The biotechnology age
3d printer

Dmitry Itskov views his Avatar Project as the next evolutionary step for humankind, and he's not necessarily crazy for doing so. But perhaps Dr. Peter Diamandis sells it more clearly: When life on this planet began, the leap from simple single-celled organisms to more complex single-celled organisms occurred when some cells evolved a nucleus and other more advanced organelles that enhanced their survivability. That is, when these cells embraced and integrated better biotechnology they made a huge and critical leap forward. Kurzweil draws a similar evolutionary trajectory describing other advances in the history of human life, like when some early animals developed the neocortex in the brain (the neocortex is home to the higher functions like sensory perception and conscious thought) giving rise to modern mammals and again when some primates developed a good deal more neocortex in the area now known as the frontal lobe -- or the part of the brain that makes humans human.

Several speakers, including Kurzweil and Diamandis, noted that humans are the only species that extend our biological reach -- we've done so for millennia with technologies that allow us to travel faster, increase our strength, or hear someone that is out of earshot (or on another continent). What we're starting to do now is integrate that technology more deeply into our biologies, be it through transplantable organs fabricated from a patient's own cells or implantable machines that are placed inside the body to alter or improve its performance (like pacemakers).

As nanotechnology marches further into the realm of the ever-smaller-and-more-capable, tiny machines are going to become a regular part of medical therapies and our everyday lives. Moreover, we've begun to understand the body more like a machine itself; that is, that biology (and genetics) is the software driving our bodily hardware. We're already seeing this in the lab via gene therapies, 3-D printed organs, and stem cell treatments -- the reprogramming of the human machine by recoding the software.

Further, harkening back to the aforementioned brain map, the ability to model all of the body's most complex functions on supercomputers means we're rapidly going to become better and better at fixing what's broken, optimizing what doesn't work well, and ultimately enhancing both our bodies and our minds with implants and other technologies. How? "In the future, machines will become more molecular," Church said. In other words, converging breakthroughs in biocompatible materials, 3-D printing, stem cell technologies, and genetics will lead to new kinds of machines that look less like a smartphone and more like biological objects. And if the cyborg-like nature of this biotech-heavy future makes you uncomfortable, there's not much you can do about it. "We already augment ourselves extensively," Church told the audience. "Get used to it."

  @FortuneMagazine - Last updated June 20 2013 07:43 AM ET
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