We’re all on a lifelong journey to improve ourselves, spiritually, mentally and physically. Unfortunately, the ‘lifelong’ part of that statement can sound like an awfully long process for many, especially for those born into rough circumstances or with a mental or physical disability.
Whether you want to become part machine. Whether you want to become superhuman. Or whether you want to become an entirely new species of human. The human body is about to become the next great operating system that future hackers (or biohackers) will tinker with. Put another way, tomorrow's killer app could be the ability to see hundreds of new colors, as opposed to a game where you fling angry birds at big-headed, egg-stealing pigs.
This mastery over biology will represent a profound new power, one never before seen in history.
In previous chapters of our Future of Human Evolution series, we explored how changing beauty norms and the inevitable trend towards genetically engineered designer babies will dictate the future of human evolution for the generations ahead of us. In this chapter, we explore the tools that will allow us to reshape human evolution, or at the very least, our own bodies, within our lifetime.
The slow creep of machines inside our bodies
Whether it’s individuals living with pacemakers or cochlear implants for the deaf, many people today are already living with machines inside them. These devices are generally medical implants designed to regulate body functions or be a prosthetic to damaged organs.
Originally discussed in chapter four of our Future of Health series, these medical implants will soon become advanced enough to safely replace complex organs like the heart and liver. They will also become more widespread, especially once pinky-toe-sized implants can start monitoring your health, share the data wirelessly with your health app, and even ward off most illnesses when detected. And by the late 2030s, we’ll even have an army of nanobots swimming through our bloodstream, healing injuries and killing any infectious virus or bacteria they find.
While these medical technologies will do wonders for extending and improving the lives of the sick and injured, they will also find users among the healthy.
Cyborgs among us
The turning point in our adoption of machine over flesh will begin gradually once artificial organs become superior to biological organs. A godsend for those in urgent need of organ replacement, over time these organs will also spark the interest of adventurous biohackers.
For example, in time we'll begin to see a small minority opting to replace their healthy, God-given heart with a superior artificial heart. While that may sound extreme to most, these future cyborgs they will enjoy a life free of heart disease, as well as an enhanced cardiovascular system, since this new heart could potentially pump blood more efficiently for longer durations, without getting exhausted.
Similarly, there will be those who opt to ‘upgrade’ to an artificial liver. This could theoretically allow individuals the ability to directly manage their metabolism, not to mention make them more resistant to consumed toxins.
Generally speaking, tomorrow's machine-obsessed will have the ability to replace almost any organ and most any limb with an artificial replacement. These prosthetics will be stronger, more resilient against damage, and will just plain function better overall. That said, only a very small subculture will voluntarily opt for extensive, mechanical, body part replacements, largely due to future societal taboos around the practice.
This last point doesn’t necessarily mean that implants will be shunned by the public entirely. In fact, the coming decades will see a range of more subtle implants beginning to see mainstream adoption (without turning us all into Robocops).
The enhanced vs hybrid brain
Mentioned in the previous chapter, future parents will use genetic engineering to increase their children's intelligence potential. Over many decades, maybe a century, this will lead to a generation of humans far more intellectually advanced than preceding generations. But why wait?
Already we're seeing a subculture emerge in the developed world of people experimenting with nootropics—drugs that enhance cognitive ability. Whether you prefer a simple nootropic stack like caffeine and L-theanine (my fav) or something more advanced like the piracetam and choline combo or prescription drugs like Modafinil, Adderall and Ritalin, these all generate various degrees of increased concentration and memory recall. Over time, new nootropic drugs will hit the market with ever more powerful brain-boosting effects.
But no matter how advanced our brains become through genetic engineering or nootropic supplementation, they will never match the brainpower of the hybrid mind.
Along with the health tracking implant described earlier, the other electronic implant to see mainstream adoption will be a tiny re-programmable RFID chip implanted inside your hand. The operation will be as simple and common as getting your ear pierced. More important, we'll use these chips in a variety of ways; imagine waving your hand to open doors or pass security checkpoints, unlock your phone or access your protected computer, pay at the checkout, start your car. No more forgetting keys, carrying a wallet or remembering passwords.
Such implants will gradually make the public more comfortable with electronics operating inside them. And over time, this comfort will progress towards people integrating computers inside their brains. It may sound far-fetched now, but consider the fact that your smartphone is rarely more than a few feet away from you at any given time. Inserting a supercomputer inside your head is just a more convenient place to put it.
Whether this machine-brain hybrid comes about from an implant or via an army of nanobots swimming through your brain, the result will be the same: an Internet-enabled mind. Such individuals will be able to mix human intuition with the web's raw processing power, kind of like having a Google search engine inside your brain. Then soon after, when all these minds interact with each other online, we'll see the emergence of a global hive mind and metaverse, a theme more fully described in chapter nine of our Future of the Internet series.
Given all this, questions arise about whether a planet filled exclusively with geniuses can even function … but that we’ll explore in a future article.
Genetically engineered superhumans
For most people, becoming half-man, half-machine cyborgs isn’t the natural picture people conjure up when they think of the term superhuman. Instead, we imagine humans with powers much like those we read in our childhood comic books, powers like super speed, super strength, super senses.
While we'll gradually phase these traits into future generations of designer babies, the demand for these powers today is just as high as they will be in the future. For example, let's look at professional sports.
Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) are rampant in almost every major sports league. They are used to generate more powerful swings in baseball, run faster in track, endure longer in cycling, hit harder in American football. In between, they are used to recover faster from workouts and practices, and especially from injuries. As the decades progress, PEDs will be replaced by genetic doping where gene therapy is used to restructure your body’s genetic makeup to give you the benefits of PEDs without the chemicals.
The issue of PEDs in sports has existed for decades and will only get worse over time. Future drugs and gene therapies will make performance enhancement near undetectable. And once designer babies mature into full-grown, adult super athletes, will they even be allowed to compete against naturally born athletes?
Enhanced senses open up new worlds
As humans, it's not something we often (if ever) consider, but in reality, the world is far richer than we can perceive. To really understand what I mean by that, I want you to focus on that last word: perceive.
Think about it this way: It's our brain that helps us make sense of the world around us. And it does this not by floating above our heads, looking around, and controlling us with an Xbox controller; it does this by being trapped inside a box (our noggins) and processing whatever information it's given from our sensory organs—our eyes, nose, ears, etc.
But just as the deaf or the blind live much smaller lives compared to able-bodied people, due to the limitations their disability places upon how they can perceive the world, the exact same thing can be said for all humans due to the limitations of our basic set of sensory organs.
Consider this: Our eyes perceive less than a ten-trillionth of all light waves. We can’t see gamma rays. We can’t see x-rays. We can’t see ultraviolet light. And don’t get me started on infrared, microwaves, and radio waves!
All kidding aside, imagine what your life would be like, how you would perceive the world, if you could see more than the tiny sliver of light your eyes currently allow. Likewise, imagine how you would perceive the world if your sense of smell equaled that of a dog or if your sense of hearing equaled that of an elephant.
As humans, we essentially see the world through a peephole. But through future genetic engineering procedures, humans will one day have the option to see through a giant window. And in so doing, our umwelt will expand (ahem, word of the day). Some people will opt to supercharge their sense of hearing, sight, smell, touch, and/or taste—not to mention nine to twenty lesser senses we often forget about—in an effort to expand how they perceive the world around them.
That said, let's not forget that in nature there exists far more senses than the broadly recognized human ones. For example, bats use echolocation to see the world around them, many birds have magnetites that allow them to orient to the Earth's magnetic field, and Black Ghost Knifefish have electroreceptors that let them detect electrical changes around them. Any of these senses can theoretically be added to the human body either biologically (through genetic engineering) or technologically (through neuroprosthetic implants) and studies have shown that our brains will quickly adapt and integrate these new or heightened senses into our day-to-day perception.
Overall, these enhanced senses will not only give their recipients unique powers but also a unique insight into the world around them that was never before possible in human history. But for these individuals, how will they continue to interact with society and how will society interact with them? Will future sensoryglots treat traditional humans the same way able-bodied people treat people with disabilities today?
The transhuman age
You might have heard the term used once or twice among your nerdier set of friends: Transhumanism, the movement to shift humanity forward to through the application of superior physical, intellectual, psychological abilities. Likewise, a transhuman is anyone who adopts one or more of the physical and mental enhancements described above.
As we explained, this grand shift will be gradual:
- (2025-2030) First through the eventual mainstream use of implants and PEDs for the mind and body.
- (2035-2040) Then we'll see designer baby tech introduced, first to prevent our children from being born with life-threatening or debilitating conditions, then later to ensure our children enjoy all the benefits that come with superior genes.
- (2040-2045) Around the same time, niche subcultures will form around the adoption of enhanced senses, as well as the augmentation of the flesh with machine.
- (2050-2055) Soon after, once we master the science behind brain-computer interface (BCI), all of humanity will start connecting their minds into a global Metaverse, like the Matrix but not as evil.
- (2150-2200) And finally, all of these stages will lead to humanity’s final evolutionary form.
This shift in the human condition, this merging of man and machine, will finally allow humans to gain mastery over their physical form and intellectual potential. How we use this mastery will largely depend on the social norms promoted by future cultures and techno-religions. And yet, the story of humanity's evolution remains far from over.