Today is the release of THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY, the latest book by the world-renowned physicist Dr. Michio Kaku. In it, he explores the astonishing technologies that could propel us to live on other planets and even to live forever. LeapsMag Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff recently chatted with Dr. Kaku about some of the ethical implications we need to consider as we hurtle toward our destiny among the stars. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
"Technology is like a double-edged sword. The question is, who wields it?"
A big part of your book discusses living on Mars, and you mention that nanotech, biotech and AI could help us do so in the next 100 years. But you also note that efforts to make the Red Planet habitable could backfire, such as using genetic engineering to produce an ideal fertilizer, which could make one life form push out all the others. How should we judge when a powerful new technology is ready to be tested?
Technology is like a double-edged sword. One side can cut against ignorance, poverty, disease. But the other side can cut against people. The question is, who wields the sword? It has to be wielded by people's interests. We have to look not at the needs of the military or corporations, but society as a whole, and we have to realize that every technology, not just the ones I mentioned in the book, has a dark side as well as a positive side.
On the positive side, you could terraform Mars using genetic engineering to create algae, plants that could thrive in the Martian atmosphere, and a self-sustaining agriculture where we could raise food crops. However, it has to be done carefully, because we don't want to have it overrun Mars, just like we have certain plants that overrun the natural environment here on Earth. So we have to do it slowly. It cannot be done all of a sudden in a crash program. We have to see what happens if we begin to terraform stretches of Martian landscape.
Elon Musk of SpaceX, who has pioneered much of these technologies, has stated that we can jumpstart terraforming Mars by detonating hydrogen bombs over the polar ice caps. Later he had to qualify that by saying that they are airbursts, not ground bursts, to minimize radiation. Other people have said, we don't know what a nuclear weapon would do. Would it destabilize Mars? Would it open cracks in the ice caps? So we have to think things through, not just make proposals. Another proposal is to use silver mirrors in space to reflect sunlight down to melt the ice caps, and that would be more environmentally friendly than using hydrogen bombs.
"Our grandkids, when they hit the age of 30, they may just decide to stop aging, and live at age 30 for many decades to come."
As far as colonizing Mars, you also talk about technologies that could potentially help us end aging, but you note that this could exacerbate overpopulation and an exodus from Earth -- the double-edged sword again. What's your personal view on whether anti-aging research should be pursued?
Anti-aging research is accelerating because of the human genome. We're now able to map the genomes of old people, compare them with the genomes of young people, and we can see where aging takes place. For example, in a car, aging takes place in the engine, because that's where we have moving parts and combustion. Where do we find that in a cell? The mitochondria, and so we do see a concentration of error build-up in the mitochondria, and we can envision one day repairing the mistakes, which could in turn increase our life span. Also we're discovering new enzymes like telomerase which allow us to stop the clock. So it's conceivable, I think not for my generation, but for the coming generations, perhaps our grandkids, when they hit the age of 30, they may just decide to stop aging, and live at age 30 for many decades to come.
The other byproduct of this of course is overpopulation. That's a social problem, but realize in places like Japan, we have the opposite problem, under-population, because the birth rate has fallen way below the replacement level, people live too long, and there's very little immigration there. Europe is next. So we have this bizarre situation where some places like Sub-Saharan Africa are still expanding, but other places we're going to see a contraction. Overall, the population will continue to rise, but it's going to slow down. Instead of this exponential curve that many people see in the media, it's going to be shaped like an "S" that rises rapidly and then seals off. The UN is now beginning to entertain the possibility that the population of the Earth may seal off sometime by the end of the century--that we'll hit a steady state.
"In the future, that composite image may be holographic, with all your videotapes, your memories, to create a near approximation of who you are, and centuries from now, you may have digital immortality."
Later in the book, you talk about achieving immortality through storing your digital consciousness, uploading your brain to a computer. Many people today find that notion bizarre or even repulsive, but you also wisely note that "what seems unethical or even immoral today might be ordinary or mundane in the future." What do you think is the key to bridging the gap between controversial breakthroughs and public acceptance?
I imagine that if someone from the Middle Ages, who is fresh from burning witches and heretics and torturing non-believers, were to wind up today in our society, they might go crazy. They might think all of society is a product of the Devil, because attitudes toward morality change. So we humans today cannot dictate what morality will be like 100 years from now. For example, test tube babies. When Louise Brown (the first test tube baby) was first born, the Catholic Church denounced it. Now, today, your wife, husband, you may be a test tube baby and we don't even blink.
There's a Silicon Valley company today that will take what is known about you on the Internet, your credit card transactions, your emails, and create a composite image of you. In the future, that composite image may be holographic, with all your videotapes, your memories, to create a near approximation of who you are, and centuries from now, you may have digital immortality—your memories, your sensations, will be recorded accurately, and an avatar will recreate it. Like for example, I wouldn't mind talking to Einstein. I wouldn't mind sitting down with the guy and having a great conversation about the universe.
And the Connectome Project, by the end of the century, will map the entire brain--that's every neuron--just like the genome project has mapped every gene. And we live with it, we don't even think twice about the fact that our genome exists. In the future, our connectome will also exist. And the connectome can reproduce your thoughts, your dreams, your sensations. We'll just live with that fact; it will be considered ordinary.
"A hundred years from now, we may want to merge with some of these technologies, rather than have to compete with robots."
Wow. In such a "post-human" era, our bodies could be replaced by robots or maintained by genetic engineering. Once these technologies become commercially available, do you think people should have the freedom to make changes or enhancements to themselves?
I think there should be laws passed at a certain point to prevent parents from going crazy trying to genetically engineer their child. Once we isolate the genes for studying, for good behavior, things like that, we may be tempted to tinker with it. I think a certain amount of tinkering is fine, but we don't want to let it get out of control. There has to be limits.
Also, we are in competition with robots of the future. A hundred years from now, robots are going to become very intelligent. Some people think they're going to take over. My attitude is that a hundred years from now, we may want to merge with some of these technologies, rather than have to compete with robots. But we're not going to look like some freaky robot because we're genetically hardwired to look good to the opposite sex, to look good to our peers. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, and hundreds of thousands of years into the future, we'll still look the same. We'll genetically modify ourselves a little bit, but we'll basically look the same.
That's an interesting point. It's amazing how fast technology is moving overall. Like at one point in the book, you mention that primates had never been cloned, but a few weeks ago, news broke that this just happened in China. Do you think we should slow down the dramatic pace of acceleration and focus on the ethical considerations, or should we still move full-steam ahead?
Well, CRISPR technology has accelerated us more than we previously thought. In the past, to tinker with genes, you had to cut and splice, and it was a lot of guesswork and trial and error. Now, you can zero in on the cutting process and streamline it, so cutting and splicing genes becomes much more accurate, and you can edit them just like you edit a book. Within the field of bioengineering, they have set up their own conferences to begin to police themselves into figuring out which domains are ethically dangerous and which areas can provide benefits for humanity, because they realize that this technology can go a little bit too fast.
"Where does truth come from? Truth comes from interaction with incorrect ideas."
You cannot recall a life form. Once a life form is created, it reproduces. That's what life does. If it reproduces outside the laboratory, it could take over. So we want to make sure that we don't have to recall a life form, like you would recall a Ford or a Chevrolet. Eventually governments may have to slow down the pace because it's moving very rapidly.
Lastly, you talk about the importance of democratic debate to resolve how controversial technology should be used. How can science-minded people bring the rest of society into these conversations, so that as much of society as possible is represented?
It's a question of where does truth come from? Truth comes from interaction with incorrect ideas--the collision of truth and untruth, rumors and fact. It doesn't come from a machine where you put in a quarter, and out comes the answer. It requires democratic debate. And that's where the Internet comes in, that's where the media comes in, that's where this interview comes in. You want to stimulate and educate the people so they know the dangers and promises of technology, and then engage with them about the moral implications, because these things are going to affect every aspect of our life in the future.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."