We’ll be releasing a series of posts on our blog regarding the theme of our upcoming 2020 Think Tank event Personal Digital Empowerment: The Rise of the Centaur. This first post looks at the augmented self, specifically the world of implantables.
First, let’s begin with a definition of a digital implant and some history.
For our purposes, an implant is any device that uses digital components to augment a capability and is partially or fully below the skin level of our bodies. This could be under the skin of our hand, or beneath our skull and connected to our brain. Simply, it is a device that has been implanted inside our bodies.
With this definition, we can already include a heart pacemaker or a Cochlear implant. Both are great examples of early augmentations that solve problems. It might also help, at this point, to state that an implant can be used to improve a capability in distinctly different ways:
A natural capability has degraded or is missing completely, and the implant restores it to its former levels of performance or at least some level of capability. For example, sight has almost been lost and an implant gives the eye 20/20 vision back.
A natural capability is replaced by an implant that gives the same functionality as the former organic system. In this case, a replacement bionic eye provides the same level of functionality as a natural eye but with a digital implant.
A natural capability is extended past normal capacity by implanting a digital device and replacing the organic system. For example, an implanted digital eye allows for infrared spectrum sight in addition to the natural spectrum.
A natural capability is retained, and a digital implant expands that capability to much higher levels. For example, a retinal implant that provides the ability to float data into a person’s natural vision so that they know have two sources of visual input.
At this point in history, we have dabbled in the restorative level with vision implants, hearing implants, and heart rhythm enhancers.
We are on the verge of moving into the next three levels and this will change humanity in monumental ways. The reason for this is that humans compete with each other in many ways, especially in the games we play, education, and work environments.
Digital implants have the ability to bring amazing powers and advantages to these competitions – they change who will win and lose in the world. By the way, I am not an advocate for a world where there are winners and losers; I am just observing how we operate as human beings at this point.
When I talk about the progression of implants and how they will impact us, audiences often struggle to see this future as anything but science fiction. It seems so far away and difficult to get our hands around an augmented human being – a digital centaur as it were. Because I believe this is closer than most people think, and that it will be such a crossroads for humanity, I suggest we give a lot of thought to tomorrow’s implications today. When we wait to suffer the consequences in real-time, like we are today with distracted driving, we lose thousands or millions of lives. These are hard lessons we had to learn that we could have avoided with some forethought. So here goes…
The first concept we need to deal with in a world of digital implants is the Capability Gap. This gap will occur between those who can afford to be upgraded and those who cannot. The capabilities provided from digital implants (such as memory boosting, vision enhancement, brain computer interfaces and real-time connection to the IoT mesh) will allow a booster user to work at the speed of thought and possess a learning capacity many times that of an un-boosted person.
This will not happen slowly; it will happen quickly as people find out that they can purchase implants that give them an advantage in whatever competition they are participating in. As a society, how will we choose to deal with this gap? Will it mirror how we’ve handled the income gap?
The second concept to deal with will be the psychological impacts of a boosted human. As we add seemingly magical capabilities to people, will our natural brain and psychological structure be able to handle these kinds of upgrades? Or will we suffer mental impacts that are akin to the physical impacts of taking steroids? Will we learn that augmenting humans amplifies specific capabilities to a point that they decimate other human needs that are critical to our well-being?
For example, we can augment our ability to memorize with an implant, but then we will never forget the horrible moments in our life – they will be ingrained and boosted just like everything else. Maybe there is a reason we have been given the ability to forget, and by eliminating that what mental anguish might this cause?
The third concept to consider is the possible problem of dependence. Once we are able to boost some aspect of our capabilities, what happens if it is turned off, or we lose it for good? If we have grown up depending on our augmented capabilities, and then they are taken away for any reason, will we be able to survive as a un-boosted, natural human?
This may not sound like a big problem but then again, none of us are highly boosted just yet. I am very sure that we will one day see people in deep depression or committing suicide because they lost their augmentations and they just cannot emotionally handle being a “regular” human.
Depending on how old you are as you read this, everything I have laid out here will come to pass. The only question is when. We have already shown that we value the concept of implants. If we have lost a capability, we want it back.
If we can make improvements to have a capability that is higher than what we were born with, we will pay a lot to get it. As the implant technology gets better, we will purchase more of it. As we spend that money, more companies will invest in it in order to make profits. There is not one dynamic I can see that will stop many people from marching toward being highly implanted and boosted.
For this reason, it is good to stop shoving these thoughts into the “science fiction box” and start laying a foundation for dealing with the potentially negative aspects of this step forward. The concept of transhumanism is real and present.
We will someday invent enough technology to empower the human race into becoming a species that has so much more capability and power that we are no longer mere human beings. We are H+, as they say. Being transhuman is a light at the end of a tunnel, and we are seeing glimpses of that light now.
Whether it is truly a light that is a blessing to humanity, or a fire that will burn and scar us forever is still to be seen. We have choices so let’s start discussing our next steps now, before we take them blindly and feel the consequences.