Bioengineering is the application of engineering knowledge to biology and medicine.
In practical terms, this means “upgrading” humanity to radically enhance our cognitive and physical abilities, genetically prevent diseases and extend our lifespan. In a word, bioengineering will enable us to control our own evolution, a situation which will pose plenty of ethical dilemmas.
Ready or not, bioengineering will change what it means to be human.
Here is how.
Bioengineering will give humanity control over its own evolution
For millions of years, living beings evolved naturally, through the process of natural selection and continuous adaptation to their environments. This resulted in the slow, but regular evolution of life forms, helping them become the species they are today.
Will Darwinist evolution soon be a thing of the past?
Bioengineering will change this evolutionary paradigm by putting humans in the driving seat of their own evolution. Various technologies, such as gene therapy and neural interfaces, will make it possible for people to acquire specific traits and computer-like intelligence.
The result? A new species of beings that will become more advanced, more quickly.
Bioengineering will create “super-intelligent” humans
One way bioengineering will change what it means to be human is by radically enhancing our intelligence.
Many companies around the world, including Apple and Elon Musk’s Neurolink, are developing neural interfaces. These devices effectively link computers to human brains. In practical terms, this means being able to download data directly into your brain, communicate with your thoughts and being able to perform a computer’s functions at any time.
For now, neural interfaces are used to help people with disabilities regain use of certain cognitive functions. However, the end goal is to give human brains direct access to the computational power of the world’s most sophisticated artificial intelligence machines.
One practical application involves foreign languages. Imagine being able to instantly translate your thoughts into any foreign language and speaking it fluently, simply by instructing your mind to do so.
Another use case would involve leveraging your device’s deep learning algorithms to conduct advanced calculations, pattern recognition, or predictive modeling in a split second. The applications to the field of finance, medicine, or the military are endless.
Bioengineering will genetically eradicate diseases
The second way bioengineering will change what it means to be human is by genetically curing diseases. This will be achieved through the widespread use of gene therapy.
One day, gene therapy will help cure all genetic diseases.
Gene therapy modifies cells at the genetic level to produce a therapeutic or treatment that repairs or reconstructs defective genetic material. This means identifying an individual’s defective gene and replacing it with a healthy gene.
For example, sickle cell disease is the result of inherited sickle cell genes. Gene therapy can theoretically cure this condition easily, simply by introducing a healthy gene into an individual’s DNA.
As scientific knowledge of gene therapy evolves, we can expect that most genetic diseases will eventually be cured in this way. Eventually, diseases will be a thing of the past and our lifespan will extend well into the triple digits.
Is this the cure for mortality?
Maybe not, because the cure for aging has yet to be discovered. However, Jeff Bezos recently launched a startup that is working to identify the causes and solutions to aging. Thus, bioengineering may one day produce immortal humans!
Bioengineering will create “superhumans” in vitro
Ultimately, bioengineering will change what it means to be human is by producing “superhumans” with radically enhanced capabilities.
For example, scientists are learning how to select embryos during In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). In particular, they are becoming capable of selecting them based on informed genetic predictions of health-related traits and other characteristics such as IQ, height, and even personality style.
In parallel, prospective mothers will be able to rely on stem cell technologies to expand the number of eggs they can use during IVF, which will increase the range of reproductive outcomes. Finally, gene editing tools will become so sophisticated they will be able to make heritable genetic changes to the future children before they are even conceived!
People with access to bioengineering will be able to create an “à la carte” child with specific features and traits. Who wouldn’t want their child to start life with unrivaled competitive advantages?
Will humans be “updated” regularly?
Many consumers have become used to upgrading their cell phones, televisions and wearable technology every other year. Indeed, they almost expect technology to improve at a linear – and sometimes, exponential pace.
Will bioengineering follow the same path and allow humans to regularly upgrade their abilities?
The Apple iPhone is an excellent example of how businesses use upgrades to develop consumer loyalty. Will bioengineering produce the same outcome?
If bioengineering is normalized, new discoveries will be made regularly. Thus, those with access to bioengineering facilities will regularly be offered new “upgrades”. This could result in a bioengineering marketplace where consumers are competing with each other to remain the most advanced version of humanity possible. Those with outdated features could be left behind, both professionally and personally.
Who would hire someone whose software is years behind the competition? Would you plan to start a family with someone who is susceptible to developing a genetic disease that gene therapy recently eradicated? Thus, bioengineering could worsen societal and economic inequality.
Will bioengineering deepen inequality?
So far, we mentioned the various ways that bioengineering will enhance human capabilities, contribute to medical progress and help us live longer.
However, we have not yet mentioned one of its most important aspects: accessibility. Unfortunately, not everyone will have equal access to these life-changing technologies.
Initial bioengineering procedures will be very expensive, which means that only the elite will have access to it. Everyday people will not necessarily be able to afford the sophisticated procedures that would enhance their abilities.
Additionally, bioengineering technology is mainly being developed and marketed in higher-income countries, such as the USA, the U.K., and Germany. While some developing nations such as China, Russia and Brazil are also making important breakthroughs, there will be unequal access to bioengineering technology between developed and developing nations.
Is bioengineering ethical?
While bioengineering has the potential to radically improve our lives, it obviously raises a number of important ethical and moral dilemmas.
Many prominent figures, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawkins, have publicly expressed concerns over the threats AI poses to humanity. Similarly, many scientists, academics and journalists are asking whether bioengineering’s ability to produce “super-humans” should be pursued at all.
AI evokes both fear and optimism, and bioengineering is creating the same divide between those who will adopt it enthusiastically and those who remain reserved as to its true impact on humanity.
If a small percentage of the population is able to radically enhance their abilities, the competitive marketplace becomes skewed in their favor.
Is it fair to encourage the adoption of technology that will deepen inequalities and increase the domination of a few over the many? Whatever your stance, bioengineering is developing at a rapid pace and will slowly creep into our lives, playing a significant role in healthcare and society in general.