Has Superman's time come?

Sensemaking / Has Superman's time come?

As bio-engineers explore how to design our way out of human limitations, Carl Frankel asks if we’re poised on the threshold of the ultimate upgrade – to humanity itself.

13 Jul 2012

As bio-engineers explore how to design our way out of human limitations, Carl Frankel asks if we’re poised on the threshold of the ultimate upgrade – to humanity itself.

Hugh Herr lost both his legs below the knee as a teenager when a rock-climbing trip went awry. If you’re thinking “Poor man, how does he manage?”, you might want to let go of that. Herr gets along just fine.

The director of a bionics research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Herr develops high-tech prosthetic devices that level the playing field for amputees. Or even tilts it their way. He amasses legs the way most people buy shoes. He has one set of prosthetics for walking, a longer set for jogging and multiple pairs of climbing legs, including one that stretches him to over seven feet tall and another with built-in aluminum claws for Spiderman-like gripping. “I’m able to climb at a more advanced level with artificial limbs. I view [them] as an opportunity, a palette from which to create,” he told a TED audience before closing his speech with some zesty Irish dancing.

And then there’s the stunning Aimee Mullins, a gifted athlete and model (oh, and double amputee) who walked the London runway in 1999 for fashion designer Alexander McQueen wearing hand-carved wooden prosthetic legs with integrated boots.

Herr and Mullins aren’t just extraordinary people: they’re walking, climbing, sashaying provocations to conventional notions about disability. They invite us to imagine a time, not far away, when high technology and the physical body are married in ways that endow people with entirely new capabilities. Super-abilities, really – the stuff dreams and comic books are made of.

Photo of Stelarc with an ear in his armWith their elegant artificial appendages, Herr and Mullins dramatically embody the emergence of what Steve Fuller, a professor at the University of Warwick, calls Humanity 2.0: “an understanding of the human condition that no longer takes the ‘normal human body’ as given.” The performance artist Stelarc puts it this way: “We can no longer think of the body as simplistically bound by its skin and containing a single self… We are very much a meat, metal and software system now.” In his work he makes this point dramatically, for instance with a cell-cultivated ear, surgically implanted onto his left arm, that for a time had a built-in microphone and transmitted what it ‘heard’ wirelessly to the Internet.

People as discrete flesh-sacks of bones and body organs? That’s so … yesterday. Already, human augmentation is crossing over into sci-fi territory. What the imagination can conceive, technology is increasingly able to deliver.

So: want to have Superman-like strength? The military is developing exoskeletons that strap onto soldier’s bodies and do the heavy lifting, literally. Soldiers in the field typically tote upwards of 100 pounds on their backs. Strap-on exoskeletons could make this vastly less stressful while also reducing the back injuries that are endemic in the army. Want to stave off the cognitive deficits caused by too little sleep? Or how about getting by on four hours a night? Something called transcranial magnetic stimulation can help you do that. Or maybe you’d like to move objects using only the power of your mind? It’s possible – and you don’t have to be Uri Geller. In 2011, the Guinness Book of World Records issued an award to the NeuroSky MindWave, a brainwave reader, for the “heaviest machine moved using a brain control interface.” The award-winning team used such a method to steer an industrial crane that hoisted a Volkswagen off the ground.

This is seriously mind-bending stuff – and other organs are getting involved, too. Soon to come, from the same company that brought you the MindWave: an electrocardiogram chip that lets you control your electronic devices using your heart energy. That’s right, your mobile will feel the love.

And this is just the beginning. As progress accelerates across materials science, robotics, neuroscience, biology, artificial intelligence, genomics and a host of other disciplines, human capabilities can be expected to emerge that seem utterly fantastical today.

Meanwhile, back on centre stage, there’s this thing called the sustainability crisis that urgently needs our attention. To date, two broad solution paths have been pursued. The first is resource efficiency. You know the drill: reduce, re-use, recycle, lay off the carbon. The second – which we may come to in any case if the first fails – is geoengineering: manipulating the planet’s natural systems to remove carbon dioxide, or deflect solar radiation, on a grand scale [see GF Special Edition, ‘Under new management’].

People like Herr, Mullins and Stelarc point toward a third way. Instead of re-engineering the planet, let’s try re-engineering the human! Worried about the size of the human footprint? Then shrink it – literally. This isn’t just wordplay. In an article scheduled for publication in the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment, academics S. Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache propose that we consider addressing climate change by building a smaller human. “We need a certain amount of food and nutrients to maintain each kilogram of body mass … Larger people also consume energy in less obvious ways. For example, a car uses more fuel per mile to carry a heavy person than a lighter person; more fabric is needed to clothe large people than smaller people” – and so on.

The authors provide a short list of ways to do this, including lowering human growth hormone levels. Speaking to The Atlantic, Liao acknowledged that “People might resist this idea because they think there is some sort of optimal – the average height in a given society, say. But, I think it’s worth remembering how fluid human traits like height are.A hundred years ago people were much shorter on average, and there was nothing wrong with them medically.”

Indeed, we rose to our present height in part by consuming so successfully: the same aptitudes which have, arguably, placed unprecedented pressure on natural resources.

Still, if a ‘shrink to fit’ approach is too fantastic or dubious a vision, there are other human engineering possibilities cited by the authors, too. These include chemically-induced meat intolerance to reduce beef consumption, lowering birth rates through cognitive improvement (“there seems to be a link between cognition itself and lower birth rates”, say Liao and co), and the pharmacological enhancement of altruism and empathy.

And then there are the possibilities they don’t mention. What about heat-resistant humans? Or digestively enhanced ones who get more energy per calorie of food consumed? Both are being actively researched by the US military, not to save the planet but to build a better soldier. And why stop here? What if brain-computer interfaces enabled people to have a fully immersive nature experience without ever leaving their living rooms? It might give the real thing a chance of staying in a pristine state – not to mention cutting down on all those air miles.

Bioengineering a sustainable human footprint may not be technically achievable yet, but it’s far from an unachievable fantasy. It’s as conceivable today as putting a man on the moon was in the 1950s – and we all know how that one turned out. What’s required at this point is cultural buy-in – and the conversation has now started. Many people, of course, are horrified at the prospect. When The Atlantic published its interview with New York University professor Liao about his forthcoming article, the Twitter-verse erupted in a paroxysm of outrage. There’s a case to be made for this approach, though, starting with the fact that the current approaches plainly aren’t working. There’s also the fact that bioengineering the natural environment is immensely risky, arguably a strategy of last resort. For all we know, human augmentation might be safer. (It’s better to have mutant people than a mutant planet...).

Nor is it all as distressingly newfangled as some assume. We’ve been doing human augmentation for centuries – that’s what eye glasses do, after all – and it’s been ramping up dramatically in recent decades. Want to improve your athletic, academic or sexual performance? Here, take these. Knees worn out? Try our titanium models, fit for another 30 years. Human augmentation is increasingly enabling formerly disabled people to become fully or even superabled. About a quarter of a million people worldwide now have cochlear implants, which restore sound by directly triggering the auditory nerves with surgically implanted electrodes. South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has run Olympic-qualifying times on prosthetic legs. And so it goes on…

There’s also an operational justification. As Anders Sandberg, one of the authors of the controversial article, points out: “Climate change and many other problems have upstream and downstream solutions. For example: 1) human consumption leads to 2) a demand for production and energy, which leads to 3) industry, which leads to 4) greenhouse gas emissions, which lead to 5) planetary heating, which leads to 6) bad consequences.” The most effective point of intervention is as far upstream as possible, with consumption—and that’s exactly where human bioengineering comes in.

And then there’s the divine justice argument. Humanity created the crisis: we should take total responsibility for resolving it, up to and including altering our own bodies. It’s corporeal karma.

But not necessarily good karma. Take resource consumption. History is littered with examples where efforts to curb problems here led to new ones elsewhere. Take, for example, ozone-busting CFCs, originally designed as a clean alternative to toxic refrigerants. There’s always the possibility that a technological enhancement will create an environmental burden that outweighs any eco-benefits. This would be the case, for instance, if large amounts of a scarce precious metal were used to upgrade broad swathes of humanity. Or if such a move simply triggered a notorious version of the rebound effect – resources saved here free up the opportunity to consume more there.

Two of the biggest question marks, of course, are those of governance and equity. Will human bioengineering be a perquisite of the rich? Will those unable to access it become members of a new, resentful underclass in a world designed for perfect specimens? Who will determine what technologies get permitted and how the goodies are distributed? It will take some mighty works of governance to even begin to unravel that little lot.

As Liao points out, we are a species in constant flux. Forget about fixed points, end stages, or any perfected anything. Humanity is a work-in-progress, and so, as it happens, is sustainability.

We tend to view challenges as items on a checklist. We solve something, stick it in the ‘done’ file and move on to the next problem. That’s not how things work with sustainability, though. We make headway and then new challenges surface. Any progress is iterative. Says futurist Jamais Cascio, "Transformative visions and big technology may get rid of the sustainability problems we face right now, but will very likely lead to new sustainability dilemmas. Sustainability isn’t an end point, it’s a fragile dynamic.”

Human bioengineering could possibly save the day: it could also deliver unintended undesirable outcomes. Most likely, it would solve some problems while creating new ones—and on we would go, muddling down time’s highway.

Sustainability is a story, and now it’s got a new character and plot line. Humanity 2.0: hero or villain? Read on, Matilda.

Carl Frankel has been covering issues related to business and sustainability for over two decades.

Photo: EAR ON ARM; London, Los Angeles, Melbourne 2006; Photographer: Nina Sellars; STELARC

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