Being Human, Tomorrow

What will the man of tomor­row be like? Scientists and sci-fi writers have imagined the advent of the cyborgs, cybernetic men, half-human, half-robot. Bruce Mazlish predicts the coming of “combots”, or computer-ro­bots, a new generation of man-made beings that will live and collaborate with us and possess the ability to repli­cate on their own. Hans Moravec consi­ders that these future androids will reach such a high level of intelligence that they will be able to persuade us to do otherwise, should we ever want to “unplug” them.

I would rather consider Man, society and the technosphere as a co-evolutio­nary whole. This is why I imagine the men of tomorrow as symbiotic. They won’t differ much from the 20th-cen­tury men physically or mentally, but their biological, psychological or biotic connections with the digital ecosystem will give them extraordinary means of knowledge and action. With the term cybiont (from cyb-, cybernetics, and bios-, biology), I refer to this plane­tary superorganism, this technologi­cal ecosystem living in symbiosis with the brains of men, interconnected as neurons are by synapses. The union of biology, nanotechnology and computer science has already led to many pro­ducts used in healthcare.

TOWARDS THE CYBIONT

Amongst the most spectacular ones, we find diagnostics based on nanotech and micro-sensors linked to smart­phones, using sample-collecting sys­tems. These are only the beginnings of the promising and already booming e-health area, relying on numerous smartphone apps. We have also wit­nessed the development of smart pills that travel throughout the body and communicate in real time with digital interfaces. We are already able to grow stem cells on biodegradable scaffolds imitating the shape of the organ, as is currently done for bladders. We also have produced functioning tiny liver buds, kidneys and brain parts. And let’s not forget the revolution of 3D bio-printing for regenerative medicine. Organovo’s device can project stem cells on a nutritive surface and build organic tissues. Professor Anthony Atala from the Wake Forest Institute has managed to produce cardiac valves that could potentially be grafted. The advances of nanomedicine will not only expand the field of diagnostic tests, but also that of implants. Devices such as biosensors will be able to measure specific parame­ters of cellular metabolism and confirm the correct assimilation of drugs or, on the contrary, detect any anomaly.

REGULATING TOMORROW

I have been trying to raise aware­ness since the eighties on what I call “biotic”, or the union of biology and computer science. In this area, “brain activated technologies” (BAT) will play a crucial role. A few years ago, Profes­sor Miguel Nicolelis demonstrated the possibility of transmitting information coming from the brain of a monkey to a robotic arm located hundreds of kilometers away. More recently, resear­chers from the University of Washing­ton have established for the very first time a connection between two human brains. These technologies will have a fundamental role in the years to come. They will empower disabled people as well as enable scientists and engineers or smartphone and computer users to communicate directly with these digital devices using their own brain impulses.

Artificial organs, electronic implants, robotic limbs, etc. This path may lead to the apparition of “supermen” or a “transhuman”, but it will also create a dangerous gap between human beings. Right now, some limits are already being pushed back. Will we be able to “print a heart”? Will a human composed of spare parts still be human? We must really think about what we do lest we alter what is most natural within the human race, what makes its originality and its strength: the capacity of any individual to resemble his fellow human being while remaining unique. But a trans­formed human being with its implants, transformations and explants might not meet the same criteria. How can we channel the advances in this area?

Several levels of regulation are conceivable. The scientific community, which publishes its research according to certain rules, acts as a preliminary fil­ter for possible deviance. This first level of vigilance must go hand in hand with a threefold reflection on ethics: from bioethics (biology) to infoethics (infor­mation) and ecoethics (ecology). This is necessary to prevent mindless expe­rimentations from altering the human being and to reflect on the kind of world we want to leave to our children. This undertaking must bring together scientific, moral, religious and political authorities. The second level is that of citizen consensus, able to influence sub­jects that directly concern individuals in society. Thirdly, political regulation, in the highest acceptance of the term, is mandatory. Faced with constant debates around societal choices, the budgets they need and the men and women able to carry them out, those in the political arena make decisions and assessment that weigh heavily on our future.

By Joël de Rosnay

  1. Biotics specialize in new technology consulting and trend forecasting in digital education and biotechnologies.