Evolution Isn't Over
It took billions of years for homo sapiens to emerge, but that's not the end of our story — humans, scientists agree, continue to evolve. For much of human history, the technology we have created has changed us. Now, as electronics advance at an unprecedented pace, scientists suspect that they might literally affect the trajectory of future generations of humans.
Stanford neuroscientist E.J. Chichilnisky, who is working on an artificial retina to help restore vision to people with medical conditions that have caused them to lose their sight, brought this up in a recent conversation. "In the future, we will be designing how we evolve our brains, rather than just letting it happen by the extremely slow and random process of natural selection," he told Futurism. "This evolution will happen by developing devices, such as artificial retinas, memory implants, and more, that interface directly to the brain and extend our capabilities. In turn, I expect that this enhancement will allow us to make smarter choices about the next steps in our evolution, so that our species can rise to the challenges that we will inevitably face."
The idea isn't as ludicrous as it may appear. "I think what he’s proposing is not crazy. It’s perfectly plausible," Blake Richards, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Toronto, told Futurism.
Scientists have, of course, already created devices that interface with the brain. Deep brain stimulation, small electrical currents emitted on particular circuits in the brain, can reduce the symptoms for Parkinson's and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Amputees can operate a growing number of prosthetic arms, hands, and legs with simply their thoughts.
It's easy to see how that kind of technology could expand beyond treating medical conditions into the realm of human enhancement. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and executive coach, predicted in an email to Futurism that the next generation of devices that can interface with the brain could bring about implanted chips to pay for goods automatically, devices that can modulate our mood or alertness, or apps that help us recognize and cut out unhealthy behaviors. Richards anticipates that devices will be able to augment our memories. Others have made more extreme predictions — Elon Musk reportedly wants to upload human brains to the internet, and even launched a company to create the technology to make this possible.
A Society Poised For Change
For now, though, the tools that interact with our brains are crude. We might use these interventions to treat disease and aid people with disabilities, but in many cases, scientists still don't really understand how these tools work. "Figuring out how to answer someone when they ask you a question, putting on your clothes — these basic things are totally mysterious to us [from a neuroscience perspective]," Richards said
"Humans are both enabled and limited by our tools," Bryan Johnson*, founder and CEO of Kernel, a company designing hardware and software to augment human intelligence, told Futurism. "We’re in an era without great tools for neurotechnology. [Chichilnisky] sees this emergent era in which we do have better tools, and the options open up for us."
In labs run by academic institutions, corporations, and government entities, scientists are working to change that. They face a daunting task, but one that's not impossible. "There's an engineering problem: How do you communicate with a large number of neurons in the brain over a long time without damaging them?" Richards said. "It’s not trivial, but it's an engineering problem. I would expect us to solve at some point... probably within our lifetimes."
To invent a technology that could affect our abstract thought, researchers would need a concrete data set to start with. And our current technology hasn't given us much of it, especially outside the highly structured confines of the lab. Scientists, in short, would probably need to have much deeper knowledge of how the brain works (beyond our knee-jerk reactions) in order to bring this technology to light.
This kind of innovation may seem like a luxury, not a necessity. But soon, Johnson noted, they may become mandatory for our survival. "Intelligence is the most powerful and precious resource in existence. We decide who we allow to reproduce. We make all those decisions on other forms of intelligence. We're brutal with our intelligence. And we’re giving birth to a new form of intelligence," Johnson said.
He's talking, of course, about artificial intelligence, which some experts and futurists have heralded as a possible threat to the continuation of the human race. "In the absence of anyone knowing what the future holds, the safest bet for humanity is to be thoughtful about how we develop AI," Johnson said.
Our societies will likely adapt to disruptive technology faster than our biology. In fact, it's already happening. Technology alters the skills we value and what we need to know to succeed — smartphones have meant that kids today need to memorize less than their parents or grandparents. Sophisticated devices that interface directly with the brain will push this shift to an even greater extreme.
Shaping Our Future Selves
As a species, humans are amazingly adaptable. We develop genetic mutations that allow us to live in extreme environments and to get nutrition from a wide diversity of products. That's the result of the long process of natural selection that has been shaped by technological innovations—from the fire that allowed us to cook our food, to the domestication of animals that allowed us to be more sedentary, to the clothes that allowed us to colonize the farthest reaches of the planet.
"We are different from our ancestors because of how we interact with our technology," Richards said. "People will get worried that this isn't how we evolved. But humans adapt. They will adopt this technology generally." As technology becomes more integrated with our lives, other forces may become more powerful in shaping us.
Yet, natural selection is a slow process. And though we don't know exactly how technology could change our biology, one thing is clear: These days, technological innovations are happening much faster than shifts in our biology. It's reasonable to question, then, whether we can keep improving as fast as the digital entities we create.
There may be technologies, however, that hasten the biological shifts, too. "If we get to the point where you truly have a cognitive link — you can read my mind, or give me experiences — then we’re in a realm where the subjective mental aspect of our experience is no longer private. Now you’re talking about a different situation. It will be truly transformative. There's no telling where humans go from there," Richards said.
When this technology arrives, and likely before it, there will be ethical questions to answer. Who should regulate it, since historically the government has been slow to catch up on rapid advances? It's easier for the wealthy and powerful to access cutting-edge innovation, so if something truly transformative emerged, could our society (or our biology) further fracture into those who have and those who do not? How will we prevent hackers from entering our minds?
Like with all changes, it's impossible to predict if they will make people's lives better or worse. "[Enhancements] will make us smarter, faster and stronger, and they will improve our longevity. But it remains questionable whether they will make us more creative, empathic, or intuitive," Swart said.
"You could say humans are ill-equipped to manage the affairs of society. Where’s the proof? Exhibit A is all of human history," Johnson said. If we had new tools, he added, maybe we could become a better species.
Future humans may look totally different than we do today. They may care about different things, or spend their time differently, or live lives that don't even resemble ours. Technology will certainly play a role, as it has for most of human existence. But few are confident about the specific effects it will have.
"When you look back at our history, humans are awful at predicting the future, especially when it comes to how technology will emerge and impact society," Johnson said. Maybe it's wise to wait and see.
*Disclosure: Bryan Johnson is an investor in Futurism; he does not hold a seat on our editorial board or have any editorial review privileges.