiple surgeries, too, and she developed a dread of the moment when she came out of anesthesia and into consciousness, almost inevitably to hear bad news. That is how she first learned, in the summer of 1985, that after doctors had found a large tumor in her left breast they had felt compelled to perform a mastectomy.
“Absolute terror,” she recalls, staring down at the floor of her New York apartment. There’s never a good time for a cancer diagnosis, but for Teixidor, it came just as her career as an artist had begun to take off—two of her life-size sculptures had been acquired for the grounds of Rockefeller University, and she had recently completed a mural at Harlem Hospital. A slender woman now in her 70s, graying hair gathered in a youthful ponytail, she has dealt with one recurrence after another, submitting to medical tools from the scalpel to, most recently and perhaps most improbably, the molecule.
Teixidor barely noticed when, in the fall of 2013, her doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York analyzed a small snippet of her tumor and sequenced the DNA in her cancer cells. They did this, as an increasing number of academic cancer centers are doing, to look for telltale mutations that might drive malignant growth. Certain of these mutations are the targets of a new generation of specially designed drugs.
I acknowledge the Fermi Paradox has been discussed ad nauseam, which means to the point that continued discussion of a topic makes people want to vomit.
Knowing this, I naturally decided it would be a great idea to write about it.
As with most articles on OTA, there should be rolling disclaimer: I'm not an astrophysicist or particularly qualified to write on this subject. But this is the internet. A place where the unqualified are the world's foremost authorities on the most complicated matters imaginable.
So trust me, I'm an expert.
In case you haven't heard of the Fermi Paradox, let me briefly bring you up to speed.
The guy that came up with the Fermi Paradox was Enrico Fermi. And let me tell you something, Enrico Fermi was basically a genius. Ok, I'll just say it.
He was a genius.
Born in Rome, Italy in 1901, Fermi was one of the world's most prolific physicists. He created the world's first nuclear reactor, won the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics, worked on the Manhattan Project, had the synthetic element "fermium" named after him, and was one of the few physicists in history that excelled in both theoretical and experimental physics. Fermi died in Chicago, Illinois, in 1954.
It only makes sense then that Fermi coined the Fermi Paradox, a topic that has been studied and discussed countless times over the years, over lunch in 1950. It was at this lunch when Fermi asked several colleagues, "Where is everybody?" referring to intelligent extraterrestrial life.
At a laboratory outside San Francisco, money from the founders of Google maintains a large number of naked mole rats. The hairless rodents require exacting, expensive conditions to thrive: they live in coöperative colonies like ants, led by a queen rat. But what is truly extraordinary is that they can live about 30 years—10 times longer than a mouse.
The rodents belong to Calico Labs, short for the California Life Company. In 2013, the cofounder of Google, Larry Page, announced that his company would form Calico and fund it lavishly to carry out a long-term project, trying to sort out the causes of aging and do something about them. The company’s mission: to build a Bell Labs of aging research. It hoped to extend the human life span by coming up with a breakthrough as important, and as useful to humanity, as the transistor has been.
There are reasons to think aging can be slowed in fundamental ways. Among Calico’s first hires was Cynthia Kenyon, now its vice president of aging research, who 20 years ago showed that altering a single DNA letter in a laboratory roundworm made it live six weeks instead of three. There is something hair-raising about Kenyon’s videos of old, should-be-dead worms wriggling vigorously across a petri dish.
Now that you're here, we can begin.
For most people, I suspect the phrase, “exponential growth,” probably doesn’t generate much excitement. But once you’ve read this post, that will probably change. That is, if you’re anything like me or Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis and others (to be clear, I am not placing myself among those incredibly accomplished individuals).
Humans think linearly. If it took 5 years to build half of a bridge, we naturally think it'll take another 5 years to complete it.
That's essentially how linear growth works. By “linear growth” I mean something that grows or advances by the same amount each step, regardless of the total underlying amount of progress or quantity.