Nervous Tension

One of the greatest liberations in human history will arrive when we truly begin to master the physical system that is closest to us of all: our own bodies. Despite enormous triumphs in our command of the external world, from the building of vast and towering cities to the development of computers to the exploration of the planets, we still live and die as prisoners in the biological machines we are born into, held hostage every day to the caprices of their vital systems. Without the least regard to our station in life, or our virtue, wit, or wealth, we can all be brought down — stopped, literally, dead in our tracks — by some trivial malfunction, some slight physical insult. It might be a virus, or the bursting or occlusion of some tiny bit of plumbing. It could be a gene that causes a milligram too much or too litle of some necessary substance to be produced, or perhaps a renegade group of cells that, having mutinied, encourage others to join them. And of course we all, without exception, suffer the progression of a disease that is universally fatal, and which subjects its victims, little by little, to a withering and debilitating course of mental and physical demolition; that disease, of course, is aging.

One of the most awful mishaps that can befall a person is the severing of one’s nerves. In some instances the result — bad enough — is localized loss of sensation, but for the truly unlucky the outcome is paralysis. It seems so frustratingly simple — on both sides of the injury, business goes on usual, but merely because of a break in the wiring, the the prognosis is tragic, and hopeless. A similar frustration attends those who have lost limbs: we are capable of creating exquisitely subtle and complex replacements, but the problem of controlling them remains an enormous limitation.

But not for long, perhaps. Researchers are now able to grow living neurons onto custom-tailored electrodes, and to stretch them to any desired length — a breakthrough that may soon make possible prostheses that are under the direct motor control of the user’s brain, and that can in addition provide genuine sensory feedback. Read the story here.

I think it is likely that accelerating and convergent progress in the disciplines of biology, neuroscience, computer technology, materials science, genetics, and nanotechnology may bring us, in our own lifetimes — perhaps in little more than a decade or two — to what will be, perhaps, the most significant watershed in all of life’s long story: the conquest of our bodies themselves.

I hope we’re all still around.

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