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What will humans look like in the future?

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Since writing the book Super You: How Technology is Revolutionizing What it Means to Be Human, (more info) one of the topics my co-authors and I get asked a lot about is: “What will humans look like in the future?”

In some ways it is a tough question, because no one can reliably predict the future. However, what we do know is what technologies are arriving that are shaping our health, our longevity, and how we look. And we also know that technology is exponentially improving, so the research breakthroughs in medicine and related sciences are coming fast and furious these days.

Here’s what we know with great certainty. Five nascent technologies are give us humans new ways to look and feel younger…they include:

  • Nanotechnology: The ability to create, modify and manipulate things at the subcellular and even molecular level.
  • Genetics: The ability to edit a human’s personal blueprint to remove errors, not only at birth, but also as errors are created as cells copy themselves during a normal human lifespan.
  • Robotics: Intelligent machines will become personal assistants, workers, and will also replace error prone humans. They will augment, optimize and accelerate manufacturing processes. And make it cheaper to produce goods.
  • Stem cells: Doctors will soon be able to harvest these building blocks of human tissue from patients, restore them to a “seed” cell, and grow them into a replacement cell of any kind. Need a new heart? Grow one from your own stem cells. Want bigger boobs? Forget silicone or saline, grow them from stem cells.
  • Artificial Intelligence: This is intelligence – also known as strong AI – that is comparable or better than human intelligence that can be imbued into a machine so it can problem solve, interact the world around it and autonomously manage complex tasks.

We will look younger in the future

The science of longevity is becoming increasingly better understood. We know that the lifespan of an average person on the planet in 1900 was around 50 years of age. Throughout the 20th Century, breakthroughs in health and medicine have been giving humans an extended lifespan. Today, the average life expectancy globally is around 80 years old, with women outliving men by a couple of years. In the United States men live on average to about 79. Women live to 80.5 years. Canadian and Australian lifespans are marginally little longer. The Japanese have the longest lifespan at close just shy of 85 (2015 data).

That trend is expected to continue. In Super You’s longevity chapter (read it – download for free) we show how old people are getting older. In fact the centenarian population is expected to hit 6 million in the U.S. by 2050. (We believe that is a conservative estimate.)

But this progress is not just about living longer as a shrivelled up old decrepit person in a rocking chair. Not one wants that. New technologies that are keeping us around longer are also helping us look and feel younger.

For those that lived through the 1970s, doesn’t it seem like people who were 60 to 70 years old then seemed like old folks? Today “old people” seem much older. In fact they are. Life expectancy in the 1970s was an average age of about 71 for both sexes (for men it was 67.1). You just didn’t see very many spry 70 years olds around. Massive improvements in cancer treatments and heart disease has given many people the ability to live into their 80s. Plus smoking habits have drastically changed. Organ donor technologies have also been extending lives.

In the future, we will look younger because physically we will be healthier and less prone to aged related diseases.

Stem cell technology will allow us to look like whoever we want

Stem Cell
Stem cells are seed cells that can become any kind of cell in the human body

Let’s talk stem cells because they will directly correlate to youthful looks. Different kinds of cells make up our bodies. Every organ in the body has its own kind of cell. Skins cells are different than blood cells. And they all have their own structure, function and role. However they all start out as a stem cell. The human body can use these unexpressed cells and form them into whatever cell type is needed. Until only a few decades ago, stem cells were only harvestable from a stillborn fetus or any newborn’s umbilical cord. And this, of course, caused all kinds of controversy. In fact President George W. Bush put a moratorium on stem cell research.

However in recent years, stem cell technology has come a long way and scientists can now harvest stem cells from the human body. They haven’t quite figured out how to command the cell to regress to its basic form so it can become any cell, however they can coax it to form a mature cell that it had been programmed to become. So stem cells harvested from a person’s fat can be repurposed to in cosmetic surgery.

Genetic editing will let us edit our own genes and our children’s genes

DNA defines what our face, our skin, the shape of our bones, our height and weight (or body type) will all be. DNA is a living being’s unique blueprint that is encoded in its cells. It is fair to say that as we learn how to do genetic editing, this will allow us to redefine how we look. Want glow in the dark skin, or darker or fairer skin? It will be possible. A new technology called CRISPR–Cas9 which is being tested by Chinese researchers is being used to treat a patient with aggressive lung cancer. It is part of a clinical trial at the West China Hospital in Chengdu. The Chinese group has become the first to inject a person with cells that contain genes edited using the revolutionary technique.

On 28 October (2016), a team led by oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University in Chengdu delivered the genetic modified cells into a patient with aggressive lung cancer as part of a clinical trial at the West China Hospital, also in Chengdu.  The researchers had immune cells from the patient’s blood and used CRISPR–Cas9 to edit genes. The hope is that the edited cells will attack and defeat the cancer.

Of course this early use of gene editing has nothing to do with appearance, however this kind of technique could be used to modify body mechanisms that – for example – regulate skin tone, or eye color. Or even hair texture. Could it make your skin green if you want? Today this kind of body modification is achieved with tattoos (see Eric Sprague, aka Lizardman), but it’s plausible that in the future a simple injection of modified genes could trigger all kinds of physical  changes in the human body, include those that influence looks. Could it change bone structure too? Not today, but again sculpting bones to change looks may be possible with a combination of nanotechnology, stem cells, genetic editing.

So here is the big question…how long until we can do this? As we wrote in our book Super You, there is a doctor already offering the has the ability to do this for parents that want to conceive a child with specific attributes. However because it attracted unwanted controversy to his practice, he doesn’t offer it as a service. Although he will do gender selection for $18,000.

To edit our own looks, these technologies should be available for that purpose in the next 20 to 30 years.

Maybe we won’t look any different, but we could project a custom avatar

It could be that in 100 years we have found a way to dispense with the meat sack that we run around in currently for 80+ years or so. Some think we will become a living entity hosted in a machine by then. We will have the option to replace our bodies with a more advanced bio-host. Then we can just interact with personalities and choose who we want to connect with regardless of their looks.

We could also choose to see them as the “image” they project to our sensors, or we could reinterpret it the way we want to see them. Sound nutty? Not really. What if you connect with some on an intellectual level but you are not physically attracted to them. Computers or appliances wired directly into our brains could modify the visual signals between the optic nerve and the brain so that we “see” a modified view of the world. Or perhaps we could transmit how we want to look to another person’s enhanced brain so they “see” us the way we present ourselves, and not what we actually look like.

What will humans look like in the future – in 1000 years?

What will humans look like in 1000 years? Likely anything that we want to look like. Imagine how much technology will change and improve in 10 centuries. Some believe that we will be indistinguishable from the technology we create. We will be the ultimate cyborg (a technology-enhanced human)? Will we be more machine than human? That is up for debate. We will certainly be massively enhanced. But what we see as machine today – circuits and electronics – is not where we are headed. Our genes will be enhanced. We will be biologically improved. There will be artificially created bio-mechanisms in place that will enhance our brain, our health and our ability to repair the cellular damage done by aging. Will we look the same? Yes if it serves us. But my guess is we will have perfected what nature gave us.

Andy Walker is the author of the book Super You: How Technology is Revolutionizing What it Means to Be Human. Read more about Andy’s work as author, keynote speaker and entrepreneur.

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Published inCH03 - Beauty HacksThe Future