Has Superman's time come?
As bio-engineers explore how to design our way out of human
limitations, Carl Frankel asks if we're poised on the threshold of the
ultimate upgrade - to humanity itself.
Ear on the arm
Hugh Herr lost both his legs below the knee as a teenager when a
rock-climbing trip went awry. If you're thinking "Poor man, how does he
manage?", you might want to let go of that. Herr gets along just fine.
The director of a bionics research group at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology Herr develops high-tech prosthetic devices that
level the playing field for amputees. Or even tilts it their way. He
amasses legs the way most people buy shoes.
He has one set of prosthetics for walking, a longer set for jogging
and multiple pairs of climbing legs, including one that stretches him to
over seven feet tall and another with built-in aluminum claws for
Spiderman-like gripping. "I'm able to climb at a more advanced level
with artificial limbs. I view [them] as an opportunity, a palette from
which to create," he told a TED audience before closing his speech with
some zesty Irish dancing.
And then there's the stunning Aimee Mullins, a gifted athlete and
model (oh, and double amputee) who walked the London runway in 1999 for
fashion designer Alexander McQueen wearing hand-carved wooden prosthetic
legs with integrated boots.
Herr and Mullins aren't just extraordinary people: they're walking,
climbing, sashaying provocations to conventional notions about
disability. They invite us to imagine a time, not far away, when high
technology and the physical body are married in ways that endow people
with entirely new capabilities. Super-abilities, really - the stuff
dreams and comic books are made of.
With their elegant artificial appendages, Herr and Mullins
dramatically embody the emergence of what Steve Fuller, a professor at
the University of Warwick calls Humanity 2.0: "an understanding of the
human condition that no longer takes the 'normal human body' as given."
The performance artist Stelarc puts it this way: "We can no longer think
of the body as simplistically bound by its skin and containing a single
self... We are very much a meat, metal and software system now." In his
work he makes this point dramatically, for instance with a
cell-cultivated ear, surgically implanted onto his left arm, that for a
time had a built-in microphone and transmitted what it 'heard'
wirelessly to the Internet.People as discrete flesh-sacks of bones and
body organs? That's so ... yesterday. Already, human augmentation is
crossing over into sci-fi territory. What the imagination can conceive,
technology is increasingly able to deliver.
So: want to have Superman-like strength? The military is developing
exoskeletons that strap onto soldier's bodies and do the heavy lifting,
Soldiers in the field typically tote upwards of 100 pounds on their
backs. Strap-on exoskeletons could make this vastly less stressful while
also reducing the back injuries that are endemic in the army. Want to
stave off the cognitive deficits caused by too little sleep? Or how
about getting by on four hours a night?
Something called transcranial magnetic stimulation can help you do
Or maybe you'd like to move objects using only the power of your
mind? It's possible - and you don't have to be Uri Geller. In 2011, the
Guinness Book of World Records issued an award to the NeuroSky MindWave,
a brainwave reader, for the "heaviest machine moved using a brain
The awardwinning team used such a method to steer an industrial crane
that hoisted a Volkswagen off the ground.This is seriously mind-bending
stuff - and other organs are getting involved, too. Soon to come, from
the same company that brought you the MindWave: an electrocardiogram
chip that lets you control your electronic devices using your heart
energy. That's right, your mobile will feel the love.
And this is just the beginning. As progress accelerates across
materials science, robotics, neuroscience, biology, artificial
intelligence, genomics and a host of other disciplines, human
capabilities can be expected to emerge that seem utterly fantastical
Meanwhile, back on centre stage, there's this thing called the
sustainability crisis that urgently needs our attention. To date, two
broad solution paths have been pursued.
The first is resource efficiency. You know the drill: reduce, re-use,
recycle, lay off the carbon. The second - which we may come to in any
case if the first fails - is geoengineering: manipulating the planet's
natural systems to remove carbon dioxide, or deflect solar radiation, on
a grand scale.
People like Herr, Mullins and Stelarc point toward a third way.
Instead of re-engineering the planet, let's try re-engineering the
human! Worried about the size of the human footprint? Then shrink it -
This isn't just wordplay. In an article scheduled for publication in
the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment, academics S. Matthew
Liao, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache propose that we consider
addressing climate change by building a smaller human.
"We need a certain amount of food and nutrients to maintain each
kilogram of body mass ... Larger people also consume energy in less
obvious ways. For example, a car uses more fuel per mile to carry a
heavy person than a lighter person; more fabric is needed to clothe
large people than smaller people" - and so on.
The authors provide a short list of ways to do this, including
lowering human growth hormone levels. Speaking to The Atlantic, Liao
acknowledged that "People might resist this idea because they think
there is some sort of optimal - the average height in a given society,
say. But, I think it's worth remembering how fluid human traits like
height are.A hundred years ago people were much shorter on average, and
there was nothing wrong with them medically."
Indeed, we rose to our present height in part by consuming so
successfully: the same aptitudes which have, arguably, placed
unprecedented pressure on natural resources.Still, if a 'shrink to fit'
approach is too fantastic or dubious a vision, there are other human
engineering possibilities cited by the authors, too.
- Green Futures