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Futurist vs. Geneticist: Will We Be Artificially Enhanced Humans?

The future’s possibilities are as diverse as the visionaries creating it.

In this second installment of our Futurist vs. Geneticist opinion series, we’ve presented two leading experts with possible scenarios that could drastically affect the human condition. See what they say, then let us know your opinion in the accompanying polls.

Missed Part 1? Click here.

WIRED Futurist vs Geneticist
Left: Professor of Medicine and Genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Director of The Institute for Aging Research; Right: CEO of Six to Start, author of A History of the Future in 100 Objects, former neuroscientist.

Artificially-Intelligent Enhancement

SCENARIO: Data stands to challenge what it means to be human – on the inside and out. The first bionic eye implant in 2015 already broke the barrier between the corporeal concept of human vision and a learning system’s ability to convert digital images into meaningful data. A future where artificially-intelligent systems endlessly analyze and trade exponentially more health data points will push the boundaries of possibility.

Geneticist Nir Barzilai perspectiveWe see this now in limited forms, through such things as augmented reality, but it’s up for our brains to decide what is important and what is not. Can we integrate that into other parts of our body? Perhaps, but there are still things we need to learn at a technical level. Also, the results may be mixed. Let’s say, for instance, we get stem cells to augment our brain cells, our neurons. If we will replace or enhance our memory, perhaps we are then not really the same person. Maybe we can download our old memory into something new. Then we could see various versions of our bodies – a 1.0, a 2.0, etc. – each with a different version of our biological data.

Futurist Adrian Hon perspectiveIt seems like we’re doing this already, in some ways, with our gadgets, our phones. So it’s not new. We’ve already developed toys that extend our abilities and our capacity for remembering things. Things like SIRI and other AI that translate languages quickly, for instance.  It used to take years to learn a language and now an app does it in second. And wearable technology that offers augmented reality provides another step. How far will it go?  I think people are understandably reluctant to plant something inside their body, although bionic eyes are a reality. It’ll be interesting that when we have hardware or software that can enhance your abilities above the normal being. Like a chip in the ear that helps you hear better. I suspect a lot of people would get that.

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If you could ‘artificially enhance’ your eyesight, would you want it to do more than see? Think heat-sensing or improved night vision.

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Better Living Through Early Prediction

SCENARIO: Pull enough of those “full-blown genetic histories” over time and you can start pulling deeper insights out of the data. Take heart attack prediction: heart attacks and arrhythmias are very different, and precise genetic data gathering and genome mapping has the potential to better predict not only catastrophic heart attacks but also smaller (but extremely important) arrhythmia problems. This is only a small taste of what data will make possible for prediction in terms of living longer, healthier lives.

Geneticist Nir Barzilai perspectiveGenetics are extremely important, but in some cases they can have low or limited predictive value. We can get the DNA sequence of an individual and still can’t explain why one gene is related to a particular disease. This is an on-going pursuit. We have to analyze the information, whatever we can get, and see if it can lead us somewhere else or consider certain actions. If we can get all the data together we can decide how one bit of data works with the other. Which is important and which not so much.  And whenever you have a component that allows you to alleviate human suffering it should be pursued.

Futurist Adrian Hon perspectiveWe’re working with probabilities here, and I just don’t know how people are going to work with the knowledge that they have a better chance to get a heart attack than the next person. Will they change their behavior? Maybe? Combine your genetic history and your medical data and you could have a lot of data points that lead to something very useful. I can see the real usefulness of, for instance, a smart watch that can sense defibrillations or other symptoms of an impending heart attack. Maybe it’s not heartburn from the curry you had last night. Maybe it’s something more serious.

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How much do you use health-monitoring technologies to improve your wellness?

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This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.

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