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How to be Human: The Manual by Ruby Wax*

Probably as many science-fiction books will tell you, it was all part of the ‘bigger plan’ that we evolved to this moment in time to build computers that can take over from the old worn-out models called ‘us’. What’s coming in the future is coming. You can’t stop evolution, and the technological add-ons that are here, or almost here, are becoming extensions of us. 

One of the first marriages of humans and their technology will be repairing brain injuries or other cognitive dysfunctions. Good news for those of us with mental illness. Antidepressants, at present, splatter-gun the brain, randomly hitting any old receptor they come upon to alter your chemicals. Neural-stimulation techniques, coming soon to your future, will be able to focus on a single area.

Further down the line, there will probably be memory enhancement for the ageing. We already have deep-brain stimulation to alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, cochlear implants to restore hearing, and prosthetic limbs for those with disabilities.

Recently, electrodes to connect the motor cortex to the nervous system were inserted, enabling a quadriplegic woman to fly an F-35 fighter jet in simulation. A monkey used its mind to ride around in a wheelchair. (I’m not sure what the point of that one was, but he did it.) The scientist and physician Miguel Nicolelis and his team made it possible for a paralysed man to make the opening kick of the World Cup (see TEDTalks).

The same technology that allows a quadriplegic to use their thoughts as a remote control to move a bionic limb will make it possible for anyone to use their thoughts as a ‘remote control’ for everything. All your online shopping could be done simply by imagining it. The remote is already here and is being used by people who are paralysed, who can move a cursor on a screen just by using their thoughts.

As we speak, or as you read, work is being done by Elon Musk (owner of Tesla and SpaceX, who some say is brilliant, others not) and his team to create a brain—machine interface where all the neurons in your brain will be able to communicate with the outside world. Elon says, ‘We already have a digital tertiary layer in a sense, in that you have your computer or your phone or your applications. You can ask a question via Google and get an answer instantly. You can access any book or any music. With a spreadsheet, you can do incredible calculations. You can video chat with someone in Timbuktu for free. This would’ve gotten you burnt for witchcraft in the old days.’

The New You

This century may be the one when we, as a species, manage to snatch the genetic code from the clutches of evolution and learn to reprogramme ourselves. People alive today could witness the moment when ‘biotechnology’ might be able to free the human lifespan from the will of nature and hand it over to the whim of each individual. So, now, a whole new set of questions come into play, such as, would you actually want to be immortal? And, if you do, where will the next generation live? Maybe in jars.

We’ve neutralized the power of natural selection with modern-day medicine and technological innovations. We don’t have to wait around for new and more improved humans any more, thanks to in vitro fertilization. Parents can choose which embryo to implant, like choosing a lobster at a seafood restaurant. Specialists use gene-editing tools to create new mutations so parents will be able to design their own babies as far as gender, hair or eye colour is concerned. One of our big aims as a species is to develop greater intelligence, since it’s what got us where we are today, and our genes have evolved to dedicate more and more resources to our brains. We won’t have to wait for evolution to up the ante, we’ll soon be able to enhance intelligence by choosing the most intelligent embryo. Also, we’ll be able to manipulate DNA to engineer cells to create the next Einstein, Rembrandt or Olympic champion. I’m not saying this is good or bad, I’m just the messenger.

Kevin Kelly, publisher of the Whole Earth Review, executive editor at WIRED, founder of visionary non-profit organizations and writer on biology and ‘cool tools’, agrees that we might now start using the machines we’ve created to take the next step in our evolution. We are already working on implants for the deaf; the next step just might be that they can hear things which people with normal hearing can’t, for example, the sound of a whale hundreds of miles away, or the ability to hear what someone might be thinking.

My Conclusion

The drawback is that we might get so addicted to the ‘next big thing’ that we lose who we are and end up just being ‘out there’, communicating with virtual family and friends. I hope we don’t feel too lonely not being near real flesh-and-blood humans but I’m sure there will be some pill to take or some implant to implant if that happens.

A potential emotional sacrifice might be that if we ‘have it all’, we may lose out on any depth and just shallow out. Unless you experience a little bit of sadness or darkness, you won’t be able to feel compassion for anyone else. This also means there will be no literature, because only the dark stuff can be great. No one ever won a Booker Prize for a peppy novel where everyone ends up at a picnic. On the other hand, in the future, there might be a button on your keyboard to delete pain and one to hit for compassion, so — problem solved. Let’s also hope there’s a button marked ‘the present’, otherwise you’ll never be able to taste, smell, hear or see anything as it’s happening live. It will all be recorded on video, where nothing is ever as good as the real thing.

*The OECD Forum Network. This extract is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation and the New Societal Contract.

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