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.”