Mar 04 2012

Upgrading The Human Machine


I’m sure you’ve probably heard about the “man without a pulse” artificial heart recipient, who’s been in the news so much lately, but if you haven’t, Popsci has an excellent article on it here. I’m bringing it up today because it’s an illustration of one of the biases that we as transhumans will have to overcome to actually become “Trans” humans.

Which bias is that, you ask? The idea that the human body as it currently is constructed is either “perfect” or that any “enhancements” must mimic how the body currently functions. I can remember the projections once made about the Jarvik heart, including this “commercial” that made it into Robocop which predicted the “Jarvik Sports Heart” for the athletic heart patient. Yet here we are in the future predicted to have completely replaced transplants with engineered replacements, and the artificial heart that “beats” is still a fantasy. Why?

You might as well ask why we don’t yet have airplanes with flapping wings. Then ask yourself why nature never evolved birds capable of flying faster than sound. The answer is that nature doesn’t always come up with the “best solution” – just one that works. Just like Leonardo’s flapping machines never flew, a beating heart has not merely proven exceptionally difficult to reproduce, but has proven to be needlessly complex in comparison to the likely future solution, a heart that has no beat, no pulse, and which pumps blood in a continuous flow, via turbine based “jets”.

And as the article explains, there are people who have been living without a pulse for more than five years with no ill effects. One was even a Central American man who after receiving a “assist pump” disappeared for 8 months during which time his heart completely shut down, yet without any medical supervision not merely survived, but reported he “felt fine” which was why he never reported back to the doctors for a checkup. Think about that. Then compare it to a Jarvik heart recipient who was confined to bed and connected to an air compressor 24/7.

We don’t need a heartbeat to survive. Or thrive. In fact, shackled as we have been by trying to make a “beating heart” due to the bias of thinking we had to duplicate nature, we’ve spent decades failing to create that future predicted in the commercial above. The “Natural Solution” has proven to not be the “Only Solution”, merely the one that evolved and was never replaced because biology has never had the option of “temporary shutdowns” to install upgrades.

And, like so many other features of our daily lives, we assumed that just because it HAD always been that way, that it MUST always be that way.

And that is a bias that we will have to face head on over the next several years, as we continue to find solutions to various problems that have existed for so long that many people can’t even recognize that they ARE problems. For example, has it occurred to anyone that even the artificial heart above continues to suffer from this cognitive bias? As the article points out, a single turbine has been sufficient to allow people a normal life, so why is the twin pump design of the heart STILL being copied? Why stop at two? Why not a network of smaller turbines distributed around the body, with enough redundancies that even in the case of multiple pump failures (due to, say, traumatic injury) their ability to supply blood flow to the body would be unimpaired? Why needlessly duplicate the twin pump design of the biological heart? Why design a centralized system at all? Yes, the human body might be designed to operate with merely one single heart, but that system is not the ONLY option, as this artificial heart proves.

The same goes for numerous other systems in the human body. For example, the human eye has a blind spot due to the rather ridiculous fact that the retina is constructed in such a manner that the optic nerve is connected to the FRONT side of the retina, which not only requires the nerve to be transparent in order to allow light to reach the retina, but it passes THROUGH the retina to connect to the brain. In order to compensate for the blind spot of the optic nerve, the eye has to twitch to construct a composite image of what’s in the blind spot. In other words, YOU CAN’T SEE WHAT’S DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF YOU! And in low light conditions, you can’t see anything there at all because of the brains inability to gather sufficient information to form a composite. Want to see this blind spot in action? Stare at a fixed point for more than a few seconds and you will notice the details vanishing from the center of your vision. It’s a very well established flaw with human eyesight. And it’s merely one of hundreds of peculiarities that the human body is riddled with.

So, the question is, will future recipients of artificial eyes suffer this same curse? Will they be shackled by this same blind bias that insists that we MUST copy EXACTLY the solution that nature used, or will they be laughing at all us poor people still tied to nature’s mistakes? How many other systems in the human body could we improve on? How many will we refuse to improve? And how long will “improvements” continue to try and duplicate nature before they realize that nature doesn’t need to be duplicated? How deeply imbedded in our psyche is the belief that we can’t improve on nature? How strongly well we need to fight to overcome this rather comical insistence that we have to duplicate the solutions evolution provided before we allow ourselves to realize that those solutions are neither singular, nor always the most efficient, simply the best nature managed to provide over the course of our evolution?

Nature could never “stop the machinery” to rebuild from scratch. It HAD to go with what worked, and build from there. Yes, until now we’ve never had a choice, we simply had to accept what nature gave us. But that is no longer true, and growing less so every day. We no longer have a choice about refusing to acknowledge that we have a choice. And the longer we refuse to recognize that the “human machine” is not only upgradeable, but direly in NEED of upgrading, the longer we condemn ourselves to lives shackled by the limitations blind evolution created for us.

So in the end, the question is why would you choose a life of limits, when you could have a future without them? And once people begin to realize that this IS the fundamental question of human enhancement, and more and more people begin to overcome these limits, maybe that question will become why did we ever allow ourselves to be limited in the first place?