This time on Science Future: Various stepping-stones to human augmentation.
Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction have upon each other.
Last month we were treated to a story about human performance. EP318: The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey was about a human with incredible abilities surrounded by transhumans with mediocre abilities. It took place in a world where humans regularly modified their bodies beyond what we consider to be the human normal but focused on one human who hadn’t and might not and yet still had the chance to exceed all of them.
Yet the story was cheating in asense for the protagonist already had a capability that far exceeded that of the standard human template. So much so that he was under constant surveillance for the possibility of actual augmentation. The stealthiest augmentation for one competing in sports today is drugs. In the future, the definition of drugs might be expanded beyond simple chemical concoctions. Rohit Talwar, the founder of Fast Future Research, gave a talk at Intelligence Squared’s If conference about the possibility of digital drugs via direct manipulation of brain chemistry using transcranial magnetic stimulation. One could only assume this kind of manipulation would be extremely hard to detect. No chemical traces and nothing invasive or even ingested. Except that in The Prize our protagonist had his doppelgänger, which was an atomic scale simulation of himself. This copy could easily have been used as both a training and surveillance device.
It is hard to believe the precision needed to copy someone down to the atomic level could be easily done via external sensors and implants would obviously not be allowed for competitive reasons but they likely used a more advanced version of this system. Researchers led by the California Institute of Technology have created a series of microchips that can quickly and inexpensively assess immune function of a human from one single cell harvested from their body. With a device like that, occasionally sampling the body for a drop of blood and building a clone that could forecast the physical changes one might undergo after eating cake seems almost feasible.
The Gift focused more on the possibility of human enhancement. Changing a the body to give one abilities that they could never hope to achieve within a human genetic code. Two of the enhancements referenced were increasing intelligence and empathy. The brain is a complicated organ in charge of many things that we don’t understand and the idea of enhancing seems far off. Repairing it, less so. There is promising research in the field of cybernetics that helps repair brain damage. Created by Theodore Berger and his team at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and researchers at Wake Forest University, a neural prosthesis is able to restore a rat’s ability to form long-term memories after they had been pharmacologically blocked. This is the first step to augmenting something like intelligence and empathy.
But what if dramatic enhancement was not really what someone like Michito was looking for? Well a discovery by Columbia University Medical Center researchers may lead to a better understanding how to fundamentally change the human body in subtle ways. They have shown that not all traits passed on to offspring without the use of DNA but instead naturally occurring viral agents called viRNAs which modify the creature’s RNA. RNA acts like DNA’s messenger in the body, relaying the code. So if the RNA is modified, then the DNA of the being is effectively bypassed. This kinda of science could be harnessed to create a slightly faster person or creating large-scale immunity against difference diseases.
Obviously research into human augmentation continues, be through a biological, technological, or chemical means. Stories like The Prize Beyond Gold will continue to give us reasons to achieve new and different levels of augmentation. Afterall, most of us will never be Michito but we could possibly be better than him.
There are two ways of being happy: We must either diminish our wants or augment our means – either may do – the result is the same and it is for each man to decide for himself and to do that which happens to be easier. – Benjamin Franklin