[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Y3K: The Science of the Next Millennium

The Future of the Human Body

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

In the near future, stem-cell technology will allow us to regrow accidentally severed or damaged limbs or tissue. Dismemberment, paraplegia, and disorders such as Parkinson's disease will all be things of the past. Cancer, too, will be fully curable. And obesity, heart disease, and other ailments will be eliminated. We will also have absolute defenses against viral and bacterial infection — death, or even lost days, through disease will be all but unheard of.

The cloning of humans is years, not centuries, away. Surely through much of the next millennium it will be considered one of several normal options for human reproduction: dynasties stretching back a thousand years will exist by the year 3000, each member of which is genetically identical to the founder.

Cloning, coupled with the development of artificial wombs, will have profound implications for human sexuality and family structures: males will no longer be necessary in order to begin life, females will no longer be necessary to bring fetuses to term. Individuals will be able to reproduce themselves without partners, if they wish, and same-sex partnerships will be fully capable of reproduction. A wide range of parenting/family structures will be considered normal.

But even cloning and sexual reproduction will eventually be considered quaint. More popular will be the ultimate in test-tube babies: true designer offspring, whose DNA is created not from gametes provided by the parents but rather is built up nucleotide by nucleotide, precisely coding for the creation of a new human being with specific requested traits. We will know what every gene combination does, and will be able to create DNA that will produce, for instance a child who will love baseball, be a fan of science fiction, sing fabulously, have an aptitude for mathematics, and like to eat cooked vegetables. (Of course, we will discover that some possibilities, because of the interrelationship of genes, won't be realizable: it may be impossible to produce a human child who is both a highly skilled boxer and also loves to make children's toys.)

Indeed, the life programmers will be able to go further, making new kinds of human beings: humans with gills who can live underwater (leading to the development of vast submerged and floating cities, opening up new territories to relieve overcrowding), humans adapted for arctic conditions, and humans who can live on the surface of Mars before it is terraformed (see my speculations on the future of the solar system).

But, no matter how a child is produced, its lifespan will be much longer than ours are today. Building on 20th-century research into telomeres, we will learn how to make cells reproduce forever without forming tumors; humans will live for hundreds if not thousands of years. (We'll also learn how to store memories in cybernetic implants, so that our brain tissue can continue to regenerate throughout our lives without us losing track of our pasts.)

Meanwhile, the selective cloning of organs and body tissues will also increase our lifespans: people will routinely replace their eyes, hearts, lungs, kidneys, and other parts with cloned, younger versions grown as required without the need — or the thorny ethical dilemmas — of producing full-body clones.

And we will eliminate that pesky annoyance known as sleep; with a few genetic tweaks, these prolonged lifespans will be spent entirely awake, making them seem even more generous.

We will also eliminate eating and digestion, hideously inefficient ways of fueling a body, dispensing with them in favor of cheap cold-fusion bio-energy packs.

Such power sources, and the aforementioned memory implants, will be only one of the few artificial devices buried in our bodies. Others will boost our physical strength and augment our mental capabilities. Computer implants will provide us with instantaneous access to information; merely thinking about a topic will be enough to download information about it into our brains (goodbye, web surfing; hello, global consciousness). In addition, we will be able to communicate by built-in transceivers with others anywhere on the planet — no more cellphones; just thinking that you'd like to have a word with your Aunt Molly will be enough to put you in touch with her: telepathy simulated through technology.

After forty millennia of biological stability — fully modern humans emerged 40,000 years ago — we will take full control of our evolution in the coming millennium, producing healthy, happy, near-immortal beings with vastly enhanced abilities.

More Good Reading

Rob's speculations on the future of:

Rob's essay on life in the future: "The Age of Miracle and Wonder"

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