When we think about how scientific research and technological innovation are changing our world, we can’t help but think of tech progress at the most personal level: within our own bodies. Over the past century, medical knowledge has made huge leaps and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue. We already have amazing vaccines against some of our race’s most ancient biological enemies, and micro-surgical techniques are constantly improving, turning previously traumatic procedures into outpatient treatments. How long will it be before some obsessive scientist in a castle laboratory shrieks into the howl of a thunderstorm, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”?
OK, but if we haven’t quite figured out how to reverse death (or bring pilfered corpse parts back to life) we’re at least making great strides toward living longer. Even such things as pacemakers and artificial hip joints have had a big impact on life expectancy. I think that within twenty years we’ll all have implants that will monitor our vital signs, sound a warning to ourselves and to bystanders if we suffer a sudden health problem (and probably issue first aid instructions to those nearby) while automatically alerting emergency medical services. Why not? Our cell phones can almost do that now—which is appropriate considering how many people place themselves in life-threatening situations while texting.
Human body parts are being produced by 3D printing. Although it will be some time yet before viable organs are created, it’s thought that such printers might use living cells for “ink”. Various blood substitutes have been around for a while, which can save lives in a pinch, but now labs have begun to create actual artificial blood. Bioengineering will take us a long way in the coming years, making replacement body parts and organs customized to match our own individual DNA. Hopefully researchers will include muscle and bone tissue among these advancements, because none of us really wants to live decades longer if muscle and bone loss means we feel the aches and pains of every one of those extra years. Hello doctors—do I need to repeat that one?
Let’s not forget nanotechnology. As scientists create more and more micro machines that mimic the chemical processes of living cells, we’ll enter the territory of body parts that don’t wear out because they’ll repair themselves. Whereas we now turn to green vegetables, blueberries, and red wine to provide anti-oxidant compounds to clean out the “rust in our pipes” (from free-radicals),
within the next century we’ll have armies of ultra-miniature mechanisms floating through our bloodstreams to perform those tasks, and do it better because their actions will be directed, not random. Just as importantly, our mental capabilities will be maintained through the stimulation of new neuron growth, along with the technical assistance of implanted computer-networked devices (being “wired” will have nothing to do with overdosing on espresso). We now know that young children’s abilities to soak up knowledge like a sponge is chemically switched off as they approach puberty and then adulthood, but within the next century we’ll learn to switch it back on, say, when we want to learn a few new languages for our European vacation.
Our children and their children can look forward to all of these innovations and many more, BUT there will be a price to pay when humans start living longer and longer lives. Population pressure will become even more serious, and the resources of our planet are not infinite. Yes, we’ll find ways to gather some resources from elsewhere in the solar system, but wouldn’t it be much smarter to make better use of the ones that are already here?
It’s all well and good to improve human health and the human lifespan, but it will be irresponsible if we don’t put a serious chunk of that research and innovation brainpower into vastly improved recycling of materials (including wasted food), renewable energy, and the reclaiming of material that has been wantonly discarded in landfill sites for the past hundred-and-fifty years.
There’s more to the equation than just medical advancements if we truly want to “Live long and prosper.”