Supernatural: No More Sci-Fi, Human Enhancement Are Now Real

“We all have the capacity to be a superhero. In order to become one, you just have to find your unique power or ability and exploit it for the greater good. The cape and mask are optional accessories, but a kind heart is necessary.”

Beatrice Barbazzeni
Beatrice Barbazzeni

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

A famous quote from Spider-man already tells us what it means to be supernatural; in fact, power and responsibility are the two sides of the same coin. What if you could see miles far away, or running at speed light, or even more calculating numbers faster than computers? This is not a provocation, but an emerging field in the latest scientific research investigating the possibility to enhance humans beyond normal functioning.

A recent study from AARP Research surveyed the opinion of Americans investigating their awareness and acceptance of innovative technologies implemented to enhance human performances such as interventions targeting vision, joints, cognitive functioning, and gene editing. The survey showed that 76 percent of respondents lacked awareness and knowledge in this field and just a few of them were aware of already available technologies and their implementation. Moreover, the survey investigated their level of acceptance in which advanced technologies were suggested either for therapeutic implementations or to boost an already functioning body beyond normal. Although acceptance was higher when technologies would have been implemented to restore impaired functioning, a closer investigation of those respondents who were open to the idea of using technologies to generating supernatural enhancements demonstrated that a market in this field would be successful. While examining those technologies to enhance and improve human abilities, through awareness, understanding, and acceptance, the AARP study represented a beginning that needs to be further explored.

Latin was not so ancient indeed

But let’s start from the beginning.“Enhancement” is a noun that comes from the verb “enhance” meaning to “improve, increase, boost”. Originally, this verb derives from the late Latin inaltare (“raise”), from altare (“make high”) and altus (“high”, “gown tall”) (1). Myths and legends on humans with supernatural powers have a very long history, and the desire to achieve and evolve that unlimited strength, highness, and immortality are somehow printed in our DNA (1).

Beside Sci-Fi and comic books, human enhancement is not a utopia anymore. Technologies contributed to increase and ameliorate our standard of living but also in healthcare procedures, where biomedical interventions did lead to rehabilitating impaired functions such as vision, mobility, and hearing. Few examples come from the implementation of artificial retinas to giving partial sight in blind patients (2) (3) (4) or computer chips to regain sufficient movement of previously non-responding limbs (5) (6), as well as, synthetic blood for clinical purposes (7) (8) (9).

The incredible advantage made by innovative technologies can also be applied in non-pathological conditions; hence the commercialization of medical products was also developed to enhance certain human functions such as supplements to boost cognitive performances and brain sensors technologies to ameliorate and monitor mood or sleep. Rethinking assisting technologies used for disabled and specific therapeutic interventions might have a feasible application also in healthy individuals to enhance brain and body abilities (1).

Nevertheless, ethical and regulatory approvals should be considered, evaluated,  and revised whether necessary. This is particularly relevant in the context of genetic engineering, in which technologies directed to modify an organism’s DNA look very promising in healthcare when preventing and investigating certain diseases, although genome editing procedures may raise ethical debates when it is about human germline. In this case, the empowerment of specific human capabilities can be impactful on the germline and consequently the evolutionary process, in which natural selection became nowadays an obsolete mechanism of survival (1) (10) (11).

From restoring to replacing human functions or body parts, from gene editing to nanotechnologies, wearables, and sensors, human enhancement represents the building block for health longevity. Becoming the creators of a new “intelligent'' and “strong” human species, three categories were explored to characterize the process of human enhancement due to the integration of multiple scientific disciplines. Among these, there are removable cyborg extension, cyborg-humans, and technologies changing humans.

This article represents the first part of a series about the fabulous world of human enhancement; rich in opportunities, advantages but also big challenges. Recent scientific studies and methods will be described and discussed for each article series. We will be talking about neurostimulation techniques and microchips to enhance brain functioning, exoskeletons, and artificial limbs powered by A.I. to restore mobility and replace missing body parts, bionic eyes, artificial nones, artificial skins, and synthetic tongues to repair and enhance senses, or even more innovative CRISPR gene editing methods to treat a variety of complex diseases imagined impossible few years ago.

Without leaving you guessing, a brief overview of these contents will be given.

Enhancing brain functioning

In this article series on human enhancement, innovative methods to increase brain functioning will be discussed. From Labs to product markets, from neurostimulations and brain-computer interfaces to microchips. From treating and rehabilitating current diseases and medical conditions, to boost already functioning brains beyond normal. In laboratories, in hospitals, or even at home. Enhancing cognitive performances has never been so real and tangible. Probably even Dr. Frankenstein would not yet believe in it!

Wearing the exoskeleton to robotize the human

Who believes it possible to walk in paraplegia or having limbs again after being amputated? Well, in this series the answer will be given. Whether it is about wearing motorized exoskeletons as a bodysuit or artificial prosthesis powered by A.I. technology, the possibility to restore ambulation or missing limbs is not anymore a Sci-Fi story. Whether it is about rehabilitating patients or augmenting the capacities of manual workers to assist intensive labor activities, an extensive description of these innovative technologies will be reported.

Feeling already robotized, don’t you?

Empowering human senses knows no limits

Overcoming silence and darkness thanks to hearing aids and bionic eyes; scientific progress and technologies have no limits!

In this series, advances in technologies developed to restore impaired senses will be explored. Besides hearing aids or chip eye implants to enhance hearing or lost sight, artificial noses and skins were developed in individuals to restore olfaction and body sensitivity after amputations. Moreover, movable tongues prostheses were also created to repair speaking in patients with oral cancer or artificial synthetic tongues to enhance the sense of taste over human capabilities.

Umami? It’s already an old fashion!

Genetic engineering to build supernaturals

Were you already thinking of becoming like Hulk? Although having an army of gene-edited soldiers sounds frightening, and several ethical challenges have arisen due to the development of this innovative method, the scope of CRISPR is way different. Born in the field of genetic engineering, CRISPR gene editing resulted in a promising method to treat a variety of diseases while changing the underlying genetic material. Repairing genetic mutations behind disease development, or silencing the expression of specific proteins under Alzheimer’s disease progression are great examples of implementing gene-editing technology.

In this article series, a brief history of how CRISPR-Cas9 was discovered and how this technique works will be covered, as well as, its application in the clinical setting to potentially treating complex diseases such as cancer, muscular dystrophy, malaria, Huntington’s disease, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Natural selection as a survival mechanism? Darwin needs an upgrade!

Editing on-demand heroes

Finally, the most exciting part. Building superheroes. A relevant topic regards the possibility to enhance already functioning humans over their normal range. Humans 2.0? Something like that! In conclusion to this article series, the discussion will rotate around possible and future implementations of CRISPR gene editing method such as in treating incurable diseases, enhancing intelligence, or even more in manipulating human embryos for research purposes; few topics that are going to be discussed beside ethical concerns.

I would like to leave you with this quote from Robert Clancy, letting you reflect on the advantage that scientific discoveries and disruptive technologies are bringing nowadays while leading to innovations and progress. Nevertheless, the respect of ethics and common sense should always be obeyed; indeed, it is what makes us feeling and being humans.

“We all have the capacity to be a superhero. In order to become one, you just have to find your unique power or ability and exploit it for the greater good. The cape and mask are optional accessories, but a kind heart is necessary.”

Stay tuned!

Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

References:

  1. Almeida, M. & Diogo, R. (2019). Human enhancement: Genetic engineering and evolution. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health [2019] pp. 183–189, https://doi.org/10.1093/emph/eoz026
  2. Pham P, Roux S, Matonti F, Dupont F, Agache V, Chavane F. Post-implantation impedance spectroscopy of subretinal micro-electrode arrays, OCT imaging and numerical simulation: towards a more precise neuroprosthesis monitoring tool. Journal of Neural Engineering. 2013 Aug;10(4):046002. DOI: 10.1088/1741-2560/10/4/046002. Epub 2013 May 30. PMID: 23723150.
  3. Maghami, M. H., Sodagar, A. M., Lashay, A., Riazi-Esfahani, H., & Riazi-Esfahani, M. (2014). Visual prostheses: the enabling technology to give sight to the blind. Journal of ophthalmic & vision research, 9(4), 494–505. https://doi.org/10.4103/2008-322X.150830
  4. Weitz, A. C, Nanduri, D., Behrend, M. R, Gonzalez-Calle, A., Greenberg, R. J, Humayun, M. S, Chow, R. H, & Weiland, J. D. (2015). Improving the spatial resolution of epiretinal implants by increasing stimulus pulse duration. Science Translational Medicine, 16;7(318):318ra203. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aac4877. PMID: 26676610; PMCID: PMC4698804.
  5. Bouton, C., Shaikhouni, A., Annetta, N. et al. (2016). Restoring cortical control of functional movement in a human with quadriplegia. Nature, 533, 247–250. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature17435
  6. Geddes, L. (2016). First paralysed person to be 'reanimated' offers neuroscience insights. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2016.19749
  7. Squires, J. E. (2002). Artificial blood. Science, 295:1002-5.
  8. Lowe, K. C. (2006). Blood substitute: from chemistry to clinic. Journal of Material Chemistry, 16:4189-96.
  9. Moradi, S., Jahanian-Najafabadi, A., & Roudkenar, M. H. (2016). Artificial Blood Substitutes: First Steps on the Long Route to Clinical Utility. Clinical Medicine Insights: Blood Disorders. doi:10.4137/CMBD.S38461
  10. Tibayrenc, M. & Ayala, F. J. (eds). On Human Nature: Biology, Psychology, Ethics, Politics, and Religion. London: Academic Press, 2017.
  11. Baldi, P. The Shattered Self: The End of Natural Evolution. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

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Beatrice Barbazzeni

Beatrice is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience aimed to achieve her MTP with discipline, perseverance and grit:“empower inner potential leading to the growth of exponential winners".