What do you see as the next stage of human evolution? Do you imagine we will be catered-to by robots and become fatter, lazier versions of our current selves? Or maybe batteries in a dystopian future where we service machines (much like the humans depicted in pretty much every Hollywood film). Do you think we will more closely resemble characters from a Marvel movie with claws, laser vision or telepathy? Are these things really possible for humanity's future? If so, how do we get them?
Famed neuroscientist and former hacker Moran Cerf believes neuroscience might have the answer. I first met Prof. Cerf after one of his lectures and have collaborated with him on research since. In his most recent TEDx Talk, titled: "Human version 2.0", the associate professor of Marketing and Neuroscience at the Kellogg School of Management says that for the first time, humans are gaining control over their own evolution. Before, evolution was driven by Natural Selection. Now, advances in technology are making it so that it is driven by an Intelligent Designer - us.
Augmenting and enhancing the human body with technology is no longer science fiction. According to Prof. Cerf, it could be the future of our species. Right now, researchers and scientists are already working on projects to combine technology with the human body and enhance our capabilities: giving humans sight using genetic modifications, developing cochlear implants and digital retinas to help the deaf hear and the blind see. Cybernetic arms are acting as an interface with the human brain to help improve the lives of people with injuries or impairments.
Recently, neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman has used such technology in the form of a fitted vest to help the blind "see" and the deaf "hear" by replacing the interface of information access to the brain from visual/auditory to tactile. The vest employs sensory substitution and trains the brain to use alternative modes of information to understand the world. Similar feats have been accomplished using the sensory input on a person's tongue and forehead.
When you accept that tech-enhanced humans are not only a real possibility but an eventuality, there are limitless possible applications. For instance, implanting chips in our brains could allow us to communicate ideas to each other without the need for language.
Some examples Prof. Cerf gives are that a TSA agent with enhanced vision could see what the human eye cannot on its own. Construction workers and movers could have robot-like strength to easily lift pianos and other heavy objects. A car could signal to a human driver that the fuel tank is empty by making them feel hungry, or a Wall Street trader could experience pleasure when the indices rise and pain when the stocks drop. Technology may even be able to pick up on visual signals that tell you how well you are doing on a date by reading micro-expressions or Galvanic signals of arousal.
This is all possible because, as Prof. Cerf explains, the human brain is amazing at "interpreting signals and finding meaning in them." When we think, we don't identify what part of the brain the thought came from or how it traveled within our cortex. In the same way, if we get signals from a chip implanted in our brain we won't feel like it is done by a foreign object - it will just feel like us.
When you calculate 2+8 using your frontal cortex it simply feels like it "happens in your brain," says Prof. Cerf. The same experience should happen if we would use a device within our head - as long as it is connected directly to the rest of the brain. It will become part of the human experience, and any device that you connect will simply be another channel that provides input and opportunity for processing and output.
Your arm may be replaced with a mechanical one, but you will be able to control it with your brain as if it were an organic part of your body. Visual data from robotic eyes will be processed and relay information to the brain. In time, we could connect more 'plug-and-play' devices to our nervous system, process the data it collects and learn to control it. We could even extend life by replacing body parts as needed and keeping the consciousness intact.
The only question is what abilities would you like to have? Would you like to augment your skeleton with an exosuit like Ironman? Do you want to install wings so you can learn to fly or maybe add a speaker system so any song you have stuck in your head can automatically play?
If Prof. Cerf's predictions for the future are correct, your options are as limitless as your imagination.