Our posthuman future

2125_steve_jobs“If I had asked people what they wanted,” Henry Ford once observed, “they would have asked for faster horses”.  For the same reason, Steve Jobs never bothered with market research. He didn’t need to know what people wanted. He invented things that they would want if they knew what they could do with them.

Sometimes there is a time lag between something being invented and the dramatic changes that will follow. It can happen for economic, cultural or technological reasons. The Aztecs had invented the wheel but didn’t use it for anything but children’s toys. Why would they? They had no beasts of burden. The only animals available to pull carts or coaches were people. A rickshaw was just as fast. The Incas, on the other hand, had llamas but no wheels.

With railways and automobiles the time lag was economic. New York in 1900 was recognizable to George Washington despite the theoretical existence of both these technologies because most people still traveled by horse. By 2000 it would have been an alien place to Teddy Roosevelt.

So what technologies exist today but have failed to have even the beginning of the impact that they will have for our grandchildren? Space travel is one possibility, but the most likely one is probably genetic engineering.

We have been manipulating genes for thousands of years. There are literally hundreds of species of plants and animals that only exist because of generations of cross breeding to domesticate them. The wild – not feral, but wild – ancestors of cows and horses are long extinct. Like dogs these animals only exist because we have bred them that way. Cows and sheep have been bred for docility so that we can milk them. Horses have been bred for strength and speed. Dogs for obedience. 

The ability to cross breed plants took a major step forward a couple of generations ago and while environmentalists were predicting that India would never be able to feed itself as recently as 1970 now, with double the population, India is producing vastly more food. 

But the direct manipulation of genes in the laboratory is new. Future advances will be much more rapid and will take us to places that only science fiction authors have thus far dreamed.

Our descendants will be able to regrow lost limbs and damaged organs. But will they redesign the human body altogether? Perhaps these posthumans will have plug in augmented memories. Perhaps such will be essential to their prolonged lifespan. Does memory fail in old age because the brain cells are wearing out or because the memory is “full” after 80 or 90 years? If we eliminate age and disease then we will need new ways of storing all the data we accumulate. How many of the replacement parts and augmentations will be organic – grown in a laboratory – and how many will be more traditionally technological? Perhaps we will simply develop better ways of cleaning and oxygenating blood.

We could extend our effective lifespan by a third simply by eliminating the need for sleep.

We can probably assume that the 1970s vision of the “Six Million Dollar Man” is ridiculously dated. Why would we want to be stronger or faster or have better eyesight? That’s like asking for faster horses. Better cognition and memory would matter more.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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