Technology has always promised a better future … eventually. Somehow the real breakthroughs have always seemed to be just around the corner. But somehow, when we weren’t quite paying attention, the future actually arrived. Thanks to forward-thinking researchers calling on advances in genomics, artificial intelligence, food science, and drug hacking, a more resilient, enlightened, and cognitively-, physically-, and sexually-enhanced human already walks among us. (And her skin is amazing.) Here, eight exciting new health technologies — and where they’re heading next.
Anti-aging in a pill
What it is: Self-described by its MIT creators as “the world’s first cellular health product informed by genomics,” Basis by Elysium Health is a mail-order daily supplement that’s been making waves in the rapidly emerging field of life-extension science. The claim is not immortality but simply the possibility of extending one’s vital years, by putting off of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and other afflictions of age.
Quackery? Hard to say: Though the supplement is some 25 years in the making, it’s been human-tested for less than five, including on Elysium Health cofounder Leonard Guarente, who also serves as the director of MIT’s center for aging research. That said, the company has an impressive roster of Nobel Prize winners on its scientific advisory board and has attracted more than $25 million in funding.
What’s the sell: Two pills a day purportedly target DNA repair, cellular detoxification, energy production, and protein function by converting nicotinamide riboside into nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+), a coenzyme critical to metabolism that diminishes with age. While the real test of any antiaging elixir is increased longevity, many users report immediate benefits that include better sleep, speedy injury recovery, and the mysterious disappearance of those rough elbow patches, with few noticeable side effects.
What’s next: The company is said to be working on products that target brain and musculoskeletal health.
What it is: The world is getting noisier. Scientists say the level of human-generated background buzz has doubled every three decades. Hearable technology aims to help not just those 48 million Americans with hearing loss but those who can hear just fine and simply want to hone in on a certain sound in a noisy room, for instance, or mute a bothersome din.
What’s the sell: Bose’s “conversation-enhancing” earphones, called Hearphones, and Harman’s Everest JBL headphones were created to help people hear conversations in noisy environments: adjust the bass at a concert or block out that crying baby three rows behind you on the plane. Waverly Labs’s Pilot Earpiece takes the tech one step further, letting people who speak different languages understand one another. Bose has also released its long-anticipated noise-masking Sleepbuds, a high-tech twist on ear plugs that offer soothing white noise sounds to help you deal with that loud breather in bed next to you.
Noise cancellation technology filters out background sounds, while a smartphone app lets users control volume and tonality for sound quality and speech recognition. In the case of Waverly’s Pilot Earpiece, machine translation does the heavy lifting.
What’s next: Some industry experts talk of a future where hearing aids call on A.I. and sensor technology to become multifunctional health monitoring devices.
What it is: Global spending on skincare tops more than $50 billion a year — and dermatologists say much of that that goes to waste on products that are ineffective or incompatible. Launching in August 2018, Atolla Skin Lab uses an original, and proprietary database developed at MIT in conjunction with a machine-learning algorithm to connect combinations of ingredients to skin attributes, allowing for hyper-personalized product suggestions based on factors including skin hydration, oil content, sun damage, age, and skin concerns and goals.
What’s the sell: “Most people buy based on the category they think they fit in, and not the one they actually fit in,” says Boston dermatologist Ranella Hirsch, MD, FAAD, part of Atolla’s founding team. After an initial physical analysis (including high-res and UV photos and a short questionnaire) at one of Atolla’s retail pop-ups, people complete an online profile, reporting environmental and lifestyle data. Atolla’s proprietary algorithm then leverages the various data points to devise a custom product, down to the key, active ingredient combination, on the spot. The company declined to reveal investors, but Hirsch says there is interest “from the largest beauty brands.”
What’s next: Atolla’s in-development smartphone app calls on “computer vision” — the technology by which computers take in and analyze images — to track results, improving the algorithm and allowing the brand to make adjustments if necessary.
What it is: Between 2016 and 2017, the market for plant-based products grew 8 percent to $5 billion. It’s not just about building a better-tasting un-burger for finicky vegans; plant-based meat is said to be a boon for the planet — livestock emissions are responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gases and it takes 26 pounds of animal feed to produce one pound of beef.
What’s the sell: Lab-created meat is no longer the stuff of science fiction, and it’s far more palatable than it may sound. By reconfiguring plant proteins to mimic animal muscle in taste as well as behavior, from the way it crackles on the grill to color changes when cooked, agripreneurs have brought their non-burgers to mainstream supermarkets and restaurant chains that range from David Chang’s Momofuku to White Castle.
Impossible Burger’s key ingredient is heme, a molecule present in the blood and muscle of animals, as well as in some plants (Impossible pulls its heme from soybean roots). One hitch: A March World Health Organization survey of studies evaluating cancer and red meat reported “strong evidence” that eating heme can aid in the formation of carcinogens in the gut.
What’s next: While Beyond Meat is now developing plant-based, lab-grown bacon and steak San Francisco-based Memphis Meats is working on perfecting cultured meat — actual beef, chicken, and duck meat grown in a lab from animal cells — no actual livestock required — with investor cash from Tyson Foods, Richard Branson, and Bill Gates.
What it is: A 2016 survey out of Tufts University’s Human-Robot Interaction Lab looking to determine “the appropriateness and value” of sex robots found that two-thirds of men polled would have sex with a robot, while two-thirds of women would not. That may change with one look at — or look from — Henry, a hunk of a robot made specifically for sex by San Diego-based Realbotix (or from his female counterpart, Harmony).
What’s the sell: About $12,000 buys you an aesthetically customizable A.I.-enhanced robot partner who can tell jokes, pay compliments, moan, seduce, and orgasm on command. This may be why futurist Ian Pearson believes that women will prefer robots to men by 2025.
Realbotix’s life-sized humans, made of a skin-like silicone with real hair (everywhere), feature a Bluetooth-controlled robotic head with moving eyes and expressions, as well as 18 user-selected personality traits, including “moody,” “jealous,” “annoying,” “intellectual,” and “imaginative.”
What comes next: Realbotix is currently working on giving Henry and Harmony self-warming and self-lubricating genitals, as well as touch sensors, to mimic arousal. New, more therapeutic iterations will be engineered to help treat sexual dysfunction. And advances in regenerative medicine point to a future of customizable human bodies using 3D bioprinting and tissue engineering, including lab-grown vaginas and penile erectile tissue.
What it is: For some time now, psychedelics have been gaining ground in Silicon Valley among people who use them for uninterrupted focus and concentration, along with other therapeutic benefits. But millennials (and their drug dealers) report that taking tiny amounts of psychedelics has now moved mainstream.
What’s the sell: It’s not an escape from life but an enhancement, with reports of improved mood, better eating habits, sounder sleep, and less need for caffeine. Microdosing LSD is said to boost energy and possibly help users kick addictions that include heroin, cigarettes, and food; a few mushrooms, it’s purported, can even increase empathy. In his new book How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan looks at the anxiety- and depression-reducing effects of psilocybin, the part of the ‘shroom that gets you high, on cancer patients; in her 2017 memoir, A Really Good Day, writer Ayelet Waldman credits microdosing LSD with saving her marriage.
A microdose is somewhere between 1/20th to 1/10th of a recreational dose, typically taken once every three days, in the morning, for about a month. Thereafter, users continue only occasionally, on an as-needed basis. The problem, of course, is that microdosing is both unresearched — with no completed clinical trials to date — and imprecise.
What’s next: Widespread acceptance? Or at least some hard data: Longtime LSD researcher James Fadiman, a Stanford PhD and author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, is currently embarking on the largest nonclinical microdosing study to date, with over 400 participants in 59 countries, and the UK-based Beckley Foundation says it will soon begin a study looking at the effects of LSD microdosing on mood, cognition, and brain function.
What it is: As legalized marijuana spreads across the country, CBD — the non-psychoactive cannabinoid compound found in marijuana and hemp plants — is showing up in products for humans. According to market research firm The Brightfield Group, the CBD market is projected to top $1 billion by 2020. (As for cannabis itself, experts predict sales will outstrip soda by 2030.)
What’s the sell: CBD bath bombs and lotions are old hat; Leighton Knowles, the Brooklyn-based pharmacist and co-founder of Flower Power Coffee Company is betting on the appeal of the morning cup o’ weed. Knowles told Bon Appétit that drinking CBD-infused coffee allows you to “get the alertness from the caffeine but without the jitters.” Other reported benefits include reduced anxiety and inflammation, and we’re betting a few cups will take the edge off your commute, too.
Poised to replace Bulletproof coffee among wellness fanatics, Flower Power’s CBD-infused beans contain the compound’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and immunosuppressive properties, while remaining THC-free.
What’s next: CBD-infused — well, everything, really, from cannabis-infused suppositories to ease menstrual pain to CBD lube, CBD beer and more.
What it is: About the size of an AA battery, organ chips let scientists conduct drug research on simulated human livers, brains, lungs, and intestines by mimicking the structure and function of native tissue on computer microchips 3D-printed with integrated sensors. The promise: advanced tissue engineering, as well as quicker, safer, and more accurate drug testing. Previous processes for biomedical testing, typically on animals or in a petri dish, didn’t always translate to humans. Chips should. And when personalized using patient-derived stem cells, they will even replicate the impact a drug and its delivery method would have on a specific human patient.
What’s the sell: Organ chips, made from a flexible, translucent polymer, are lined with thousands of living cells extracted from a particular organ and interacting just as they would in the body. They can replicate diseases like asthma — and the body’s response to a given treatment — making drug testing quicker, more accurate, and more cost-effective.
What’s next: Harvard’s Wyss Institute is currently working on chips to collect data on biomedical and physiological responses across 10 different organs — including models that mimic liver, bone marrow, kidney, and the gut — not only for use within the medical field but for cosmetics and chemical companies as well.