Human augmentation: where it’s at and where it’s headed

Jun 04 2021

CREDIT: Getty Images

Humans can do some pretty impressive things. We can train ourselves to hold our breath in order to free dive hundreds of feet... 702, to be precise. We can, at our fastest, run 27.5 km per hour. Our bodies can fight cancer. We can write music that changes the world. Some of us can even master quantum physics. 

Humans are constantly breaking boundaries as we push ourselves to the limits of what’s possible. Sometimes this happens naturally; evolution, hardcore training, or a miraculous talent. Human augmentation, meanwhile, is the field of science and tech that can enhance human abilities – through medicine, genetic engineering, and increasingly, neural technology. 

Superhero and science-fiction movies like to imagine what life can be like with superpowers, but extra strength, telekinesis, and superintelligence might, one day sooner than we think, become a reality. We’re already well on the way.

Human augmentation – modifying what we were born with – is not a totally new phenomenon. We’ve been editing our bodies cosmetically for a long time. Tattoos have been around for an estimated 12,000 years. Even plastic surgery is 100 years old, invented as we know it today to reconstruct soldiers faces’ after the First World War. 

Around the world today, millions of people are already engaging with forms of human augmentation to improve their lives and help their bodies function better. Replication technologies recreate functions that humans have that might be depleted. The company Naked Prosthetics, for instance, can replicate amputated fingers with extremely high dexterity, eSight is a wearable device with cameras that allows legally blind individuals to see their environment by displaying images on a screen very close to the eye, while Cochlear implants work similarly to recreate hearing. But beyond replication, tech is emerging to not just supplement but enhance our abilities. 

First up there’s the physical. Exoskeletons are wearable, mechanical bodysuits that can improve strength or endurance. The Sarcos Guardian, for example, is an industrial exoskeleton that allows a human worker to lift up to 200 pounds. Recently, researchers at University College London have even been developing a robotic extra thumb that users can learn to control with their toes for extra dexterity. Named “The Third Thumb Project” it’s an experiment in how our brain adapts to bodily extensions. 

These devices might sound remote from everyday use, but powerful enhancement tech is already on the market. In 2020, Nike released the Vaporfly sneakers. With their bouncy sole, they promise to increase running speeds by 4% – and after runner Eliud Kipchoge ran the first sub-two hour marathon in Vaporflys, the shoe was banned from competitive sports. This raises the ethical question of whether human enhancement tech can provide an unfair advantage – especially when there is a divide between those who can and can’t afford such technology. 

As for neurological human enhancements, the field of development is accelerating. Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has stated his belief that people would need to become cyborgs in order to keep up with machines in the future. His technology, Neuralink, would implant tiny electrodes into the brain to give humans the ability of direct computing. 

Last month Peter Theil invested in a similar technology with the company Blackrock Neurotech. Measuring just a few millimeters, their devices – brain computer interfaces or “BCIs” – enable humans to do things they couldn’t normally do. Both companies claim the tech is aimed foremost at people living with disabilities. 

On the one hand then, this form of human enhancement can be used for good, on the other hand, some debate the ethical implications of testing on animals and the possibility that neurotech could be used for societal control, manipulation, or lead to privacy breaches. 

In the future, along with advancements in wearable tech and neurotech, genetic engineering could also shape our capabilities. Green eyes? A little taller? Super intelligence? This might actually become a possibility. 

The first method of genetic enhancement is Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis, (PGD) a procedure that involves taking cells from embryos at an early stage, looking at their genomes and choosing which ones to use, essentially a gene testing and selection process used for screening out genetic defects. However some companies in the US who already use this technology claim that within the next decade they will be able to screen for the embryo with the highest IQ. 

The second method is gene editing. Also known as CRISPR-Cas9, the tech was created in 2012 to edit genes using enzymes with precision accuracy. In 2018, it was used in China to create the first genetically engineered babies, their genes edited to remove HIV. The experiment, conducted by a scientist called Dr He Jiankui was met with controversy, and has been condemned by the Chinese government, his methods considered unsafe and unethical, as the long term risks around other genetic mutations that could occur are unknown. 

In most of the world, using a genetically engineered embryo to create a pregnancy is illegal, yet experts believe that this tech will become more common. It could be used for good – like editing the melanin genes to protect people against skin cancer. By reducing instances of genetic diseases, some argue that gene editing could also save governments “billions of dollars” on healthcare.

In its various forms, human augmentation could – and if we look at history, inevitably will to some extent – transform society – allowing us to do what we never thought possible, making us much more efficient in the way that we work with machines, and even wiping out illnesses. But if this is to benefit mankind, it needs to be thought through carefully. 

As the author Kazuo Ishiguro has told the press: “When you get to the point where you can say that person is actually intellectually or physically superior to another person because you have removed certain possibilities for that person getting ill… or because they’re enhanced in other ways, that has enormous implications for very basic values that we have.”

The future of genetic engineering must be regulated in order to prevent what the ethicist Ron Green calls a “genobility” – a class of people with superior genes, who can afford to have them. While this might sound sci-fi, we already live in a society with huge discrepancies around healthcare, points out Green, as the cost of genome sequencing is falling, and therefore may become more accessible to more people, regulation in the fields of human enhancement becomes ever more critical.

As the marvel that is the human body continues to evolve – naturally or otherwise – we’ll need to take our lessons from superhero movies and sci-fi – that superpowers work best when they’re distributed equally. Fundamentally, human augmentation must benefit lives of those who need it most – like those with disabilities and illnesses. We must embrace the powerful benefits of neurotech and genetic engineering in a way that’s fair and equitable – especially when it comes to the world of sports and medicine. And most importantly of all, we need to holding on to what makes us the beautiful individuals that we are: our differences, our uniqueness, our diversity.