By Erica Orange & Jared Weiner, The Future Hunters, and Eshanthi Ranasinghe, Exploration & Future Sensing, Omidyar Network
The world is increasingly interconnected through technologies like the internet and IoT (Internet of Things), enabling the concept of a noosphere, or future global “brain.” But there is a parallel track to innovation centered around the individual — where people are now capable of becoming their own fully-integrated and customizable bio-digital ecosystem, what we will call a “MEcosystem.”
This is essentially technology intersecting with the physical body, and we see it most prominently in several nascent technological developments — advanced wearables (including embeddables, implantables, even ingestibles), 3D printing for human augmentation, gene editing, and many other emerging developments. Advancing technology has the potential to push the evolution of humans forward, beyond their own biology, and potentially toward a transhumanist future where human bodies are optimized with technology, creating 8 billion “MEcosystems” around the world.
Wearables have been evolving into embeddables, implantables, invisibles, even ingestibles, early steps toward a future where humans become more like cyborgs. Subdermal RFID chips can hold personal details, credit card numbers, and medical records. By one estimate, there are 10,000 such “cyborgs” with chip implants around the world. Chip enthusiasts include followers of a transhumanist ideology that seeks to optimize human bodies with technology. Examples include haptic communication that lets users receive messages through the skin on their arms, exoskeleton vests that augment lifting, neuromodulation as an alternative to painkillers, and an e-dermis that allows amputees to feel pain and other sensations.
Advanced 3D (and eventually 4D) printing techniques that use fully or partially organic materials will also help repair and augment the human body. Researchers are using 3D printers to create new strips of healthy skin, “bio-ink”-based corneas, stem cell-infused scaffolds for repairing nerve damage, and even grow-your-own organs technology.
Gene editing is the process through which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified, or replaced in the genome of a living organism. CRISPR, a cheap and easy technique for making targeted changes to DNA, is in research trials as a way to potentially treat diseases. Much of the leading research today focuses on gene editing during the earliest stages of life — including on fertilized embryos, culminating in the recent groundbreaking and controversial experiment where gene edits were made to two embryos in Shenzhen. Biologists are trying to go further, applying the CRISPR gene-editing machinery directly into mature human sperm.
But gene-editing experimentation is not confined to a lab, and that is perhaps what is most interesting about it. The process has entered mainstream consciousness and accessibility with devices like the CRISPR-Cas9. Josiah Zayner, a biochemist and biophysicist once employed by NASA, was made famous for being the first person known to have edited his own genes (and now runs a company that sells DIY CRISPR kits). He kicked off a series of public gene-editing stunts, a fad he may now regret. From teens in California to a research team at the University of Alberta that recreated from scratch extinct horsepox, a cousin of smallpox, DIY gene-editing experiments are catching on rapidly around the world. Unencumbered by labs, research institutions, degrees, and regulation, it is the hardest strain of gene-editing to predict, “citizen scientists” would argue the most innovative, and a cornerstone of the transhumanist movement.
If we can push our imaginations beyond currently developing technologies, we can envision a future which consists of transhumanist MEcosystems — one in which we can use highly advanced AI as a means to upload our minds and consciousness into dynamic, continuously learning “digital clones” of ourselves. The Terasem Movement Foundation was formed around the hypothesis that we may be able to circumvent aging by placing the parts of us that matter most (e.g., our identity, consciousness, and memories — called a “mindfile”) into something like a robot or avatar. These largely theoretical future technologies fall under the classification of “mindware.” As far out as these sound, an experiment is underway to test this hypothesis by uploading a real woman’s memories into a robot called Bina48. Over time, the goal is for Bina48 to grow smarter the more she learns. Inevitably, this type of technology holds the potential for people to not only create one personal ecosystem constrained in part by their own body, but multiple that go well beyond those physical parameters.
Within each of these cutting-edge and controversial developments is a world of opportunity and a minefield of risk. Accessible and personalizing technologies like 3D printers ($400) and CRISPR ($150), even emerging biotech “hackerspaces” like BioCurious, provide the tools needed to potentially bring transhumanist aspirations to nearly anyone. This could result in lifesaving breakthroughs, super-human development, the reemergence of extinct diseases, and irreversible genetic changes inheritable by generations.
Regulation is, typically, lagging, but even if a government deemed it illegal, could one simply travel to another country where regulation is lax or even encouraging? Will some countries try to build a competitive advantage around super-human enhancements for medical tourism? There is talk that it could be the next frontier of cheating in sports. And, ultimately, what does the impact of income and access disparity have on this; could it lead to a class division of gene editing “haves” and “have nots?”
While the application of MEcosystems has centralized around the individual, in a closed “walled garden” controlled by the operator, with embedded technologies like wearables and implantables, each personal ecosystem could be turned on to connect with other digital systems, voluntarily, automatically, or surreptitiously. This opens up a world of cybersecurity and privacy concerns, as well as opportunities like more efficient functioning of “smart” cities.
This is Trend #4 of 5 in Omidyar Network’s Exploration and Future Sensing, 2019 Trends to Watch. View the full series as it publishes here.
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