Inventing Our Evolution

Monday, May 16, 2005

The surge of innovation that has given the world everything from iPods to talking cars is now turning inward, to our own minds and bodies. In an adaptation from his new book, Washington Post staff writer Joel Garreau looks at the impact of the new technology.

Some changes in what it means to be human:

· Matthew Nagel, 25, can move objects with his thoughts. The paralyzed former high school football star, whose spinal cord was severed in a stabbing incident, has a jack coming out of the right side of his skull. Sensors in his brain can read his neurons as they fire. These are connected via computer to a robotic hand. When he thinks about moving his hand, the artificial thumb and forefinger open and close. Researchers hope this technology will, within our lifetimes, allow the wheelchair-bound to walk. The military hopes it will allow pilots to fly jets using their minds.

· Around the country, companies such as Memory Pharmaceuticals, Sention, Helicon Therapeutics, Saegis Pharmaceuticals and Cortex Pharmaceuticals are racing to bring memory-enhancing drugs to market before the end of this decade. If clinical trials continue successfully, these pills could be a bigger pharmaceutical bonanza than Viagra. Not only do they hold the promise of banishing the senior moments of aging baby boomers; they might improve the SAT scores of kids by 200 points or more.

· At the Defense Sciences Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, programs seek to modify the metabolisms of soldiers so as to allow them to function efficiently without sleep or even food for as much as a week. For shorter periods, they might even be able to survive without oxygen. Another program seeks to allow soldiers to stop bleeding by focusing their thoughts on the wound. Yet another program is investigating ways to allow veterans to regrow blown-off arms and legs, like salamanders.

Traditionally, human technologies have been aimed outward, to control our environment, resulting in, for example, clothing, agriculture, cities and airplanes. Now, however, we have started aiming our technologies inward. We are transforming our minds, our memories, our metabolisms, our personalities and our progeny. Serious people, including some at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, consider such modification of what it means to be human to be a radical evolution -- one that we direct ourselves. They expect it to be in full flower in the next 10 to 20 years.

"The next frontier," says Gregory Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society at the UCLA School of Medicine, "is our own selves."

The process has already begun. Prozac and its ilk modify personality. Viagra alters metabolism. You can see deep change in the basics of biology most clearly, however, wherever you find the keenest competition. Sport is a good example.

"The current doping agony," says John Hoberman, a University of Texas authority on performance drugs, "is a kind of very confused referendum on the future of human enhancement." Some athletes today look grotesque. Curt Schilling, the All-Star pitcher, in 2002 talked to Sports Illustrated about the major leagues. "Guys out there look like Mr. Potato Head, with a head and arms and six or seven body parts that just don't look right."

Steroids are merely a primitive form of human enhancement, however. H. Lee Sweeney of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the recent Athens Olympics may have been the last without genetically enhanced athletes. His researchers have created super-muscled "Schwarzenegger rats." They're built like steers, with necks wider than their heads. They live longer and recover more quickly from injuries than do their unenhanced comrades. Sweeney sees it as only a matter of time before such technology seeps into the sports world.

Human enhancement is hardly limited to sport. In 2003, President Bush signed a $3.7 billion bill to fund research at the molecular level that could lead to medical robots traveling the human bloodstream to fight cancer or fat cells. At the University of Pennsylvania, ordinary male mouse embryo cells are being transformed into egg cells. If this science works in humans, it could open the way for two gay males to make a baby -- blurring the standard model of parenthood. In 2004, a new technology for the first time allowed women to beat the biological clock. Portions of their ovaries, frozen when they are young and fertile, can be reimplanted in their sixties, seventies or eighties, potentially allowing them to bear children then.

The genetic, robotic and nano-technologies creating such dramatic change are accelerating as quickly as has information technology for the past four decades. The rapid development of all these fields is intertwined.

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