Wednesday, September 11, 2013

You are replaceable...in the good way



The above is art by Adam Novagen found on DeviantArt.com.
 

"But it's just science fiction."

Spoiler alert: that's the title of an upcoming lecture I'm giving on transhumanism.  I'll be attempting to impress upon college students that the concepts of transhumanism that one finds in fiction (such as cybernetics) are very much realities in many ways.

That's one reason why I was happy to see the cover story for this month's Smithsonian magazine: "Creating the New Human." I'd give you a link, but all I'm getting is a subscription pitch when I try to go to the site.  Great magazine, but I find that perturbing.  So I'll give you a rundown.

Yes, we are "creating the new human." The article profiles a few individuals who are already transhuman in that they have had limbs replaced by cybernetic components: arms with flesh-like covering over mechanical endoskeleton, legs with fully articulated ankles (a major advancement), and bionic hands that are controlled by an iPhone app, giving the user a menu choice of 24 different grips.  Bionics have indeed come a long way, but what people might not realize is just how much of the body is now or soon will be replaceable.  The Smithsonian issue had a two-page photo of a "million dollar man" construct made of these "robotic" body parts.  A few of the more astonishing ones to my reckoning were:

-Spleen.  Blood goes through a device that uses microscopic beads coated with proteins.  As blood is processed by the device, bacteria and fungi are removed.

-Pancreas.  There is a prototype now of what is essentially a gelatinous blob filled with glucose.  As the material senses rises or drops in blood sugar level, the gelatin either thickens or grows more porous accordingly.

-Blood.  Why not control blood composition altogether?  Inventors are close to coming up with "designer molecules" that are combinations of synthetic polymers and organics that will hold on to iron atoms and then distribute oxygen throughout the body.  Nanotech may make this process even more effective.

In light of all of this, it's no surprise that a few technologists are gushing that disabilities...of any kind...may be a thing of the past by the end of the 21st Century.

The other reason I was glad to read this cover story was not just for my lecture.  Or even for the benefit of the college kids (even though that is my primary commitment in this case.)  I'm just glad to see transhumanism out in front of people.  The mantra of "but it's just science fiction" is not confined to any one population.  These changes are coming and it's time to dispel the irrational fears.  We're not just creating a new human, we're creating a new definition of "human."

Replacing body parts is not a destruction of humanity.  It's using human intelligence to either correct a problem or enhance the original version.


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