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The future is now

Human Futures: Art in an Age of Uncertainty

Edited by:
  • Andy Miah
Liverpool Univ. Press: 2008. 368 pp. £35 1846311810 9781846311819 | ISBN: 1-846-31181-0

The Science of Heroes: The Real-Life Possibilities Behind the Hit TV Show

  • Yvonne Carts-Powell
Berkley Boulevard Books: 2008. 288 pp. $15 9780425223352 | ISBN: 978-0-4252-2335-2

“With great power comes great responsibility,” uttered Stan Lee's comic-book superhero Spider-Man in his first published appearance in Amazing Fantasy in 1962. Since then, science has advanced to such a point that the human body can be enhanced in ways that mimic fiction. Cloning, face transplants, prosthetic limbs, brain–machine interfaces and cognition-enhancing drugs promise utopian or Orwellian visions of the future, depending on your outlook. It is the scientific community, not the superhero, that holds the great responsibilities of our age and the next.

Two books, Human Futures and The Science of Heroes, use a crystal ball to imagine how science will determine the future of human existence and society.

Human Futures is a varied collection of meditations on the notion of humanity from researchers, artists, philosophers and even a Blood Elf priest from the online role-playing game World of Warcraft. The book is born of the Human Futures programme of the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, based in Liverpool, UK. The programme comprised a series of exhibitions and lectures for public debate, in which creative assemblages of artists, philosophers and scientists explored questions of what we are now, and what we will become.

The first of the book's four sections, entitled 'Visions', perhaps best succeeds at describing the problems of the future using intelligent insights from the present. Many of the essays focus on society's willingness, or not, to embrace new technologies. Philosopher Russell Blackford argues convincingly that a fear of new technologies is groundless and erodes liberalism. He notes that a governing state can allow new advances, such as choosing the sex of one's child, without endorsing the underlying technology or morality of an individual's choice.

The concept of human enhancement is investigated by ethicist Ruud Ter Meulen. Certain drugs such as modafinil, used to treat narcolepsy, have been shown to improve cognition and are becoming increasingly popular with students revising for exams. If everyone takes the drug in future, then what is the new norm? Will it make us better, or just different?

Physicist Richard Jones asks how humans have been enhanced by technology. He observes that the public accepts the benefits of gadgets while increasingly rejecting the scientific world view. As a result, he explains, per capita energy use in the United Kingdom has risen from 20 gigajoules per person in 1800 to nine times that figure today. Life expectancy, he notes, is strongly correlated with energy use. Such a rise in energy use looks unsustainable at present, but Jones asserts that technology is a product of society, not a runaway automaton, and solutions will come as long as the energy flows.

Oddly, the section concludes with a delightful but misplaced essay on 'evidence dolls', the creation of designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. The plastic miniatures are a hypothetical future product in which to store sperm and hair samples of prospective reproductive partners. The dolls are personified by four women, who reveal how knowledge of their partner's genes might influence their sexual and reproductive lifestyles.

Many of the 'superpowers' portrayed in the television series Heroes are no longer science fiction. Credit: NBC UNIVERSAL PHOTO

Two other essays that centre on human enhancements — such as the lower-leg prostheses that allow South African runner Oscar Pistorius to compete with able-bodied athletes — are left to later sections. This misfiling of the book's content makes its arguments and themes hard to follow. Sociologist Steve Fuller's history of humans playing God is a thoughtful reminder of how badly we have handled aspects of divinity in the past, but it belongs nearer to Pramod Nayar's narrative on post-human rights. Both essays grapple with the prospect of endowing legal and moral status to our cybernetic or genetically enhanced descendants.

The book's over-designed layout — a hybrid of uber-stylish photography mixed with elements of the record sleeve from Radiohead's seminal album OK Computer — does not aid the reader experience. Indeed, the voice of musicians is absent, which weakens the book's proclamations of diversity.

The Science of Heroes explores similar themes, but in a very different style. It uses the vehicle of Heroes, the popular sci-fi television series that follows the moral chaos inflicted on a clutch of people who have incredible powers proportional to their youth and good looks. In the book, Yvonne Carts-Powell propels the reader on an enthusiastic and entertaining journey through the realms of biology and physics that might one day produce the first genuine super people.

And that day might come sooner than we think. The regenerative powers of Heroes character Claire are ones we already possess — we are just slower to heal. Hiro's teleportation has been achieved, at least in the subatomic world, and metamaterials with negative refractive indexes promise invisibility for all. Other powers, such as the ability to steal memory, are already with us in the form of drugs that help victims of trauma to forget.

Historically, superheroes are a snapshot of the relationship between science and society at any one time, based on their powers and how they obtained them. From the perfect Superman born of a 1930s United States adopting eugenic practices, to the nuclear-powered Spider-Man of the cold-war era and the psychologically disturbed Batman incarnations of the therapy-obsessed 1980s and 1990s, every generation has its super people. Those portrayed in Heroes are the genetically enhanced Generation X of the superhero world — too busy to save the world because their own lives are in perpetual turmoil.

Societies get the superheroes they need most. Human Futures and The Science of Heroes give a tantalizing glimpse of how science might make this a reality in a future human existence. And given Carts-Powell's talent for explaining the science, perhaps an army of her clones will take over high-school education.

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Frood, A. The future is now. Nature 457, 383–384 (2009).

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