The Future of Human Healthcare: Rise of the Netborgs
By Dr Frank F Craig
TTP welcomes guest author Frank F Craig PhD MBA of Sphere Fluidics Limited to the blog.
Dr Craig is a Life Sciences entrepreneur with a PhD in Cell and Microbiology from Glasgow University and an MBA from Warwick Business School. He is currently CEO of Sphere Fluidics Limited, a biotech company based in Cambridge (UK), developing novel single cell analysis systems for discovery of new therapeutics.
Human healthcare has been transformed over the last century. The advent of antibiotics, new medicines, better diet, improved working and environmental conditions and the availability of professional healthcare from national or private sources has ensured a longer and a higher quality of life for many of our planet’s inhabitants. Average life expectancy has risen from roughly 50-55 years in 1910 to 80-85 years in today’s world.
“Surely, such improvements can’t go on or have a natural limit?” some may say. Well, I can see various trends which may nullify such views or even shock some readers. If we look at the pharmaceutical industry, new technologies (mainly in the biological domain) and information are yielding novel ways to treat cancer via the administration of personalised medicines (for example created by reprogramming the patient’s T-cells to fight cancer). Stem cells are also being created and programmed to regenerate tissue and normal cells to cure disease or replace tissue or even organs. Maps of the Human Genome and Proteome have already been created. These useful repositories are now being supplemented with information from epigenomics and global projects such as the Human Cell Atlas project (sponsored by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative). The latter promises to map Human Cells around the body to further understand human cell function, interactions, mechanisms of disease and identify potential new therapies. However, most of these activities can be seen as extensions of philosophies or approaches from the last century and are, to an extent, “predictable”.
What may be less predictable, and thus could be new (or even shocking) to the reader, is the future emergence and likely impact of fusion of humans and machines to produce longer living humans that become more like cyborgs. What is a cyborg? According to Wikipedia, a cyborg (short for “cybernetic organism”) is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts. In recent years, people have seen the creation of artificial limbs that have evolved from simple versions to elegantly designed plastic/electronic hands which can pick up nervous signals from the forearm and turn thoughts into finger movements. For decades now, people have also had drug delivery implants.
Are wearable devices not also giving us Cyborg-like properties? For example, a Fitbit accessory (whose job is to monitor body activity and health in real-time) is worn day and night by some owners so that it practically becomes a part of the human body. The number of mobile phones in the world today is almost 5 billion. Such devices are used constantly and are often in almost constant contact with their human owner. A growing proportion of mobile phones provide health apps, diet aids, access to on-line doctors, comparative health databases and can record (and remind) you to do exercise, eat properly and take your medication.
Virtual reality devices were first invented in the 1950’s. They were bulky, expensive and lacked computing power and portability. Such technology is now re-emerging in augmented reality devices, mobile phones and “Google Glasses”. Such devices, attached again to the human body, could be used to educate their owner, relax them or give them unique experiences to strengthen their brain or body and improve health. Scientists are now also inventing “electrode caps” that can measure signals in the human brain and read these thoughts or convert the activity into patterns which can then be used to drive and control actions in computers or robots.
This technology will gradually improve so that rather than needing Apple HomePod or Amazon Echo devices, one can merely think and “your will shall be done” by your newest “MindPod” or “HomeBot” device. Arguably, if enough of these signals or patterns are stored, with some artificial intelligence added, a computer program could be made that mimicked your brain. Maybe it could even go on holidays while you sleep and then transplant the memories via download into your brain the next day? “I always wanted to go to Egypt but couldn’t afford it, now I can have the memories at little or no cost, wow!”
It is also highly likely that, in the near future (say the next 10-20 years), some people may even choose to be interconnected via an implant or a wearable to the Internet and have their body patterns recognised and monitored for health in real time to further improve their quality of life and longevity. Average life expectancy may by that time be nearer 100? Furthermore, as our technology further improves, people with enough wealth and a desire to live even longer, could even choose to have some of their organs or limbs replaced with artificially grown new organic parts or even biomechatronic parts. The rationale for choosing the latter would be: they are cheaper, cosmetically rather pleasing (my new blue arm matches the colour of my eyes), more reliable and longer-lasting. Maybe average life expectancy will then approach 150?
Finally, in fifty years’ time, as mankind evolves further, we may end up being part-human, part-machine entities linked to an information network of other “cyborgs”. I call these entities “Netborgs”. If we can also replicate our brain patterns, couldn’t we then then place a copy of our brain into a fully mechanical version of ourselves? Those “replicates” could be relatively immortal and are undoubtedly better candidates for tackling long outer space exploration trips than their “biological twins”? Mankind has conquered planet Earth but maybe it’s only our replicates that can conquer the Universe?