If you are old enough to have grown up in the 1970’s, you’ll probably remember “The six million dollar man”. The TV show that saw the US government spend a whopping $6 million dollars to rebuild an injured, astronaut’s body with mechanical parts, making him almost super-human both in strength and looks. The show was an interesting look into what the combination of humans and technology could be. Six million dollars doesn’t go very far nowadays, and the show is somewhat laughable since it doesn’t hold up very well, but it proposed a dream that one day in the not-so-distant future, broken limbs can be easily fixed and blind people can not only start seeing but have telescopic vision.
Robots have long been a great fascination to humans. With the advent of machinery such as steam-powered engines, people have dreamed of creating powered humanoids that follow our every command.
They have also been a source of consternation, not fully knowing what would happen if these man-made humans turn on us and decide to fight us. “I’ll be back!”, the famous Terminator quote comes to mind.
Many industries have replaced aspects of their manufacturing with robots, either because the task was dangerous to humans or to improve the quality or speed of the tasks in question. There are mining companies who have recently moved to self-driving trucks to haul the raw materials 24 hours a day. Not only has there been reported 15% reduction in costs by this implementation, but incidents and safety concerns have reduced as well. These ‘connected’ trucks not only drive autonomously but can also report back on the truck’s maintenance information, trail conditions and environmental metrics. This will no doubt lead to more automation and innovation in this industry.
Over the last few years, technology has basically entered every aspect of our life. It wasn’t too long ago when it was common to classify someone as “smart” because they work on computers. Today, almost everyone works or interact with computers in some way as part of their job. This is also true in day-to-day life. Most modern-day appliances are either electronic and programmable or even internet connected, making the interaction between humans and devices a very different experience. In the past, you knew if the oven was on or off. It was simple, there was a dial that either pointed to the on or off position and there was usually a red light that would come on to signify that the appliance was on. In this modern era, some ovens are internet connected, so you can turn them on and off using your phone, from anywhere in the world. Why you’d want to turn on your oven in your home in Kansas City while laying on the beach in Hawaii is still not certain, but you could do it if you wish. There could be some benefits, such being able to check on the oven to see if you accidentally left it on and having the ability to turn it off remotely.
Technology has made its way into many other items and created brand new classes of devices, such as the smart wearables (fitness trackers, etc). Now, you could easily monitor your heartbeat, steps, activity levels and wirelessly send them to your phone, which in turn stores your data in the cloud, processes it and makes recommendations on how you could be healthier. This would have been considered witchcraft not long ago. Things don’t stop there, there are sensors being developed that could scan a room (non-intrusively), using a range of frequencies to measure the blood pressure, heartbeat and heat mapping of the room’s occupants, being able to determine the stress levels, moods and could even look for indications of heart attacks or other stress-related risks.
With the advancement of these and other technologies in the health field, there will be a continuous stream of improvements to the way we monitor and treat patients. This will lead to a cultural shift in the way that medical help can be administered. Imagine if, through the use of wearable technologies, you could provide the critical information to a specialist on the other side of the world in real-time, while you are having symptoms, or if there was service that could be constantly monitoring your health and notify you well before a disease or ailment becomes serious.
Some of the most exciting technological advancements are even being seen in the field of prosthetics, implants, and transplants. The incorporation of sensors, miniaturization of technology and an improvement to the strength and weight of materials have allowed for huge strides in the quality of life for individuals who require them. These improvements will continue and in fact, speed up as the cost of technologies drop. Over the next several years, these devices may end up offering a considerable amelioration to what humans could naturally be born with. All of these enhancements could potentially lead to not only improving the quality of life of humans but also extending our lifespan.
This will, however, cause an interesting cultural shift in many areas. Could insurance companies use the constant real-time health data to determine how insurable you are? Imagine if you could replace your kidneys with “cyber-kidneys” that are guaranteed to perform better and for longer than the ones you are born with. Maybe with these better organs, the insurance companies would deem you ‘more insurable’ than before.
What about voluntarily replacing other parts of your body that could potentially make you stronger, run faster, jump higher? What would that do to the Olympic games or professional sports? Could a day come where the top player on your favorite soccer team seriously injures himself, only to come back stronger and more capable? Could this lead to a situation where the only way your country could win the World Cup is if the lineup has cyber-enhanced players?
These human improvements will bring upon a new class of individuals. Potentially, a super class of cyber-humans.
Initially, these advancements will be expensive and used in niche-situations, but eventually, they would become commoditized, widely available and cheap enough for the masses to afford. It is interesting to think about what a world like that would look like. It’s clear that the human lifespan will be eventually stretched to much longer than organically possible today and this will no doubt create societal pressures such as population densities and resource usage but also deep ethical dilemmas that will need to be dealt with. The ethical issues dealing with religion, race and class are always the most charged, and extending the strength or lifespan of individuals will be one for serious debate.
At some point, I postulate that perhaps these cyber-humans will cease to be ‘human’ and could really be considered robots. Organically-based beings, but with abilities beyond what humans were meant to have. Would we become the robots of the future?
Even with the issues that may arise, the innovation will and must continue. I firmly believe that the future will bring much to look forward and will enhance the lives of humans on earth and potentially on other planets. We must remember however, to constantly look beyond the technology and see what disruptive social forces are at play, to prepare for them.