A Spectrum of Human Augmentation April 2017
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Slowly but surely, human augmentation is beginning to seep into many aspects of life. Some examples of this slow diffusion come from technologies that clearly augment human capabilities, but other examples come from technologies that represent steps toward human augmentation. The wide range of technologies that could find use for human augmentation could not only create intercountry competition in science and research but also have an effect on countries' industrial competitiveness. Use of human-augmentation technologies in industrial environments could drive operational advantages, and use of such technologies in medical research could create service opportunities but also establish ethical divisions among countries. In fact, political structures and the influence of public opinion will affect regional considerations about human-augmentation technologies.
Companies in some industries are already giving their employees devices to improve safety and efficiency.
One driver of growing interest in human-augmentation technologies is the technologies' increasing affordability. For instance, Snap's (Los Angeles, California) Spectacles—$130 sunglasses that use a built-in camera to take photos and record video—represent a basic human-augmentation technology. The glasses have some similarities to Google's (Alphabet; Mountain View, California) Google Glass smart glasses, which are more technologically advanced and have a greater number of capabilities. But when Google Glass was commercially available in 2014 and 2015, it cost ten times as much as Snap's Spectacles do now. Wearables such as advanced glasses that film video and overlay augmented-reality information onto a wearer's field of view represent a step toward expanding human capabilities. In contrast, exoskeletons have clear human-augmenting capabilities. Scientists designed many of the early exoskeletons to help people with motor disabilities move; exoskeletons for use in industrial settings are now available, and the price of exoskeletons has fallen significantly. SuitX (US Bionics; Berkeley, California) has developed MAX—a modular exoskeleton that comprises three modules (backX, legX, and shoulderX) that can see use individually or in any combination. Each module reduces the forces and loads on its respective body part, making physical work easier for the wearer. The modularity of the system gives users the flexibility to adapt the exoskeleton to the tasks they need to perform and makes the system useful in a range of industries. The really significant aspect of MAX is its price: Each module costs $3,000, which is a price many companies can afford. Companies in some industries are already giving their employees devices to improve safety and efficiency. For example, BMW (Munich, Germany) has given employees at its spare-parts plant in Dingolfing, Germany, smart gloves that read bar codes and transfer information wirelessly when wearers place their forefinger and thumb together. The gloves—sold for €1,300 by ProGlove (Workaround; Munich, Germany)—enable "workers to keep hold of items with both hands while scanning more quickly. While this may only save a few seconds each time, BMW reckons it adds up to 4,000 work minutes, or 66 hours, a day" ("What one piece of tech would transform your working life?" BBC News, 20 December 2016; online).
Many companies are keen to adopt technologies that improve efficiency and safety; however, consumers can often be wary of human-augmentation technologies—particularly biologically invasive technologies. A study by the Pew Research Center (Washington, DC) found that the majority of the US public is more wary of than excited about the prospect of biomedical technologies that enhance human capabilities. In its study, Pew gave participants three specific examples of biomedical augmentation: gene editing of babies to reduce their risk of developing serious diseases throughout their lives, brain implants that improve concentration and information-processing ability, and synthetic blood that increases stamina, strength, and speed. The survey showed that the majority of respondents were "somewhat" or "very" worried about gene editing (68%), brain implants (69%), and synthetic blood (63%). Although they may seem far from commercialization, these technologies are in the early stages of development for use as therapies. Furthermore, recent developments are making the prospect of biological human augmentation more realistic. For example, researchers at the University of Tokyo (Tokyo, Japan), discovered that a protein of DNA in tardigrades (microscopic aquatic invertebrates) gives the microorganisms resistance to X-rays. The researchers were able to insert this protein into human cells and "found that the tardigrade-tinged human cells were able to suppress X-ray induced damage by about 40%" ("Tardigrade protein helps human DNA withstand radiation," Nature, 20 September 2016; online). The advent of CRISPR-Cas9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats-CRISPR associated protein 9) gene-editing techniques could enable scientists to alter human genes so that the human body produces this protein for potential additional resistance to X-ray damage. Researchers at Sichuan University (Chengdu, China) recently became the first to use a CRISPR-Cas9 technique in humans. The researchers took immune cells from a cancer patient's blood sample and used CRISPR-Cas9 to disable the gene that makes the cells produce a protein that inhibits the cells' immune response to cancer. They then injected the edited cells into the patient. The researchers hope the edited cells will attack the patient's cancer. Indeed, China is in a position to drive the development of biological human augmentation, because the country's government can make decisions it believes are best for the country even if that belief is at odds with public sentiment and ethics.
In a world of intercountry competitive jostling to achieve leadership in science and research, one country's pressing forward with biological human augmentation will likely drive other countries to follow. This intercountry competition to develop human-augmentation technologies could lead to a competitive environment similar to the one the Space Race produced in the mid-1900s, resulting in the rapid development of a wide variety of new technologies. The adoption of robots and artificial intelligence in many industries could cause employment markets to change, but so could the adoption of human-augmentation technologies. How augmentation technologies will affect employment markets is debatable, and arguments exist for multiple potential outcomes. Augmentation technologies could enhance human capabilities and expand on existing skills to make them increasingly efficient. Augmentation technologies may even create more jobs for humans by lowering the barrier to entry for many positions and minimizing the amount of training new employees must undergo. In the short term, human-augmentation technologies that enable augmented realities and find use in medical and industrial applications will advance and drive investment in related technologies.