Human Augmentation: The Future of Melding People with Machines

The idea of cyborgs roaming around us sounds like something out of an 80s science-fiction movie. Yet human augmentation, or transhumanism, is already something we’ve adapted to comfortably. Millions in the world wear hearing aids as they become older, relying on technology to help them maintain their senses. Those with hearing difficulties at a young age wear cochlear implants.

Still more utilize pacemakers to help their hearts keep steady. Those who’ve lost limbs wear ever-more advanced prosthetics.

But what about the rest of us? They may not be built into our body, but we manage increasing portions of our lives through phones that are always at our hips. They’re all but extensions of our body by now. We certainly treat them that way. What does that tell us? We have involved technology in our everyday lives to the point where we’re reliant on it.

That in itself is neither good nor bad. It helps us be more efficient and organized in our lives. It can also be addictive and distracting if we aren’t healthy about how we use it.

Transhumanism doesn’t only rely on technology, either. There’s been research into strength suits and pop-fiction technology like that, but there’s not a huge demand for increasing the efficiency of what pure (cheap) manpower can already do, or for tasks where pure machinery has already replaced us.

Instead, research has tended to be more specialized. Researcher Gabriel Licina experimented with a range of approaches toward unlocking infrared vision in humans. Currently, infrared occupies an end of the spectrum we’re unable to see. He found that changes in nutrition could improve night vision, but only at the cost of losing some ability to perceive differences between blue and green. That highlights another lesson about human augmentation: not only can it be based in biology, it won’t make us superhuman. For every improvement, there’s a trade-off.

Take Stuart Meloy’s research into an implant that can create pleasure in the human body on command. This poses incredible possibilities for achieving pain relief with less reliance on medication. There’s less of a chance of suffering drug addiction, especially for those with chronic conditions. There are obvious avenues of abuse for such a device, though.

From writers like William Gibson to game franchises like Deus Ex, the major pitfall of transhumanism isn’t that any specific technology is good or evil. Rather, the danger lies in who distributes and maintains that technology. Consider EpiPens, which save allergy sufferers from potentially deadly allergy attacks. After securing more than a 90 percent market share of the epinephrine auto-injector, Mylan Inc. increased the price of EpiPens from $100 for a pack of two in 2007 to more than $600 for that same pack today.

Or take perhaps the most famous example: when Martin Shkreli bought the antimalarial drug Daraprim, used for treatment of toxoplasmosis and AIDS. There was no generic alternative. In 2015, his Turing Pharmaceuticals increased the price of the life-saving drug from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill.

The danger in transhumanism isn’t the philosophical one we sometimes fear – is it good or evil to augment our bodies, our behavior, and our lives? No, the danger lies in who controls the patent when we do so. Transhumanism and human augmentation are the inevitable route that we will take going into the future. We read on electronic devices now. We maintain tailored perceptions of our notional selves via social networks like Facebook and Twitter. This allows us to share information at a breakneck pace our forebears could never have imagined.

Yet it also means we are all drinking from fewer and fewer wells. When one of them gets poisoned – via misinformation, or a sudden price hike of something that many need to continue their lives – it means we become beholden to the poisoner.

What exactly is the solution to that? Nobody knows yet. We’ve got to stumble through it as a society before we figure it out. Transhumanism and human augmentation are our modern realities. How do we get what we want out of them, instead of seeing it all as one new avenue to be sold off piece by piece?


What do you think about a future of transhumanism and human augmentation? Is it good, bad, or what we make of it?




Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.