Comments of The Promise of genomics, robotics, informatics and nanotechnologies

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Throughout the final decades of the 20th century, with the decoding of the DNA, the seemingly unstoppable power of computers and the increased ability to manipulate matter at the molecular level, humans began to feel increasingly confident about their ability to eliminate disease and conquer death. At the dawn of the 21st century, however, it is not clear whether this will be possible. At this point, there are more questions than obvious answers, particularly in relation to what seems to be an 'inconvenient' adverse effect of our scientific and technological success since the Enlightenment: the high prevalence of chronic diseases, and the associated wave of poly-pathology.

Humans tend to consider themselves as the pinnacle of evolution, believing everything that has so far occurred has been programmed to result in them. However, it is also possible that humans are mere evolutionary specks moving along a trajectory that leads to a future without them. Given our capacity to create hugely powerful technological extensions to overcome most of our physical (and increasingly, cognitive) limitations, therefore, it is reasonable to ask: Are we simply transitional elements on the pathway towards a «post-human» species?

We have known since Darwin that the genetically best-endowed individuals are those with the greatest probability of surviving and reproducing. We humans have, however, succeeded to a great extent in interfering with the laws of evolution.

Today, the bearers of defective genes survive and reproduce thanks to scientific advances, allowing for an increase, even in cumulative terms, in the survival rates of specimens that will guarantee the presence of such genes in subsequent generations. Now, the children of diabetics and hemophiliacs may thus be able to live with both diabetes and hemophilia, and yet achieve life expectancy long enough to reproduce and to «gather» even more chronic conditions. Up until less than a century ago, this would have been unthinkable (1, 2).

As we tinker with nature, however, we are not only slowing down the «trimming» aspects of the evolutionary process, but also accelerating the process from an adaptive perspective. Genetic changes that would otherwise require thousands or even millions of years can today be implemented by means of simple techniques of manipulation at the laboratory or research centre of any moderately sized organization. We are now able to enhance the human body with modifications to an organic function by replacing pieces of DNA or by implanting biomedical devices.

Traditionally we have since childhood been taught that life is made up of four stages: birth, growth, reproduction and death. Given that most adults have their children before the age of 40, it would be easy to understand that with reproduction we fulfill our essential purpose, the survival of our genetic information as a species. From that point onwards, as happens with all other living beings, all we should have left is an alchemical rebalancing with the environment having reached our point of maximum entropy... our death. However, we human have pursued a different path. Thanks to the massive parallel computing power of our brains we have been able to embark on a relentless pursuit for immortality which is bringing us close to the point at which we might be able to surpass many of our most basic limitations (3): carbon-based units of weak bones surrounded by soft tissue, requiring narrow bands of pH and temperature, in the permanent presence of O2. Some even conceive a not-too-distant future in which our inventions exceed all of our capabilities, blurring the boundaries between human and machine, blending us into a new single entity, known as the Singularity (4).

This chapter deals with the main forces that seem to be driving such unprecedented evolutionary process at this point-genomics, robotics, informatics and nanotechnologies which are collectively known as GRIN (Genomics, Robotics, Informatics and Nanotechnologies) (5).

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