Artificial Wombs, Synthetic Blood and Electronic Skin

Is human body ripe for disruption?

Disruption affects every industry eventually, and the human body may be next on the list. Nature has done a lot of the evolutionary heavy lifting the old fashioned way — slowly and randomly. With new technological advances, humans can take control of the process. Genetically engineered humans are not just the province of science fiction stories with new gene therapies, better mapping and hardware developments.

Throughout history, the major focus for healthcare has been to combat diseases. This meant billions of dollars poured into drug research and other methodologies designed to fight disease. Success rates vary, depending on the disease, but humans now possess the capacity to change the shape of the battlefield with a biological revolution. We know that the agricultural revolution changed the shape of food production. The industrial revolution changed the face of manufacturing. The information revolution is continuing to create change and disruption in virtually every market. The biological revolution has the potential for even greater impact.

Thousands of startups will emerge globally to usher in this biological revolution and spawn new industries.

Several traditional industries like Pharma and Healthcare may not survive in their current forms. Even the decade old smartphone industry may not exist if an electronic tattoo on your wrist or palm could do the job.

Latest and Greatest Bioscience Advances

Emerging technologies have the potential to affect every part of the human body, at virtually every stage. The designer baby debate is still in its infancy, but the technology is real.

Artificial Wombs — Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have successfully developed an artificial womb. Designed to help gestate premature babies to full term, this technology has already been used with lambs. Combine this technology with a nutrient slurry cooked up by researchers at Cambridge University that kept an embryo alive for nearly two weeks and we might have the recipe for live births without pregnancies.

Synthetic Blood— Donated blood saves lives, but aging donor populations and increasingly aging populations means a greater demand than ever. Researchers have been attempting to create a synthetic alternative for decades, but this year marks the first where a viable solution has gone to human trials.

Electronic Skin— The name might be a little misleading, but electronic skin could be hitting shelves sometime in the next five years. This super thin, lightweight, flexible film goes on over skin and offers incredible potential. Imagine watching TV on the back of your arm or getting continual health monitoring through a temporary tattoo. With e-skin, all of that may be possible.

Emerging Biohackers

With these new technologies comes new opportunities and new risks. Biohackers, citizens interested in the potential of new technology, have developed small labs and tinker with everything from common houseplants to their own bodies. Designer babies are a concept that will be in legislative holes for decades, but once the technology is there, some people will be implementing changes to DNA at the basic level. The Internet of Things is all about devices talking to other devices, but the Internet of Senses is also here in the form of a variety of wearable technologies. Ever more sensitive and miniaturized sensor technology makes it possible for devices to respond directly to changes in the human body. Human bodies will not only talk to devices but also other human bodies. We will also see the emergence of newer senses altogether.

From Science Fiction to Science Fact

Advances to the biological sciences can change the world. Just the existence of the artificial womb can have a massive impact. Consider that maternal mortality is still a major pregnancy risk factor, particularly for older parents. With an artificial gestation mechanism, that risk disappears, allowing people to wait longer before they start a family. It also opens the way for non-traditional families. Artificial wombs would make it possible for men to gestate a baby without female intervention and give same-sex couples more access to the ability to start a family.

With women not expected to take considerable amounts of time off to start a family, society could see the shattering of the glass ceiling that has long limited a women’s potential in the workforce.

Even this single development can have lasting and far-reaching consequences for modern society. Disruption to the human body could completely change the workplace, relationship dynamics, entertainment options and a whole lot more. With better bionic limbs, those with implants can actually accomplish more work, making them more productive not handicapped. Changes to the brain might increase native intelligence, but they could also alter human psychology and how people process emotions. Until these technologies reach the general market, it is difficult to say how society will adapt and change.

The Ethics of Biological Revolution

With every technological advancement that deals directly with the human body comes a host of ethical considerations. Just looking at the artificial womb several people immediately jump out. If artificial pregnancy is less expensive than traditional gestation, it is likely that insurance companies will prioritize it. If it is more expensive, artificial wombs might only be available to the wealthy, deepening the already extant class divide. The same is true when discussing designer babies.

The technology needed to support artificial wombs and create designer babies is already here. Cambridge researchers only ended their two week study on an embryo outside the womb due to legal restrictions. Ethical issues are the limitation currently affecting modern technology. After all, in a world where the wealthiest live longer, healthier and enjoy an increased intelligence quotient, ethics becomes a major consideration when determining who has access and when to deploy these life changing technologies.