We’re back again after Corin Faife’s report on gene editing a couple of weeks ago. The story there, behind the headlines about creating superhumans immune to disease, is that gene editing is really expensive. We could be on the edge of an era of radically improved human health—as big as the one we entered after the discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics nearly a century ago. Antibiotics were a lot cheaper, though.
Our latest episode of the Human Machine, written by Jane C. Hu, is also about whether something that could improve the lives of millions of people will also be affordable to most people. The next generation of prosthetics are taking advantage of more effective technologies—from batteries with more capacity to stronger composite materials—that are also lighter than ever, opening up new possibilities for augmenting the human body. Complete exoskeletons, straight from science fiction, are also becoming practically possible for the first time.
The problem, though, is that these new materials and designs are extremely expensive, and the best new designs are only being made available to some select groups: soldiers, elite athletes, and the wealthiest private citizens of higher-income countries. The result is that by, say, 2050 we could see amputee athletes who can outrun any un-augmented person—but the average amputee on the street will be wearing a false leg just as clunky as the off-the-shelf option available today in 2017.
As Jane explains:
“While I was on the phone with [prosthetics designer] Jason Kerestes for this story, a friend came by to pick something up she’d left at my place. Right after I let her in, she heard me say, ‘So, tell me about how your jetpack works,’ and I heard her swallow a guffaw. Afterward, she was like, ‘What the hell are you writing about?’
Jetpacks (and microprocessor knees, bionic boots, or powered exoskeletons) seem like playthings of the future, but in reporting this story, I was surprised to discover how they’re already very much a part of the present—they just have yet to enter the mainstream. In this piece, I explore where the technology currently is, and what will need to happen for these tools to become widely available.”
Check it out
As always, there will be discussion of this and more, including ongoing of last week’s reading club assignments, over on the Facebook group.
Until next time,