As the greatest of all the superheroes, Superman possesses extraordinary powers represented as “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”, a description made famous in the Superman TV series of the 1950s. Superman’s capabilities include flight, super-strength, invulnerable skin, super-speed, x-ray vision, super-hearing, and the ability to blow with the power of gale-force winds. Besides that, he was pretty much invulnerable to disease and smart as a whip. This is one tough dude.
These certainly are abilities “far beyond those of mortal men” as the old TV series proclaimed, but is technology pushing us in this direction? Is our destiny to create a new, greatly enhanced version of humanity? In other words, a new species of superhumans?
I believe that’s exactly where we are heading. As we continue to advance the big four technologies — genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology — we will create a new version of humanity that will have as little in common with us as we have with Cro-Magnon man. The next three to five decades will place humanity firmly on the path to this new reality.
I don’t mean to sound gloomy, because the destination will be pretty damn good for the most part. It’s the transition that concerns me; technological evolution will proceed so rapidly that many will fall by the wayside. Underdeveloped countries may fall far behind, lost forever. Even in technology-rich North America, pockets of people may lose their way. Don’t let it happen to you.
DNA can be considered the program code guiding the development of our bodies. Each of us caries DNA in our cells, and this DNA provides the instructions that lead to the growth and formation of our minds and bodies. As we begin to understand this code, as well as the other mechanisms of our bodies, we have an increasing capability to intervene. By manipulating DNA, by adjusting processes, we will be able to prevent or cure disease, enhance intelligence, strength, speed and other factors and increase the human lifespan. Are there any limits? Probably, but we are just getting started.
In comparison to other animals, our bodies are weak, we don’t have lethal teeth or claws, we’re not that big, we don’t reproduce quickly or in large numbers, we can’t fly or even run very fast … well, you get the idea. So why are we such a successful species? You know the answer, of course — our magnificent brain. Intelligence wins out. At least it has so far.
It’s clear that increasing our intelligence improves our survival prospects. We have learned that the computer, combined with the right software, can display a certain degree of intelligence, which we can harness for our own purposes. In certain limited areas — such as playing chess — artificial intelligence can defeat the best humans. Although humans are far ahead of the machines in broad based intelligence, the differential is shrinking. Some experts predict artificial intelligence will catch and then surpass us in as little as three or four decades. I’m not sure about the timeframe, but I am sure that we will enhance the capabilities of our brains with artificial intelligence. Wireless connections to networked AI will provide these fortunate individuals far greater intelligence than unconnected humans. Over the coming decades, we will begin to rely more on artificial intelligence than our native brainpower, even for individuals with minds genetically enhanced. The combination of genetic enhancements and networked AI will push us up the evolutionary scale.
If artificial intelligence will gradually surpass our natural intelligence, what about our bodies? Sure, they will be genetically enhanced, but it’s not going to stop there. Robotics will play a big role, but not the kind of mechanical man we have become familiar with through the movies. No, the type of robotics I anticipate are the artificial components built into our bodies. We are already familiar with artificial hips and knees, prosthetic leg extensions and replacements, hearing aids and glasses. Why not a second mechanical heart for a backup or to supply extra blood when the workload is extreme? Why not super strong but lightweight supports built into your arms and legs, all run by your artificial intelligence? Get the picture? Like our brains, our bodies will gradually give way to mechanical devices superior to our original body parts.
Nanotechnology is the process of building with molecules, even atoms, which will allow us to precisely design and fabricate virtually any body part. This could be a tiny object that would fit into a human cell or something as large as a bone or organ. At some point, we may be able to build tiny medical bots in the cells, which could monitor the performance of biological parts. Or we could build more efficient blood cells, perhaps self-powered so that a heart is no longer required. In any case, nanotechnology will enable us to fabricate replacements that may be superior to the original items.
The Bottom Line
Some people would ban most, if not all, of the technological developments that we have outlined. This may be due to religious or moral beliefs that we shouldn’t tamper with God’s design. Or they may be concerned that these technologies could get into the wrong hands, such as terrorists or rogue states. Even with the best of safeguards, serious problems that may endanger human health, or even survival, might appear many years after implementation. In any case, the development of a superman could lead to conflict between the haves and have-nots in our society.
These are serious considerations, but there is no turning back; the genie is out of the bottle. Superman is coming and he’s moving with super speed. Our best hope is to combine government regulation with built-in scientific self-monitoring. If the advanced nations can agree on a course of action, Superman may be the best thing that’s ever happened to us. But if things get out of control …