"How neat it would be to have genetic engineering treatments to get extra eyes, fur or tentacles?", asked Conan K. Woods on wta-talk.
I am normally not psychologically comfortable to speculate too much, chiefly because I feel (perhaps wrongly) that everything was already said by someone more competent (e.g. by one of the book authors such as Kurzweil, Naam, etc.) and I will be just stating obvious. But perhaps this is due to me having read only a few of the transhumanist books. :)
Anyway, without further ado, this is how I think genetic engineering will unfold in the next 25 years.
The foretaste of things to come
First (now-2015) we will see more and more smart drugs, i.e. drugs increasingly designed based on understanding on how genes and proteins work and not just random hit-and-miss experiments with organic molecules. It will become increasingly possible to regulate the human metabolism using the THIRD way (i.e. not neural or hormonal, but artificial drug-induced way). Things like Viagra, working drugs for losing (not gaining) weight, nootropic drugs, etc.
Then (2015-2025) we are going to see first health-related genetic modifications. As e.g. Naam describes in his book, there are several ways to modify ourselves - inject the protein (drug - see above), add the DNA into the cell (noninsertional vectors) or into the nucleus (insertional). By that time we will strongly feel the fallout from the Human Genome project, understanding a signficant part of the complex genetic chemistry. First we are going to change the DNA to fix the health defects, removing bad genes or fixing them.
At the same time we will have genetic treatments in competitive sport (Olympics) to enhance the strength, endurance, etc. Some say that first such treatments are already being used. Each next Olympics will have more and more and by 2016 a very large portion of athletes will be using some form of genetic enhancement.
Ossur bionic leg (video)
Real-time avatar face modification (video)
By, say, 2020 we (at least the early adopters, not luddites) will be controlling our metabolism artificially a lot (using a combination of implanted automatic smart drug-release devices and genetic therapies). There will be a few cases when humans will be enhanced significally changing their genetic code, when this can be done in a very safe manner and without side effects (this might come from one of the sports modifications). The parents will have great freedom in defining the DNA code of their kids to get rid of all bad stuff and ensure that good stuff is there, but no fins or fur yet. We will also have many artificial parts and will spend a lot of time in virtual worlds.
The onset of extensive genetic engineering
Around 2020-2025 we will see the spread of biotechnologies to the general population. We will also have desktop fabrication labs by then (and robots), some pretty useful (but not fully mature) nanotech (to compliment the biotech that we are talking about). We will have some good AI (but not human-level), so a lot of R&D will be possible to do using existing software. Software methodologies will be more advanced than today, so ordinary people will be able to get digital designs for a bio-lab, assemble it using their (may be not personally owned) desktop fab lab, get the information databases with genetic and other biological information and synthesise the DNA.
There are likely to be some regulatory issues by than. Both scaremongers and responsible scientists/politicians will demand some control mechanisms and some will definitely be established, but we can also expect bio-hackers (and pirates) to emerge. There will obviously be a gradient - if some people are doing legit body-modifications (like people in tattoo/piercing parlors today), they can add a bit of illicit modifications, provide access to illegal drugs (controlled substances) without prescriptions (like offshore Internet pharmacies today), etc. This may end up looking a little bit like the cyberpunk predictions (e.g. traditional Gibsonesque cyberpunk).
In 2025-2030 people will start to notice the exponential technological growth. Kids born in 2010 will be getting through their teenage phase (modified using mind-enhancing drugs, but not enough to turn them into obedient zombies). They will probably be the first to use the technology in radical ways. The transplantation industry would be mature by that time, with millions of transplantations performed every year - cloned parts, xenotransplants, artificial organs, etc. Stem cells would also be used to grow new organs (in vitro and in vivo). So it would be quite easy to do heavy cyborg and biological body-mods with little risk (and almost zero risk of serious complications that can't be fixed). As much as I am uncomfortable with that (today), more and more people will be experimenting with heavily modified bodies. Genetic engineering will be used in conjunction with surgery. We will also have the ability to direct body reconstruction - first selective apoptosis, then generation of stem cells and regrowth of the organs/tissues. This will obviously first be used for corrections, but eventually for rebuilding the body for other reasons.
A mermaid (from Cross Genetics)
By that time the society will likely change enough to make these things not only more acceptable, but in a sense expected. Mind-enhancement techniques, significant social changes will mean that there won't be conservative job-places that don't let you come to work with wings and horns. Many people will not be working in the traditional sense, but living life in more creative ways, while the society/nature supplies them with necessities.
The precise nature of the future society in regards to the look of its members will depend on an unpredictable factor - the relative success of different development approaches. It is clear that virtual reality, cyborgisation and genetic engineering will all provide almost unlimited possibilities for human expression. But which of the three methods will be more populat (at certain point) is hard to predict, because it depends on which one will be more advanced, more efficient, safer, cheaper, more available, easier to use, etc. It is likely that all methods will complement each other to some extent, but personally I am not ready to predict with certainty whether the society of 2030 will consist mostly of people inhabiting VR worlds, robots walking the streets or mutated chimeras flying and swimming around...
Well, that was me imagining what the future will be like. Stay tuned (or not) for the visions of life in the world of mature nanotech and life after uploading.
Comments, criticism and discussion obviously welcome.
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