There are plenty of people who were fine with the world of 1997, but have grown to become decidedly Not Fine with the world of 2017. So I’m curious to know what I’m going to be unhappy about with the world of 2037. What’s going to be the new normal, and why might you or I be disgruntled?
This is the seventh and penultimate episode of the Human Machine, a series looking at the increasingly blurred lines between”¦well, humans and machines. The issue of what counts as normal–of whether we should welcome or fear the changes that new technologies can bring–has been a recurring one.
Those of us old enough to remember the world before smartphones were everywhere might perceive a change in how people think and act towards each other, for example. But, as Kieran Yates pointed out in her episode looking at smartphones, this kind of response is ancient, and probably a fundamental part of human existence. Socrates thought the then-new invention of writing would make people forgetful, and still, even today, we’re all liable to lose sight of an essential truth of human existence: We all live lives that are mediated by technology in some way.
In that spirit, I know there are going to be things that I dislike about the generation that follows me–they’re going to treat things that I know are radical and strange as entirely mundane, just as many of my habits and familiarities baffle my parents. (On that note: Hi mom! Sorry that I work in digital media, and that it’s so weird and hard to explain!)
In that spirit, I’ve asked a few wise heads working in the different fields we’ve covered in this series to take a speculative, lighthearted, and non-judgmental stab at what they think some of the new normals for the generation of 2037 might be. They are:
- Debojyoti Chakraborty: A scientist working in the field of genome engineering and stem cell biology at CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in India
- Jamais Cascio: Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future
- Amy DuRoss: CEO of Vineti, a digital innovation company working to scale personalized medicine
- Ryan O’Shea: Cofounder of AI startup Behaivior, and host of the Future Grind podcast
- Neil Harbisson & Moon Ribas: Artists and founders of the Cyborg Foundation
This, then, is the Human Machine of 2037. Looking back on the year 2017, these are some major ways the world has changed–and changed us:
1. Extremely Personalized Medical Care
If the last century was about the discovery of powerful blanket treatments like antibiotics, then this one is about treatments that are tailored and targeted to specific needs:
“Personalized medicine is commonplace and standard of care for many conditions. “‘Named’ therapies and devices, tied directly to an individual in some specific way, are commonplace. Patients have full visibility into the processes for making and delivering their personal drugs and devices, and expect this level of transparency. Personalized therapies and devices are produced near the patient and delivered at bedside.
What will it take to make personalized medicine commonplace? There are a lot of necessary parts, and three innovations are especially critical. The first is CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, which will allow us us to treat and potentially eradicate specific genetic diseases. The second is blockchain technology, which will allow us to streamline the sharing of medical records in a secure way. And then there is the delivery of truly personalized, individualized medicines and devices at mass scale.”
2. Gene Editing & Stem Cell Advances
The key to that personalized care comes from deeper understanding and control of human genetics, as we’re only just beginning to see in 2017.
“We have been ushered into the field of “‘organoids’ or “‘organs on a dish’ where induced stem cells reprogrammed from a patient’s blood cells can be used to make organs that mimic his own and has less chances of rejection. By 2037, we should have the possibility to transplant organs made from a person’s own stem cells but grown ex situ in the lab and customized to be disease free using gene editing technologies like CRISPR.”
“The effects of CRISPR and blockchain technology on patients may still be at least five to 10 years away. Great things are coming, and we’ll learn a lot more in the about their impact in the next decade. This combination of innovations will take individualized medicine from being a smaller-scale experiment to a commonplace reality. They technologies will very likely allow greater numbers of patients in need to safely benefit from personalized drugs and devices, and help turn them into an important standard of care.”
3. Constantly-Connected Bodies
A range of new sensors, either embedded within clothes or our actual bodies, will track us in astonishing detail.
“These constantly-monitored physiological metrics will be used to maximize human health and wellbeing through an AI companion that suggests priorities, dietary choices, and physical activity based on multiple factors. In the event of a problem or impending medical emergency, instant action can be taken, including automatically notifying emergency services or even triggering the release of treatments that are already stored in the body.”
“It will be possible by 2037 to have sensor devices that can be grafted just below the skin which will record the molecules in blood which it comes in contact with. The results can be monitored from outside and based on scores it assigns, the health status of a person can be determined. At some stage, it might even be integrated into a national database (like social security information or Aadhar card in India) and important healthcare decisions (such as insurance coverage) may be taken based on a person’s “‘e-health’ score.”
“Everything and anything can serve as a passive source of electricity, and capacitive threads woven into everything from clothing to building materials to hair extensions mean that that power is always available to us. It’s a shame that some industries are still fighting tooth-and-nail to require maintaining old infrastructure and equipment, but you can’t expect society to change as fast as technology.”
“All relevant health-related data flows seamlessly, with no boundaries, and is readily available to all in the ecosystem, including the patient. Analytics are continuous, predictive, and improve patient care in real time. All the data about an individual will be used to predict and provide a care pathway that extends the longevity and wellness of the patient, with targeted diagnostics, therapies, and devices available at the right time in a person’s life.”
4. Subtle & Not-So-Subtle Brain Augmentation
Human-computer interfaces will be so sensitive and ubiquitous that our very notion of what it means to “make a decision” will be altered.
“Our human bodies are fully integrated into the Internet of Things. Our environments will constantly be reacting to our presence–everything from automatically changing music, art, and temperature wherever we go based on our preferences to suggesting itineraries and plans based on real-time data, including our own physiological metrics.”
“Much more subtle, but arguably more disruptive, has been the proliferation of cognitive augmentation (cogaug) methods, especially the biohacks. Most of them don’t give obvious boost to IQ or nonsense like that, but allow for much more complex long-term decision-making. The early digital cogaugs, like Amazon Mind Prime, were little more than memory enhancers and math co-processors, and ran into the digital obsolescence problem so quickly–I really pity the people stuck on Windows for Wetware when Microsoft abandoned the project. The biohacks, from increasing connectome depth to microbiome ranching, will have a far greater impact over the course of the century, letting people better understand second and third-order consequences of current dilemmas.”
“Our senses no longer need to be where our bodies are. I believe the next stage of human exploration is to explore the disconnection between body and senses and to start traveling without our bodies. Instead of going through the uncomfortable pain of traveling, we could send our senses to space, 3D-print ourselves on other planets, and explore space while lying in bed. In other words the best space ship is a comfortable bed.”
5. Incredible Physical Augmentation
Our notions of what the human body is capable of will change, as it becomes possible to build better limbs, organs, or senses than evolution can.
“This implanted technology will continue to blur the line between human and technology. Advanced prosthetics and artificial organs will have surpassed the abilities of their biological counterparts in specific cases, leading to some people electing to remove biological body parts in favor of technology.”
“In this century, rather than giving new senses to our machines, we could give new senses to ourselves. Instead of using technology, we can become technology. Let’s take light for instance – us, humans, we haven’t developed night vision like some other species. Wouldn’t it be more logical to change ourselves in order to see at night than changing the environment? If Edison would have created night vision instead of a lightbulb we could still be able to see the stars at night.”
6. The Continued Breakdown of the Natural/Artificial Binary
All of these changes add up to a continued disintegration of the idea that humans and machines are necessarily different.
“The ethical questions raised by these practices will join the ongoing debate of whether or not our increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligences can be conscious, and what rights they are to be granted. If we as a society come to believe that our human bodies are simply a vessel for our consciousness, we can begin customizing our experiences in radical new ways. Morphological freedom made possible through gene editing and technological augmentation will alter the conversation on some of today’s most controversial topics–What is race? What is gender? What is disability? What makes us human?”
“Seminal progress has already been made in recording information in the bases of DNA (most notable George Church’s recent paper in Nature on encoding a movie into DNA). By 2037, we will buy bacterial repositories that will have information encoded into its DNA just like the storage space we buy in the cloud currently. These can be propagated anytime and information can be recalled. I foresee this will also be subject to “‘biohacking’ in the same way data can get leaked in the current world.”
“Life will be much more exciting when we stop creating apps for our mobile phones and we start creating apps for our own body.”
“People from the 20th century predicted that the union between humans and technology would be dangerous, unnatural, and that it would disconnect us from nature. But it doesn’t need to be this way; we are the ones who need to make sure that the union between humans and technology does not alienate us from nature but instead brings us closer to nature, to our planet, and to other animal species.”
“But it’s completely obvious that digital intelligence (encompassing classic AI, machine minds, and all manner of learning systems) has had the greatest impact on how we live, even without any kind of mythic Singularity (although I hear that over 90 percent of the Kurzweil Emulation Mind Engines are certain that the Singularity will hit by 2045!). A world where our physical environment is aware, responsive, and helpful has been transformative. It’s not so much that the world is just watching you, like a nanny or a cop (if you remember either of those), but it understands you, and gives you the tools to understand it. We’re now seeing the first wave of young adults who have grown up surrounded by AI; although they were stereotyped as overly-demanding brats as kids, they’ve grown up to be extremely sensitive to the scale of their footprints on the world.
“One kid said to me recently that growing up surrounded by a world that listens to you has emphasized to them how important it is to listen back, and to pay attention to the consequences of our actions. You can’t hide from the implications of what you do any more.”
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. The Human Machine is an eight-part series that interrogates the increasingly blurred lines between humans and machines.