Jason Andrew is the co-Editor (with Mae Empson) of the new anthology The Future Embodied, an anthology of speculative stories exploring how science and technology might change our bodies and what it means to be human. It’s available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.
The Future Embodied is an anthology of speculative stories exploring how science and technology might change our bodies and what it means to be human. Imagine what our ancestors a mere hundred years ago would have thought of the modern world. Think of the medical marvels we experience on a daily basis that would have seemed impossible. Recent medical advances have dramatically extended the human life-span to unthinkable lengths. Science has changed how we live in this world. Technology has allowed humanity to dramatically alter our environment, how we communicate, and how we experience life.
Imagine now what our descendants might experience. What new trials or tribulations will the future of humanity suffer, or overcome?
The final frontier won’t be out in space but inside our own bodies. Experience the future as imagined via nineteen powerful voices envisioning what we might become. Including stories from: William F. Nolan, David Gerrold, Ree Soesbee, Jennifer Brozek, Katrina Nicholson, Nghi Vo, Jennifer R. Povey, Sarah Pinsker, Thomas Brennan, Miles Britton, Megan Lee Beals, Lauren C. Teffeau, Shane Robinson, John Skylar, Preston Dennett, Alexandra Grunberg, Wayne Helge, and Holly Schofield.
I asked several of the antholgy’s authors the following question:
Here’s what they said…
“A New Man,” my story in The Future Embodied, came to me all at once. To me, the major changes in the future will involve robotics and allied disciplines. I believe we will eventually be dealing with nearly completely robotic individuals…
Parts of our bodies-arms, legs, bones, even internal organs-will not only be replaced due to wear-and-tear, but even printed for on-demand needs in battlefield conditions and so on. It’s already happening with the 3D printing revolution in medicine, the rise of nanotechnology and exoskeletons, stem cell advances, and gene and immunotherapy treatments… these technologies, from basic research to regenerative medicine, will allow us to prolong our lives using a combination of machinery and organic breakthroughs… It is a fascinating and exciting time to be alive.
Although my story’s about genetic engineering, I think the next big change is going to be lab-grown and artificial organs. We can now easily create such things as teeth, ears, faces, skulls…more than one person has a new esophagus. This ability to replace body parts without the need for donors will cause a shift in ethics – perhaps back towards a time when disturbing a body was considered sacrilege. It will also result in extended lifespans – and possibly an increase in social inequality. I see a profound change in health care and medicine in the near future, and this is just the first part of it.
I’m quite leery of making predictions. Shortly after they’re made, some upstart engineer usually invents something even more amazing than the predictor could’ve imagined. With that disclaimer, though, I feel that great revolutions in science always happen when we invent new technologies for visualizing the world. Whenever a scientist has a new device that shines a light into dark places, amazing things happen. Astronomy and physics changed radically when the telescope was invented. Biology went from balderdash to science with the invention of the microscope. Devices for measuring light, electricity, and radiation changed the world of physics.
Today, we’re on the edge of developing technologies that can image the brain at high resolution in real time. Today’s MRI, PET, and fMRI imaging systems will look like toys comparison to how these technologies will change in the near future. Even in my short scientific career they’ve changed in wild and exciting ways. I imagine that by the time I’m in my middle age, we will have imaging machines that can look at individual molecules in living brains.
Shining this light into the darkness of the brain is going to result in new understanding of how the brain is put together. That will make unpredictable things possible, beyond the current transhuman engineering problems of replacing body parts and developing adequate brain-machine interfaces. Those are child’s play compared to fixing the brain, which cannot just be grown in a vat and replaced. Major brain injury is catastrophic, and while I’ve met a few people I suspect are brain donors, brain transplantation isn’t an option.
With the ability to image the brain at high resolution, we will have a blueprint that we can use to repair damage and do amazing things. Psychiatry won’t mix drugs and talk sessions; instead, psychiatrists will be able to edit the brain’s physical circuits to cure disease. Damaged brain regions will be grown in labs and replaced, same day. Perhaps, entire replacement brains will be developed by this method. Eventually, entire large structures could be re-grown from a patient’s high-resolution imaging records, then gradually implanted to replace diseased areas. The hardest limitation on human life, the lifespan of the brain itself, will be lifted.
Of course, this will also create a “grandfather’s hammer” problem, wherein a person may have crippling doubts that their “new” brain doesn’t have the same personality as their original brain, despite being molecularly identical. Thankfully–and perhaps chillingly–a psychiatrist will be at hand to erase these doubts by microsurgery.
That’ll be an interesting day.
The ‘next big thing’ in human evolution, the one I’m most excited about, is actually the one this column names: the ‘mind-meld,’ the dissolution of privacy and the walls between individuals. I believe we’re already seeing it happen, that the transhumanist concept of ‘group-mind’ or ‘hive-mind’ is already forming around us, using the internet, and more specifically, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. as the first baby-steps toward a post-privacy, post-individual world. It’s only a matter of time and counter-culture drive (it’s always those who seek to shock, riding the crest of the wave) before implants and neurological computers have replaced tablets and Google Glass, before people need only think or speak an idea on a whim to have it broadcast to everyone on your feed. From there, it’s not hard to imagine being given enough processing power to live, two, four, ten lives at once, plugged into the thoughts of your friends and lovers, knowing others with the kind of intimacy you formerly only had for yourself.
From there, imagine connecting with any mind willing to join with yours. You could offer the check-out clerk at the grocery store genuine empathy, by feeling, even if for a moment, her tired feet, her sore wrists. A doctor could experience a patient’s symptoms exactly, and offer just the right sort of care. And imagine, if you will, being able to spend a long, mindless day at work, and not be bored once, because you’re simultaneously experiencing your husband’s, your wife’s, your best friend’s day off, whether they’re parked in front of a television, or on vacation halfway across the world.
I’m certainly not claiming to be wide-minded enough to know whether this kind of societal change will be an entirely positive one, or whether it will survive to fruition. Certainly, the specter of capitalism and advertising hovers over the idea, casting a pretty hefty shadow. What are the ethics of ‘pay to experience’, as demonstrated in the film Strange Days? Would addiction be a factor? What happens when a mental link is established using coercion or force? (I’d be happy to hear from anyone who’s read a good musing on this subject that I haven’t; by all means, send story names my way!) I will say, though, that I’ve read stories in the genre (Geoffrey A. Landiss’ ‘The Long Chase’ comes to mind as a wonderful example) that suggest that a linkage of minds isn’t something to run screaming from, that taking others into ourselves can only expand us as human beings, not damage us, that a closer, more perfect connection with our fellow man could only usher in an age of spectacular compassion and fearlessness.
I think the next big change will be cosmetic; new technology as fashion, possibly into the realm of body modification. Implants to keep us wired even more than we already are to the computers in our pockets. It won’t be as subtle as we’re capable of making it, though. Nobody bought the Prius when it just looked like another Toyota. The cutting edge has a look, it has to be visible, perhaps in gold filaments through the eyes. And even though the character in my story was born with her third eye, I think a wired third eye would be as striking as it would be useful. So long as I can shut it off when I’m starting to get a little loopy on twitter. So I don’t see a true alteration in our lives, only a faster lane on the road we’re travelling. But I hope that as we try to synch ever closer with our devices, it will drive an even stronger need to understand the brain, and with that, an elimination of the diseases that destroy the brain from the inside out.
I’m really hoping that cognitive enhancements will take us into the future with delightful leaps and bounds. However amazing having a cybernetic arm capable of lightning-fast moves or delicate surgery would be, think how even more useful (and fun!) increased cognitive speed and mental acuity would make it. Neural stimulation and other techniques will sharpen up the average person and make us all near-geniuses, and the elimination of neurological diseases and mental illnesses will add to our well-being. It’s going to rock!
Stem cell applications are already showing a great deal of promise for tissue replacement and regeneration, and I think we’ll see tremendous gains there. However, I suspect that the most pervasive impacts are going to derive from genetics. Genetic screening, selection, and tailored genetic therapies have the potential to treat or eliminate a wide range of diseases within a few generations in those nations that can afford the technologies. In a hundred years people could be telling their kids that they have no idea what it was like when cancer and various chronic diseases like diabetes were common, much like the way we talk about polio or measles today. Risk for conditions such as depression and Alzheimer’s disease could be identified and reduced or eliminated prenatally. The public health impact will be much bigger than vaccinations, and that’s before you get into designer children. Likewise, genetically modified food supplies will be reducing starvation and eliminating birth defects caused by malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies on a vast scale, unless the anti-science crowd blocks that process through political means.
It’s not the first thing that comes to mind for most people, but big data applications in medical surveillance are going to have an enormous impact. Medical research is challenging, and findings about whether something is good or bad for you, and how much, or which treatments are more effective than others are often conflicting because of differences in methodology, samples, and chance factors, even if the research is conducted properly. As larger portions of the population get shifted into electronic medical records those data bases will give us unprecedented research capacity. Imagine the data from hundreds of millions of people being followed prospectively across the lifespan (in the aggregate only, with individual’s identities fire-walled for anonymity) – we will be in a position to get definitive answers to basic questions about health, disease process, and lifestyle factors. It’s not the stuff of sexy science fiction, but the benefits are going to be tremendous.
Advances in communication technology. Full stop. We can map achievements in human history to that of our communication technology: the oral tradition, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Gutenberg’s printing press, the first television broadcast, and now our post-internet culture. Improvements in devices, interfaces, wearables, and mobile technology, will create frictionless communication-instant, reliable, convenient. And this, in turn, will change us as we adapt to take advantage of these advances.
Handwriting is already being dropped from school curriculums. Will typing survive the next generation or so? Doubtful. It takes too long. Same with speech as our mouths struggle to keep pace with our brains. Communication technology will improve so much that how we interface with it will change our interpersonal interactions, our social mores, our cultural values. These very changes I tried to explore in my story “Resonance” for the anthology. When, not if, communication technology is so good we no longer have to speak or write but merely use a device to transmit our thoughts in the same manner we send texts today, humanity will take another leap forward. I only question what we might be leaving behind.
I think Almost Human has it right. The last big science and technology revolution (computing) has paved the way for a biomedical revolution that’s about to change the world. I doubt we’ll have sarcastic police androids by 2048, but computerized prosthetics? Artificial organs? Bioengineered plagues? Nanobot surgery? Embryos with genetic risk factors engineered out of them? Totally. In some cases, we already have the technology. Once testing/licensing is complete and people have access to the next cool new toy, I think we’ll see advancements come in the kind of leaps and bounds that personal computing has made in the last few decades, bringing prices down and putting the technology within reach for almost everyone. In thirty years, I bet wheelchairs will be occupying museum space next to telegraphs and slide rules.
As technology improves, we are seeing not only an increase in lifespan, but also an improvement in human abilities. Currently we have procedures such as radial karatotomy to improve eyesight to normal levels and cochlear implants to allow normal hearing. But if trends continue, similar procedures might soon bring our perceptive abilities to superhuman levels, such as allowing us to perceive light in different spectrums, see with telescopic vision or hear beyond normal human range. Imagine being able to x-ray someone with your own eyes, or being able to smell cancer tumors with your own nose. These kinds of abilities could very well be in our future, perhaps much sooner than many people think.
I think the next big change for humanity is already starting to happen: the ability to implant computers and biomachines within the body to augment and enhance the body’s ability. I believe in the next 10-20 years, implantable computer/phone devices will be mainstream-at least for those who can afford them. These devices will be more for entertainment, aesthetics, and communication purposes than for fixing something that is actually wrong with the body. Though, those sorts of surgery will be available and even more commonplace than they are today.
While these biocomputers and biomachines will be available to balance blood sugar, regulate hormones, replace a limb, I think we will see implantable smartphone-like devices that will allow a person to download and privately playback everything from music to movies to games. A logical extrapolation will be, for the entertainment specifically made for the implanted device, the entertainment would include chemical signals to the brain to enhance the pleasure of entertainment in ways we can only imagine. Think about the idea of music that includes a sense of taste or a movie that includes a sense of smell or a game that includes small pushes to stimulate the pleasure center of the brain as the gamer succeeds at something.
It is this sort of innovation that will open up whole new industries from content provider to hardware provider to system security to biomechanical surgeon to on-call biomechanical technician. I think the more we modify the body, the more society will change to support it.
My story, “Toca la Guitarra,” is about using robotic arms to create (or recreate) perfect music. In reality, I believe the next big change for humanity will be much more subtle and detrimental. We’ve already seen athletes go to extreme measures to chemically enhance their bodies so that they can compete at a world-class level. Sadly, I believe this strategy will bleed over into the professional world and academia, on a mental/emotional scale. It’s a simple case of numbers. There may be many qualified applicants for a job or promotion, but who has the unique gifts to excel? It will no longer be enough to be smart and hard-working. If a person does not also have a genetic predisposition toward maintaining an extended focus, or enduring long periods without sleep, or making one more sale a day, there will be two options: accept the shortcomings and miss out on desirable assignments, or seek help through enhancements/modifications. The exact nature of the mods will be job-specific, and may take the form of chemical enhancements (e.g. a researcher taking a drug that improves the brain’s ability to spot relationships among variables), or even surgical enhancements (e.g. an airline pilot who has to undergo eye surgery for better than 20/20 vision). Further, each will come with a cost: fewer years at the peak level; risky side effects; lingering side effects. And with student loans piling up (yes, the pending academic tuition crisis plays a role in this scenario), for some it will be an issue of their very survival. In order to compete today, people will knowingly give up on tomorrow.
I believe that the next big change in humanity will be with our relationship to the food we eat, particularly in the production and consumption of meat. The current demand has led to unfavorable conditions in factory farms, both in the moral issues surrounding the the quality of life for the animals as well as how that abuse affects the product that we are being allowed to ingest. Either there will have to be a change, a limitation, a personal discipline in the amount we consume, so as to allow a healthier product to become available that fulfills a lessoning demand, or else there will be a change in regulations of what we are allowed to consume, what producers will be allowed to label as “beef,” “chicken,” etc. The consumption of such pseudo-products will alter our bodies in ways we have yet to understand, leaving us to evolve into the ability to ingest products previously unusable, or suffering the results of our bodies being unable to do so.
When it comes to changes for humanity on a global level, it’s going to be related to the understanding of other humans as human. Communication technology allows people to reach out in ways that they never have before, opening up the world and shining lights towards odd corners and crevices. Every day, the world gets a little smaller and a little smaller, and the result is a group of people learning to live in each other’s pockets. Whether this familiarity leads to an increase in empathy or a marked ability to see other people as entertainment is something that is yet to be seen.
Whenever I start daydreaming about all the amazing things that the future holds in store, I always have to step back and remind myself of one thing: baseball. I love baseball. I try to catch a game whenever it’s on TV. Since most games aren’t televised, though, I usually can only listen to them on radio-just like people did almost 100 years ago. (The Phillies, the team I root for, actually played the first game ever broadcast, in 1921). And, sure, I might be listening to the game through my car stereo, or through the radio in my kitchen via satellite and my iPod, but I still have a feeling that people from the ’20s would be severely, severely disappointed. Not only are there no flying cars or jet packs or colonies on Mars, you’ve got people like me still listening to the Phillies-lose-on the radio. So much for the “future.”
So while I’d love to envision humanities’ next big change as something so grand it’s barely imaginable, I’m going to limit myself to something that’s neither SF-sexy nor all that new: 3D-printing. It’s a technology that’s still in its infancy, and its possibilities for the future are staggering. As the technology advances and becomes more cost-friendly, its future impact has the chance to benefit just about everything, from manufacturing, the medical field (e.g., building living tissue and organs), and environmental sustainability (e.g., reducing excess waste due to less scraps), to famine and the restaurant industry (e.g., printed food) and affordable housing, just to name a few.
Of course, as with the advent of the internet, its effect on our personal lives likely won’t be felt for awhile. 3-D printers for the home will mostly be a play toy for the rich, but behind the scenes the technology will be subtly changing almost every aspect of our world. So, yeah, while people in the future might still be listening to baseball on the radio, now that radio will have been printed exactly to order. As might the ears that are listening.