You, Tomorrow

    The future of the human body in the next 100 years

    By Patrick M. Pilarski, illustrations by Gwen Keraval on December 7, 2015

    Running Man

    You will be better tomorrow than you are today — at least I hope so.

    Please understand: you’re a great person now. But, with a little work, you could be so much more than the sum of your biological parts. We all could.

    Human life and human progress have always been characterized by change and our ability as a species to adapt. In the next 100 years, we can expect unprecedented change — not just to our way of life but also to our bodies. One notable change will be to the line we draw between our bodies and the rest of the world.

    Your self already extends further than you might think. How do you feel when someone else uses your smartphone? Chances are, you feel as if someone is edging into your personal space. As technology becomes more prominent and more intimate, the boundaries of what we consider to be our body will stretch to encompass some of that technology.

    Already, our senses of touch, sight and sound are enhanced regularly by technology. We use webcams to see loved ones from across the globe, and cochlear implants are now routine medical procedures that enable or enhance hearing.

    So how long will it be until you can actually feel the tap of rain on the roof of your house, or put on an extra pair of arms to play that piano duet you’ve always wanted to learn (perhaps with perfect pitch)? Consider a few examples.

    Wearable machines: With new work on soft robotics and reconfigurable materials, we can realistically expect our future bodies to shape and reshape according to our needs. Imagine what it would be like to transform the skin of your feet into metal ice skates just by thinking about it or change your fingertip into a screwdriver to fix the closet door.

    This may sound far-fetched, but consider how advanced technology is already being donned and doffed daily by regular people in the form of wristwatches and fitness monitors. In some special but not uncommon cases, technology is being directly connected to muscles, nerves and bones. Knee and hip replacements are commonplace. At numerous laboratories worldwide, including at the U of A, researchers are developing wearable exoskeletons to increase human strength and endurance, and even extra limbs to help manage complex industrial tasks such as aircraft assembly — and maybe someday play that piano score.

    (Just as I was writing that last sentence sitting at a picnic table on Quad, a gentleman walked past me on the Alumni Walk using two robotic prosthetic legs. In other words, a unique body customized for his daily pursuits.)

    My pet mind: Most of us come to university to learn, to grow as members of our community and to expand our abilities to understand the world around us. Why shouldn’t our body parts have that same capacity to learn and improve? Perhaps the most powerful and exciting avenue for enhancing the human body will come from the automation of intelligence itself. Advances in machine intelligence and learning promise bodily extensions that can offer insight and knowledge to better support us in our daily lives.

    You probably already use machine intelligence to type out voice-to-text messages, control the temperature of your house or suggest better purchases while you shop online. There are also corporeal uses for machine intelligence. In my laboratory, we are studying how artificial limbs can learn about the needs and goals of people with amputations. Our bionic arms and hands actively make themselves easier to control by learning about their users’ activities. Other researchers are finding ways to connect adaptable hardware and software directly to human brain tissue and are even developing ways to use intelligent computation to replace certain functions of a damaged brain.

    This is today. In decades to come, we might have the capacity to expand our brain with additional memory. Consider how extra computation could help you solve that really hard riddle posed at your next cocktail party. Why not stop by your local retailer to pick up a Wikipedia adapter for your prefrontal cortex? It might not be as impossible as it sounds. With an Internet-enabled brain, you might actually be able to be everywhere at once.

    So where does your body stop and the rest of the world begin? Biology is only part of how we define a human body. In the next century, we will choose our own definition of self. Human potential will not be limited by physical forms but driven by our enthusiasm, creativity and kindness. I’m confident that tomorrow, and every day that follows, we will help each other become better in every possible way.

    Patrick M. Pilarski, ’09 PhD, is assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation. He is also a principal investigator with the Alberta Innovates Centre for Machine Learning and the Reinforcement Learning and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.