Michael Bess

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Smarter, stronger and healthier are just a few of the advantages bioengineering and informatic machines will deliver to us, likely sometime this century. By then, our hands will have taken control of evolution, and our heads will be in the cloud. These miracle tools will also be attended by a raft of ethical issues and unintended consequences.

In an excellent Vox Q&A conducted by Sean Illing, Michael Bess, author of Our Grandchildren Redesignedbelieves the ETA for this brave new world is 2050 or so. He fears the possibility of a whole new different level of wealth inequality, but he doesn’t think we should be overly deterministic about the effects of these technologies, arguing we can consciously direct their course despite not really having the time to get ahead of the onrushing problems.

In a perfectly flat world, sure. In a globe filled with competing states and corporations and groups and individuals, however, there will be no consensus. Some actors will push the envelope, hoping for an edge, and others may react in kind. This dynamic will be especially true since the machinery and materials won’t be rare, expensive and closely held, like in the case of nuclear weaponry. As Freeman Dyson has written: “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous.”

An excerpt:

Sean Illing:

And this revolution in biotechnology, in the ability to tinker with the human genome and alter our own biology, is coming whether we want it to or not, right?

Michael Bess:

It is, but I’m always careful about saying that, because I don’t want to fall into technological determinism. Some of the writers like Ray Kurzweil, the American inventor and futurist, have tended to do that. They say it’s coming whether we like it or not, and we need to adapt ourselves to it.

But I don’t see technology that way, and I think most historians of technology don’t see it that way either. They see technology and society as co-constructing each other over time, which gives human beings a much greater space for having a say in which technologies will be pursued and what direction we will take, and how much we choose to have them come into our lives and in what ways.

And I think that is important to emphasize — that we still have agency. We may not be able to stop the river from flowing, but we can channel it down pathways that are more or less aligned with our values. I think that’s a very important point to make when we talk about this.

What’s happening is bigger than any one of us, but as we communicate with each other, we can assert our values and shape it as it unfolds over time, and channel it on a course that we’d prefer.

Sean Illing:

Whatever shape it does take, we’re not talking about some distant future here — we’re talking about the middle years of this century, right?

Michael Bess:


Sean Illing:

How will human life improve as a result of this revolution?

Michael Bess:

I think it’s going to improve in countless ways. These are going to be technologies that are hard to resist because they’re going to be so awesome. They’re going to make us live longer, healthier lives, and they’re going to make us feel younger.

So some of the scientists and doctors are talking about rejuvenation technologies so that people can live — have a longer, not only life span, but health span — which would mean that you could be 100 years old but feel like a 45-year-old, and your mind and body would still be young and vigorous and clear. So one aspect has to do with just quality of basic health and having that for a longer period of time.

Some of these chemicals — maybe some of the new bioelectronic devices — will allow us to improve our cognitive capacities. So we’ll be able to have probably augmented memory, maybe greater insight, maybe we’ll be able to boost some of the analytical functions that we have with our minds. And, in other words, sort of in a broad-spectrum way, make ourselves smarter than we have tended to be.

There will also be a tendency for us to merge our daily lives, our daily activities, ever more seamlessly with informatic machines. It’s science fiction now to talk about Google being accessible by thought, but that’s not as farfetched as many people think. In 30 or 40 years, it’s possible to envision brain-machine interfaces that you can wear, maybe fitted to the outside of your skull in a sort of nonintrusive way, that’ll allow you to connect directly with all kinds of machines and control them at a distance, so your sphere of power over the world around you could be greatly expanded.

And then there’s genetic technologies. I imagine that some of them will be a resistance to cancer — or perhaps to certain forms of cancer — that could be engineered into our DNA at the time of conception. What’s more exciting to me is going beyond the whole concept of designer babies and this whole new field of epigenetics that is coming out.

What I see there as a possibility is that you’ll be able to tinker with the genetic component of what makes us who we are at any point in your life. One of the most awful aspects of designer babies is somebody’s shaping you before you’re born — there’s a loss of autonomy that’s deeply morally troubling to many people. But if you’re 21 years old and you decide, okay, now I’m going to inform myself and make these choices very thoughtfully, and I’m going to shape the genetic component of my being in precise, targeted ways.

The way it’s looking with epigenetics is we’re going to have tools that allow us to modify our character, the way our body works, the way our mental processes work, in very profound ways at any point in our lives, so we become a genetic work in progress.

Sean Illing:

What you’re describing is utterly transformative, and in many ways terrifying.•

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Vanderbilt historian Michael Bess, author of Our Grandchildren Redesigned, believes–fears, really–that we’re on the brink of a slew of technological and bioengineering breakthroughs which in the next few decades will do much good and be attended by many problems.  

In the long run–if there is one–he’s right, but while these “games” will begin being played within his timeframe, I don’t really feel most of them will play out by then. For instance: Bess wonders what lifespans of 160 years or more will mean for marriage and family. That’s not likely to be a concern this century, and if life is eventually radically extended, family will have changed greatly numerous times by then.

But I do think he identifies many of the right questions in a History News Network article he adapted from his book. The opening:

Over the coming decades – probably a lot sooner than most people realize –the next great wave of technological change will wash over our lives. Its impact will be similar in sweep and rapidity to the advent of computers, cell phones, and the web; but this time around, it is not our gadgets that will be transformed – it is we ourselves, our bodies, our minds. This will be a shift that cuts even more deeply than the great industrial revolutions of the past. It will not only alter how we make a living, communicate, and interact with each other, but will offer direct and precise control over our own physical and mental states.

Through the use of pharmaceuticals, we are learning how to modulate our moods, boost our physical and mental performance, increase our longevity and vitality. Through the application of prostheses, implants, and other bioelectronic devices, we are not only healing the blind and the paralyzed, but beginning to reconfigure our bodies, enhance our memories, and generate entirely new ways of interacting with machines. Through genetic interventions, we are not only neutralizing certain diseases long thought incurable, but opening up the very real possibility of taking evolution into our own hands – redesigning the human “platform” of body and mind in a thoroughgoing way.

If you talk to the authors of this revolution – the scientists, doctors, and engineers who labor tirelessly at the vanguard of biotechnology – most of them will deny that this is what they have in mind. They are not seeking to bring about the transmogrification of the human species, they insist: they are simply doing their best to heal the sick, to repair the injured. But once you stand back and look at the big picture, sizing up the cumulative impact of all their brilliant efforts, a different conclusion emerges. Whether they intend it or not, they are giving our species the instruments with which to radically redesign itself. Those instruments are already becoming available in crude form today, and they will fully come into their own over the next few decades. By the time our grandchildren have grown to adulthood, this wave of change will have passed through our civilization.

The results will be mixed.•