At this year’s Biohacker Summit in Helsinki, noted futurist, engineer, and tech entrepreneur Nell Watson outlined recent developments in nanotechnology, biomimicry, and the machine manipulation of organic processes to predict a not-too-distant future in which the line between human and machine will become increasingly blurred.
Watson anticipates an explosion of new forms of life similar to the Cambrian period 544 million years ago, which saw the evolution of complex life forms from simple unicellular organisms in the evolutionary equivalent of the blink of an eye.
Watson points to a number of developments in nano-computing and synthetic biology to show just how far we’ve come, and how far we might go in the next 30 to 40 years. Spintronics uses the spin of an electron cloud rather than electric charge or magnetism to transfer bits much faster and with less heat than ever before, with serious implications for nano-computing; a tiny robot, powered by heart cells, can walk by harnessing muscle cells; a robotic sperm, powered by heart cells, can utilize flagella just like a sperm cell; microengines can eject drugs within a bloodstream with precision, directed using light and electromagnetism; and DNA can be manipulated to produce autonomous nanobots that circulate the bloodstream to target specific cells, like cancer cells.
"If you wanted to play piano like Chopin, you can download that to your consciousness, and dynamically update how your brain operates."
Watson believes computing power will increasingly merge with our innate functioning in the coming decades.
“We come pre-wired with our bodily ethernet from birth,” she said, referring to the primo vascular system, a network that connects all our organs and is structurally similar to optical fiber.
The human body’s interconnected network will be used as an information superhighway, she said, passing data stored on synthetic DNA chromosomes, which will have remarkable data storage capabilities—one dollop of DNA the size of a ladybug can store between 200-300 TB of uncompressed data.
“We can be our own walking hard drives,” she said.
Not only will we be able to send information along our bodily network, but we will be able to connect to it as well, Watson explained. PEDOT clusters are nanotechnological techniques that allow biological and synthetic materials to be linked together in order to pass information between them.
“What this means is that if you wanted to play piano like Chopin, you can download that to your consciousness, and dynamically update how your brain operates,” she said. “This is where we’re headed in the next 30 to 40 years.”
Efforts to use technology in tandem with animal behavior have been successful. In one experiment, scientists attached a circuit board to the antennae of a cockroach in order to control its movements using electrical stimulation. Sound interesting? The iPhone app RoboRoach allows you try it at home.
“I think that humans and machines are going to become increasingly linked over time, to the point where it’s difficult to distinguish an organic organism from a synthetic one,” Watson said during an interview with biohacker Teemu Arina. “Where it really doesn’t matter whether one organism is synthetic or organic at all, we just treat them all the same.”