Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Engineered enhancers closer than you think

Thirty years from now, the uproar surrounding Barry Bonds' alleged steroid use might seem quaint by comparison to the human enhancement technologies that could be available then. In the next few decades, futurists say, athletes and soldiers will call on artificial muscles to lift heavier loads and run faster. Bionic eyes will let them see distant targets, while "nanobots" enhance their cognitive abilities and genetic-engineering techniques boost their performance under pressure. "The use of anabolic steroids, in retrospect, will seem almost prehistoric — as well as stupid," said Jerome C. Glenn, executive director of the American Council for the United Nations University (Washington) and co-author of the book 2004: State of the Future. "In the future, we'll be able to enhance ourselves in other ways that won't be so dangerous." Many of those enhancement techniques, some based in electronics, are already in the works, experts said last week. For example, university researchers will meet in San Diego in March for an unusual arm-wrestling match between a human being and an artificial arm made from electroactive polymers (see Oct. 4, page 1). The researchers, many working on artificial muscles of their own, say the technology could one day find its way into the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's so-called "exoskeleton," which is supposed to help soldiers run faster, jump higher and lift more weight. Ultimately, some hope it will also one day take its place inside human bodies, where it could enable extraordinary athleticism. Elsewhere, researchers in the public and private sectors are said to be placing chips inside human brains and isolating DNA strings that could be manipulated to alter human talents and behaviors. Such scenarios, unlikely as they may seem at first glance, are being taken seriously. Glenn of the American Council for the United Nations University, for example, has embarked on a study of how human augmentation would affect the International Olympic Games. The study considers the possibility of separate Olympics for augmented and nonaugmented athletes. "The ability to alter our bodies will be done by a variety of methods, from genetic engineering to nanobots to bionics," Glenn said. "Anyone who thinks that all athletes in the future will remain naturally endowed is living in a fantasy world." Grand challengeTo be sure, everyday use of such technologies is on a very far horizon, if it happens at all. Many engineering experts view such possibilities as too distant for serious consideration today. "It's like asking if there's going to be an anti-gravity machine in the future," said Philip Troyk, director of neural engineering for the Illinois Institute of Technology (Chicago). "You could probably get 20 physicists to talk it over, but at this point, it's science fiction." Still, some of the technologies now under development have immediate uses. Electroactive polymers (EAPs), for example, have wiped the lenses of cameras on explorer robots and have been proposed for use in robotic telesurgery. Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, Calif.) are so convinced of their ultimate value that one, Yoseph Bar-Cohen, has proposed a "grand challenge" that pits an EAP arm against a human opponent — in this case, a 16-year-old San Diego high school girl. Whatever the outcome, engineers say the match, scheduled for March 7 at the Smart Materials and Structures Conference, will highlight a technology with potential for both robots and humans. Its key element is the musclelike EAP, which deforms with the application of an electric field across its surface. The technology has already spawned startup companies. Artificial Muscle Inc. (Menlo Park, Calif.) has been spun out from SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) to make the muscles, and NanoSonic Inc. — created in cooperation with Virginia Tech and the state of Virginia — is developing a "metal rubber" that works in conjunction with the muscles. This bendable material will be used as an electrical lead, attaching to the muscle to provide electrical stimulation. Its advantage is that it doesn't restrict the muscle's movement and won't fatigue easily after repeated use, the company said. Researchers admit the artificial muscles don't yet produce much force, but they are optimistic about their potential. "They won't beat Barry Bonds this year, but give them 10 years, and that could change," said Richard Claus, the Lewis A. Hester Chair of Engineering at Virginia Tech University (Blacksburg). "There are barriers to overcome," conceded Bar-Cohen, a senior research scientist at the JPL and author of Electroactive Polymer Actuators as Artificial Muscles: Reality, Potential and Challenges. "But in principle, these materials could be implantable in humans." Moral questionsFuturists say that artificial muscles merely scratch the surface of the augmentation options that soon will be possible. Glenn of the American Council for the U.N. University says that he expects visual augmentation to be commonplace within 30 years. Indeed, charge-coupled electronic devices have already been used to stimulate muscles behind the eye, said Glenn, thus changing the shape of the lens and enabling "zoom vision" that could benefit Olympic athletes in archery and baseball, among other sports. Such devices, he said, could be combined with artificial lenses inserted in the eye to produce a level of visual acuity that isn't possible today. Government agencies are said to be looking at a host of other, more distant human enhancement technologies — ranging from genetic engineering to molecular robots. "You could take the molecular-sized 'bots,' put them in your bloodstream and send them to the extremities of your brain," said John L. Petersen, founder of the Arlington Institute (Washington) and a futurist who formerly worked with the National Security Council staff. "And with them, you could influence the brain or even replicate parts of it." Soldiers could use the "bots," which are molecularly assembled structures that behave much like red blood cells, to combat biological warfare by accelerating the actions of the human immune system, said Glenn. Bots could also be programmed to move to the frontal part of the brain to dispense certain chemicals and hence speed an individual's anticipation and response time. "Combining zoom vision with cognitive enhancements in the brain, you could speed up a baseball player's processing so that he could, in a sense, see 'faster,' " Glenn said. "And that would mean the ball would appear to be moving slower, so it would be seen more precisely." Such technologies might enable a player to pick up the spin on a pitcher's curve ball more quickly and accurately. At the same time, scientists are said to be examining DNA strings in search of certain behavioral characteristics desirable for elite soldiers. "We've heard that researchers have identified a genetic DNA string that makes Navy Seals and other elite soldiers more effective," said Petersen of the Arlington Institute. "They're trying to find a way to take that to the military and make it generally available." How the general public will react to such technologies is a separate matter. While most researchers believe society will tolerate their use in soldiers, they're doubtful the same tolerance will be extended to athletes. Because he considers some level of augmentation inevitable, Glenn believes that sporting events will be split up to accommodate enhanced and unenhanced athletes. "It's not fair for someone with enhanced vision to compete with someone who doesn't have that capability," Glenn said. "You'll probably need three Olympics — one for those who are enhanced, another for those who are natural and a third for those who are handicapped." Petersen believes that society will be grappling with issues of human augmentation for decades before finally becoming reconciled with its inevitability. "All of this flies in the face of our assumptions about how the world works," Petersen said. "The ethical, legal and moral issues surrounding this are based upon a past where none of this technology existed, and that's going to be a universal problem."

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