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Disruptive Technologies beyond 2030 for Human Augmentation II

Changing our genome is today technology feasible. Its outcomes are an open question. Image credit: Popular Mechanics

Human bio-hacking

We are often confronted with what seems to be a dramatic change, think about the invention of cars or the television. In reality, the signs were present before the actual invention took place and most of the time when the invention occurred we weren’t able to imagine the impacts it could have had.

I feel this is the case for human bio-hacking.

Human hacking has started with the first clustering of our ancestors into larger and larger groups creating communities first and then societies. These have started to “condition” individuals hacking theirs brains at cultural level, reinforced through education.

Bio-hacking is much more recent, and it started basically in the last decade with the capability to modify the genome, first of bacteria and then on to more complex life forms, including, most recently humans. However, notice that our ancestors, through selective farming have been bio-hacking life forms, using cross pollination and inter-breeding even though they were not aware of the underlying process. Today “our” crops and “our” animals dominate the planet.

Yet, these considerations are not diminishing the challenges, potential and fears lying ahead as technology provides more effective ways of hacking life forms, of bio-hacking.

According to the Imperial College foresight study we can expect disruptive changes happening in the fourth decade of this century with the capability to design the bio-hacking based on the desired result (i.e. gene editing starting from the phenotype).

Human Evolution, as any other species evolution, is steered by random gene modification and by selection. In the last century the progress of medicine have interfered with the selection process. Individuals that would not have survived to generate offsprings have been given a chance to live a normal life. Social selection pressures (that have been present throughout our evolution path) have changed affecting the overall evolution in ways that are difficult to assess (in vitro fertilisation is clearly something new in terms of evolution).

CRISPR/Cas 9 is now making possible to step in the “random gene modification” dropping the “random” part, although today we do not have a completed understanding of the implication of each single change in the coding of the genome.  This is obviously going to change in the coming decades as knowledge expands (AI is starting to play a role in this domain).

From random evolution, constrained by selection processes, to directed evolution aiming at augmentation (of humans and other species) the gap is huge. Technology is creating bridges, making evolution by design possible, but societal and ethical questions are not answered by technology. These are big questions laying ahead and one of the difficult aspect is the seamless continuum existing between today and tomorrow. The gap is huge when we look at it from afar. When we look at single steps being taken, like changing the genome to fight a disease, the gap looks insignificant.

Of course if a person is born with a genetic disease it makes sense, provided you have the right technology, to fix it.  What about a person having a genetic anomaly that would make offsprings impossible. It would seem to make sense to fix it, wouldn’t it. However, it is not an “on-off” switch you turn by changing that genome, one that only controls the possibility of generating offsprings. That same switch may control several other aspects of the offsprings. By modifying it you are not just allowing the creation of offsprings, you are likely to create offsprings that were not “possible” before.
Some of these offsprings, resulting from genetic tweaking, might have interesting new capability giving them an edge on others. This will put a pressure, indirect or direct, to the selection process.

As you see, it is a slippery slope, where each step seems so close to the previous one to the point of being insignificant. Yet, at a thousands steps distance we might find ourselves on the other side of what we see today as a gap, possibly without having realised that we have crossed the bridge. Most likely without being able to point out when this happened.

Companies like Dangerous Things are “on the edge of the gap” and are building bridges. Others, like BioTeq, are already offering augmentation (human re-engineering) through artefacts that can live a symbiotic life with our body (like RFID tags, already being implanted).
The slippery road is not ahead. We are already walking on it.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.