Bioengineered humans are people who have been biologically upgraded through machine implants, genetic manipulation and drugs. Together, they herald what is popularly known as the coming post-human or Human 2.0 era. Augmentation is any bodily intervention that enhances human function and was not initiated because of a pathological deficiency. The only area where elective augmentation is obvious in everyday life is in cosmetic surgery such as veneers and drugs that enhance human capability and endurance like Viagra.
Biomimicry and bio-enhancement are becoming far more sophisticated. Scientists can now grow new organs in the lab, for example, and 3D bioprinters where they can be printed are being developed by companies like Organovo. However, the incentive to augment the physical strength of the human body is something that most of us don’t care about deeply on a daily basis. “I don’t need to run faster. I have a car,” said a friend when we proposed the advantages of having a robotic foot. Running faster, X-ray vision, hearing at frequencies that only wolves and dogs can hear, having photogenic memory: all this sounds good but none of us would spend the time or money to acquire them because the advantages are not immediately clear. Unlike plastic surgery, which makes us immediately more attractive to the opposite sex, it is unclear what a new kidney would afford me if my current one functions reasonably well.
Of course, there are a number of reasons why we would want to invest in bio-enhancements, such as living longer with loved ones and eliminating susceptibility to malaria in Africa. But the private sector will not pay for the high cost of research based on these lofty goals and the government is already crumbling under debt and budget constraints. Human 2.0 would likely be a pipe dream if it wasn’t for one group which is always looking for a superior human: the army.
The military is on a warpath to create the world’s first Super Soldier, who can see further, fight longer, process information faster and recover sooner from injury. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the agency specifically responsible for the development of new military technology, has been funding augmentation projects around the world (see a short list here). Soldiers also face more physical trauma in war than people in any other profession. The need to restore functionality in injured soldiers and the large number of funds the Army makes available to fulfil it drives and pushes research in biomimicry across academia and corporatiosn.
The incredible effort in creating sophisticated prosthetics by Hugh Herr’s Biomechantronics lab at MIT was recently given a further boost with a grant of $7.2 million by the US Department of Veterans Affairs. The grant was specifically provided to fund biohybrid limbs that will restore function to amputees and will in fact be attached to the body and receive direct input from the body and brain. The biohybrid legs could not only restore but also potentially enhance the capability, speed and endurance of amputees, ultimately making them ‘better than human’. In a similar investment, the Army just awarded $34.5 million to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to continue research on a robotic arm that actually takes commands from your brain. When you want to move your natural arm, you think you want to it to move and it moves as a result of signals sent from your brain to your arm. Imagine the same mind control over your prosthetic arm. The difference between the natural and robotic arm would then just be that one never ages, is not susceptible to disease, is stronger and can always be upgraded to a superior version.
The research in regenerative medicine, which has led to the success of Anthony Atala’s work in growing organs in the laboratory, was also funded partly by the Department of Defense that wanted to assist veterans severely wounded in the war. Even many of the advances in facial reconstruction were funded by the Army after World War II and then commercialized into cosmetic surgery.
The military is investing in all kinds of augmentation – pills you ingest, body armor you can wear, and machine parts you can add to your body. The most recent buzz in the news was about Lockheed Martin’s HULC Military Exoskeleton which is a of a hydraulically powered titanium body suit or exoskeleton that allows soldiers to carry weights up to 200 pounds for long periods of time without feeling the full burden of the heavy weight. Soldiers can also run with this load on any type of terrain. See this video for details and flashback to the movie Iron Man.
Peter W. Singer’s book Wired for War is a must read on the future of military warfare and includes the efforts of the US army to augment soldiers. In his great TED talk, Singer talks about how Japan is building robots to care for elderly people, but in the US we’re building robots to kill people. Will our efforts in human augmentation always be subservient to the threat of war? One can only hope world peace is not antithetical to the desire for such scientific progress.
Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.