There’s a day in the not-too-distant future when incorrigible smokers, having blackened their lungs beyond function, will have access to a shiny new artificial pair; when cancer patients will mobilize microscopic nanobots in their bloodstreams to eradicate disease; when diabetes will be nothing more than a bad memory on account of an effective blood-sugar management system. People who are alive today will be taking advantage of such medical developments—and wrestling with the dystopian conundrums aggressive life-extension practices present. So says science writer Eve Herold in her new book,Beyond Human, which captures the current state of these various “converging technologies” in medicine via the scientists developing them and the patients testing out their early iterations.
“As exciting as these possibilities sound, they could be extremely dangerous if human beings don’t change the more belligerent side of their nature,” Herold writes, going on to describe internecine wars and a gap between rich and poor that extends deep into our physiology and cognition. Amid her dark projections, though, are bright spots—about incredible feats underway in medicine and technology, and the inevitable human capacity to adjust and adapt. —Kate Lowenstein
Meet Victor, the future of humanity. He’s 250 years old but looks and feels 30. Having suffered from heart disease in his 50s and 60s, he now has an artificial heart that gives him the strength and vigor to run marathons. His type 2 diabetes was cured a century ago by the implantation of an artificial pancreas. He lost an arm in an accident, but no one would know that he has an artificial one that obeys his every thought and is far stronger than the original. He wears a contact lens that streams information about his body and the environment to his eye and can access the internet anytime he wants through voice commands. If it weren’t for the computer chips that replaced the worn-out cells of his retina, he would have become blind countless years ago. Victor isn’t just healthy and fit; he’s much smarter than his forebears now that his brain has been enhanced through neural implants that expanded his memory, allow him to download knowledge, and even help him make decisions.
While 250 might seem like a ripe old age, Victor has little worry about dying because billions of tiny nanorobots patrol his entire body, repairing cells damaged by disease or aging, fixing DNA mistakes before they can cause any harm, and destroying cancer cells wherever they emerge. With all the advanced medical technologies Victor has been able to take advantage of, his life has not been a bed of roses. Many of his loved ones either didn’t have access to or opted out of the life-extending technologies and have passed away. He has had several careers that successively became obsolete due to advancing technology and several marriages that ended in divorce after he and his partners drifted apart after 40 years or so. His first wife, Elaine, was the love of his life. When they met in college, both were part of a movement that rejected all “artificial” biomedical interventions and fought for the right of individuals to live, age, and die naturally. For several decades, they bonded over their mutual dedication to the cause of “natural” living and tried to raise their two children to have the same values.
Then, one day, Victor unexpectedly had a massive heart attack. Having a near-death experience shook him to the core, and for several years, he and Elaine both pursued every natural avenue of fending off heart disease. They exercised, ate only heart-healthy foods, and Victor took a cholesterol-lowering drug. However, his heart disease gradually worsened, and by the time he was 65, he had prematurely entered end-stage heart failure. Victor’s heart had become grossly enlarged, and it was greatly weakened in the process. Day after day, he felt weak, dizzy, and had more and more trouble breathing. His feet and legs swelled up so much from water retention that he could barely walk. Then he could no longer sleep lying down because the fluid in his lungs made him feel like he was drowning. Being both ill and severely sleep-deprived made Victor’s quality of life miserable. Elaine, who was in much better health, remained completely devoted to caring for him. Gradually it dawned on Victor that he was dying. After all the years of illness and disability, this should have come as no surprise, but he was deeply disturbed by the idea.