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.
It seems that each week or so, the headlines herald a new medical or scientific breakthrough. In the last few years, for instance, researchers have implanted artificial retinas to give blind patients partial sight. Other scientists successfully linked a paralyzed man’s brain to a computer chip, which helped restore partial movement of previously non-responsive limbs. Still others have created synthetic blood substitutes, which could soon be used in human patients.
One of the most important developments in recent years involves a new gene-splicing technique called “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” Known by its acronym, CRISPR, this new method greatly improves scientists’ ability to accurately and efficiently “edit” the human genome, in both embryos and adults.