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Our Bionic Future

TELEVISION AND SLOT MACHINES notwithstanding, the point of technology is to extend what we can do with our bodies, our senses and, most of all, our minds. In the century now closing, we have gone from gaping at electric light bulbs and telephones to channel-surfing past images of a sunrise on Mars, to outbursts of pique if our e-mail takes more than a few minutes to get to the other side of the world. And in the next decade or two, the revolution is finally going to get really interesting. Several of the most important but disparate scientific and engineering achievements of the 20th century— the blossoming of electronics, the discovery of DNA and the elucidation of human genetics—will be the basis for leaps in technology that will extend, enhance or augment human capabilities far more directly, personally and powerfully than ever before. The heady assortment of biotechnologies, implants, wearables, artificial environments, synthetic sensations, and even demographic and societal shifts defies any attempt at concise categorization. But as our title boldly proclaims, we couldn’t resist resurrecting the word “bionics,” lately in a state of anachronistic limbo alongside the 1970s television adventures that made it a household word. Bionics often refers to the replacement of living parts with cybernetic ones, but more broadly it also means engineering better artificial systems through biological principles. That merger of the biological with the microelectronic is at the heart of most of the coming advances. As scientists and engineers unleash fully the power of the gene and of the electron, they will transform bits and pieces of the most fundamental facets of our lives, including eating and reproducing, staying healthy, being entertained and recovering from serious illness. Big changes could even be in store for what we wear, how we attract mates and how we stave off the debilitating effects of getting older.

Within a decade, we will see:
•A cloned human being. It is possible, in fact, that experiments are already under way in secret.

•An artificial womb for women who can’t become—or don’t want to be—pregnant.

•Replacement hearts and livers, custom-grown from the recipient’s own versatile stem cells.

•Virtual reality that becomes far more vivid and compelling by adding the senses of smell and touch to those of sight and sound.
•Custom clothing, assembled automatically from highly detailed scans of the purchaser’s body and sold at a cost not much higher than off-the-rack.
•Foods that counteract various ailments, such as noninsulin- dependent diabetes, cholera, high cholesterol or hepatitis B.
•A genetic vaccine that endows the user with bigger, harder muscles, without any need to break a sweat at the gym.


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