It is often said that whereas the 20th century was the century of physics, the 21st will be the century of biology. And as our understanding of life advances and deepens, this will no doubt result in more and more effective treatments for mental and physical illness. But we will not stop there. Not only will we improve our treatment of the sick, we will also enhance the lives of the healthy. Where this enhancement will lead is impossible to say, but one thing looks certain: it will change what it means to be human.
According to writers like Ray Kurzweil, humans will ultimately blend with machines, forming a new species. But even in the short term there are likely to be dramatic changes. Indeed, the 21st century may even come to be seen as the "age of enhancement." Some embrace this enthusiastically. So-called "Transhumanists," as the name suggests, wish to transcend what evolution has bequeathed and replace it with something better.
First, there will be better pharmaceuticals. But these will not be used just to treat illness. People will swallow pills to make them smarter, happier, thinner, cleverer, and so on. They already do of course. But in the future these medications will improve beyond all recognition. And they will come in new forms: patches, vapourisers, maybe even blended with your food.
Though taking pills and drugs may be nothing new, taking ones that work is. Even as late as 1842, the American physician Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, probably correctly, "if all the medicines in the world were thrown into the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes." Take something as trivial as baldness. For centuries men have hated losing their hair and have rubbed oils and lotions into their scalps in the hope of restoring it. Today, they can swallow pills, use minoxodil foam, even DHT-blocking shampoos, that really do slow hair loss and stimulate regrowth.
Bioelectronics will be another way in which we enhance our bodies and minds (Bioelectronics cover any electrical or prosthetic device that connects with the human brain). Or take nanotechnology. Dr Sonia Contera, a researcher into medical nanotech at Oxford University, recently said "I feel I am at the beginning of a huge intellectual revolution." Stem cell research may also yield interesting results. Perhaps most bizarre of all, "bioprinting" will be available. In his book 25 Things you Need to Know About the Future, Chris Barnatt writes, "the future bioprinter will repair the human body in situ...want bigger muscles? Visit your local clinic and have them printed into your body that afternoon."
More fundamentally still, we will interfere with the very genes that make the individual who he is. As the molecular biologist Robert Sinsheimer put it, "for the first time...a living creature understands its origin and can design its future."
It is interesting to observe the way science fiction writers and movie makers ignore these changes when they try to imagine the future. Watch a sci-fi film, for example, and you will see flying cars, inter-galactic travel, even alien beings, but the human inhabitants of these future societies look just like us. Almost certainly they won't.
Most obviously, human beings will alter their physical appearance and abilities. Again, this has already begun. Just look at athletics. There are now so many performance-enhancing drugs available that some believe attempting to control or regulate them is pointless.
It may also be more common to have machine parts incorporated into the body. For example, bones might be replaced with carbon nanotube enforcers. At present, soldiers who have lost limbs and even elderly people who have fallen and broken their hip, can all have implants and attachments. But what happens when the implants and attachments are not only indistinguishable from the real thing but also much, much better? Maybe healthy people will opt to have limbs removed and replaced. Some predict that eventually an ordinary, average person who has been fully "upgraded" in this way will be quicker, stronger and more agile than the world's outstanding footballers and athletes.
And what about physical appearance? Not only will synthetic biology keep people wrinkle-free, we may even be able to change someone's physical appearance altogether! According to Chris Barnatt, "specialist bioprinters may enable in situ removal and replacement of the human face," leading to people choosing a 3D scan of what they wish to look like and then having it applied as, in Barnatt's words, "the ultimate form of makeup."
Today, there are numerous drugs to raise mood, lower anxiety, and improve concentration. But such drugs are used to correct a fault. So, for example, anti-depressants are prescribed to people who suffer with a "mood disorder," while drugs like Xanax and Klonopin are reserved for those who experience anxiety and panic attacks. Again, this is set to change. David King, chief scientific adviser to the British government, predicted in 2011 that future drugs would be so effective and so precise that we would take them to "subtly alter our mood to match that of our friends."
The author Zack Lynch has renamed this the "neurosociety", in which the brain and nervous system are so thoroughly understood, and our control over them so complete, that we will decide how we feel and how we experience the world. Some, like the Oxford professor David Pearce, have even suggested that we have a moral duty to develop such drugs and predicts a post-Darwinian future, in which mood-brighteners and gene-therapies make "paradise engineering" a "practical possibility."
Research strongly suggests that I.Q. is largely inherited. No matter how many private tutors you employ, your child will never win a place at Harvard or Oxford if the intellect isn't there! Creativity also seems to be largely a matter of inheritance. Creative writing courses and self-help books may suggest otherwise, but countless individuals have driven themselves to breaking point trying to produce great art, poetry, or music, only to bitterly conclude that they simply don't have the talent.
Not only will we be able to change and improve someone's mood, we will also be able to raise their I.Q. and possibly even boost their creativity. Indeed, we already can. Drugs developed to improve the memory of dementia sufferers and the concentration levels of hyperactive children are now routinely used by college students. There are even drugs available that increase the clarity and processing power of the mind. It is therefore unsurprising to learn that around 30% of U.S. college students have tried such drugs.
The problem with new technology is that it can be very difficult to predict not only when it will occur but what the broader impact will be. For example, will everyone have access to these new inventions? Or, as seems more likely, will the rich get them first? It is almost certain that these technologies will be constantly upgraded, that the newest upgrades will be expensive, and that the rich will therefore always be ahead of the majority. How could the child of poor parents then compete at college? Or when applying for a job?
More generally, should we interfere in nature's design, or, if you are religious, in God's plan? Surely it is the very fragility and brevity of life that makes it so precious and meaningful. If we were always happy and healthy, inhabiting upgraded bodies that endured for centuries, there would be no need for courage or self-development. And if everyone could have their I.Q. artificially raised, would anyone ever feel a sense of achievement?
Those who defend biological enhancement argue that this is nothing new. Human beings have always sought to enhance themselves, ever since they first wore the skin or fur of an animal to keep out the cold. Even a primitive hunting spear is a form of enhancement. It is also worth pointing out to those who talk of meddling with the "wisdom of mother nature" that nature is staggeringly cruel. For many, enhancement is not only desirable but is a moral duty. Whatever your feelings, these technologies are coming – and soon.