Since the introduction of agriculture, repeated technological revolutions have transformed the economy, the society and humankind at an increasing velocity of disruption. Photo: Denis Farrell/AP
Since the introduction of agriculture, repeated technological revolutions have transformed the economy, the society and humankind at an increasing velocity of disruption. Photo: Denis Farrell/AP

Four technologies changing human nature

By Louis Fourie Time of article published Feb 28, 2020

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CAPE TOWN – At no time in the history of humankind has humanity progressed technologically at the present exponential rate. Since the introduction of agriculture, repeated technological revolutions have transformed the economy, the society and humankind at an increasing velocity of disruption. In particular four technologies are changing human nature and society, namely genetic engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence and nano technologies.

Genetic engineering endeavours to improve and alter the human germline to increase intelligence, stop age retardation, create designer babies, and regenerate or 3D print organs. Robotics and artificial intelligence strives to create autonomous machines with greater intelligence than humans. In addition to the amazing material graphene, nanotechnology attempts to introduce many more super materials, as well as nanobots that could roam our bloodstreams and change medicine and our health forever.

But deep under this drive to enhance human beings and to eradicate all illness and diseases lies the human desire for immortality – at least to some extent. Over the ages humans have sought immortality through religion, the frantic procreation of children to carry our precious genes into the future, and lately through groundbreaking technology.

An indication of the desire of immortality is apparent from the trillions of rand that people worldwide spend on anti-ageing products such as lactic acid based anti-wrinkle creams, collagen peptide tablets, and antioxidant coenzyme Q10 tablets.

Similarly billions of rand are invested in research into the use of embryonic stem cells to rebuild cell and tissue function; editing the mitochondrial genome to regulate metabolism and cell death; and age-related diseases. Many companies are searching for the magic pill that will eventually stop the ageing process that starts immediately after birth.  And if we could cure ageing, we could by implication also ensure immortality.

Currently several technologies are being researched for their ability to prevent ageing. Research is, for instance, done on a chemical substance called nicotinamide riboside, an alternative form of vitamin B3 that is converted by the body into an enzyme called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+), which has an active role in our metabolism, cell ageing and the protection of nerve cells. Certain studies claim that the chemical caused older mice to appear and act younger, as well as reduced age-related diseases. Although twenty-one trials are currently being conducted, there have been no conclusive trials with regard to humans.

At the Buck Institute for research on aging in California, fruit flies are studied. Researchers were able to identify the FOXO gene, which assists the young to adapt to dietary changes, but disrupts the metabolism of elderly fruit flies and humans. The researchers believe that their research will eventually help to understand why dietary restrictions increase the lifespan in several species, including humans.

In Stockport in the United Kingdom a DNA Biobank or bio-repository containing hundreds of thousands of biological samples have been established. This study of human genomics has been following 500 000 volunteers who were between 40 and 69 years old when they enrolled in the research in 2006. Projects like these have assisted in the understanding of the connections between parental long life and children’s risk of age-related diseases; the micro-structural changes in ageing brains; the genes that affect ageing; and the chromosome structure that has an impact on longevity.

The Cryomed Clinic in Tokyo, Japan, opened a cryo-sauna many years ago to offer cryotherapy to slow the ageing of human tissue. Just as people practising sport limit the inflammation by placing ice packs on swollen tissue and cryo-surgery use extreme cold to destroy tumours or tissues with disease, a cryo-sauna involves a short bath in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -100°C to speed up the metabolism, strengthen the immune system, and slow tissue aging.

A South African engineer, living in China, developed an ultraviolet treatment called Hyperthermic Ozone Carbonic Acid Transdermal Therapy, which entails the pumping of carbon-dioxide-rich steam into a special pod to open the pores of a person. Once the pores have been opened, the pod is flooded with ultraviolet light and ozone, an allotrope of the oxygen molecule. Ozone is well-known as an anti-inflammatory and immune system booster and according to research it may have anti-ageing characteristics through the reduction of free radicals in cell mitochondria.

The Leibniz-Fritz Lipmann Institute in Germany that studies longevity focuses on the regression of stem cells – the basic cells found throughout the human body that preserve organs and tissue. The institute was able to identify a gene switch common to mice and humans that can produce a protein that damages the metabolism and thus leads to faster aging in mice. However, the process can be controlled through a restricted diet.

Other research focuses on bio-medical engineering solutions. Over the last few years the integration of humankind and machine has gained traction through augmented reality, direct broadband brain-computer interfaces, microchip brain implants, artificial organs, and orthopaedic implants created through bioengineering and nanotechnology.

Already in 1966 the use of technology to enhance a human’s mental and physical capacities has led to the creation of the term “transhumanism” to indicate a stage in human development where the intellect and physiology of human beings are greatly enhanced by sophisticated technologies. The focus of transhumanism is to eventually establish a “posthuman” species in the future that might be able to live eternally due to ground-breaking research in the fields of biotechnology, medical science, computer science, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. 

“Posthuman” refers to a beyond-human stage of infinite mental and physical augmentation and modification, immortality, as well as age- and disease resistance. Although greatly enhanced, the physical body of humans that is no longer limited by disease and aging still carries the inherent risk of accidents and physical damage. Therefore the ideal is to finally dispose of the physical body (the “hardware”) after the content of the human brain has been conveyed to a robot body or a super computer in order to sustain the human consciousness (the “software”). This “mind uploading” is the ultimate goal where the union of human and intelligent machine finally sets the human consciousness and intellect free from its limiting physical, biological and time constraints.

Transhumanism is based on the foundational believe that the current form of human beings is a comparative early phase on the developmental path of homo sapiens. Therefore humans should be improved through technologies that can eliminate disease, disability and mortality, and also greatly augment human mental and physical capacities. This hypothetical future species (homo technicus or techno sapiens) is, however, no longer unambiguously human by current standards due to cybernetic enhancements and self-perfection.

In future it will be difficult to know what is real since the idea of the natural will disappear. Organs will be regularly replaced and designer babies will be born through genetic editing of stem cells. Humans will give up their humanness for non-biological intelligence and technological “fixes.” Due to the increase in intellect, reasoning, and logic, technology may become an instrument of human arrogance.

Unfortunately, the more science and technology assist people to understand the world and themselves and to manipulate their circumstances, the less sure they become about the broader meaning and purpose of being human. Humans can easily become “servo-mechanisms” that are subjected to the operating conditions imposed by the technology they have developed.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist. [email protected]

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