Tech Making Man Into God [Sunday News (Lancaster, PA)]
(Sunday News (Lancaster, PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) How'd you like a detailed look at what's going on in your gut, right now? Right. Me neither.
But in a fascinating piece in this month's The Atlantic magazine, Mark Bowden writes of astrophysicist-turned-computer scientist Larry Smarr, who is using supercomputers to study his own body and who believes that by 2030, technology could transform medicine, allowing individuals to maintain their bodies and health the way a mechanic maintains a high-performance vehicle.
Smarr's epiphany began when he lost weight and took a greater interest in health and nutrition. He pored over blood test results, noticing that a protein that rises in response to inflammation was high. He showed it to his doctors, who asked if he had any symptoms; he didn't. They told him to come back when he did.
Weeks later he experienced severe abdominal pain, diagnosed as acute diverticulitis - and he was angry. The doctors, he felt, should have caught it on the basis of his charts, his data.
So Smarr took over his own health care, examining colonoscopy results, testing his stool, "learning more about the biochemistry of his own body than any patient had ever known." He sleeps with a headband that monitors sleep patterns, has blood drawn up to eight times a year, "is on a first-name basis with his ultrasound and MRI technicians." The data is dumped into computers, generating charts and graphs and 3D images that ultimately resulted in an early diagnosis of Crohn's disease.
But beyond this, it produced in Smarr a belief that this type of biological data-mining is the health care of the future, where technology allows you to "know each of your cells' 6 billion genome bases, with all the imaging down to the micron level. ... I mean, you are going to get the wiring diagram, basically." That could help diagnose illness long before symptoms show up. It may, in fact, lead to immortality: "As we develop our ability to replace broken-down body parts with bioengineered organs," writes Bowden, "and as we work toward a complete understanding of human systems and biochemistry. ... Why not?" This, just a little more than a century after the first use of X- rays.
You've come a long way, baby.
In one respect Smarr's quest and the tantalizing possibilities it raises are merely the continuation of the age-old drive to perfect our environment and ourselves. But never before has the technology existed to allow us to be so, well, perfect.
As technology continues to advance, other possibilities are guaranteed to open up.
Perhaps one day, scientists identify a gene that predisposes an individual toward homosexuality. Perhaps we identify life on other planets, maybe several other planets, disproving the notion that we're alone and, therefore, unique.
Maybe love may one day be chemically induced - or repressed.
There's more than a whiff of Icarus to all this, but if it can happen it will, the potential will be too alluring. Technology is advancing to a point where it will allow us to change what it means to be human; this is man making himself God.
That has huge theological consequences, obviously, but it's likely to also have major practical consequences. Just to cite a comparatively pedestrian one: If, barring death in a car crash or some such, we may one day live forever, how do we pay for that? Push Social Security eligibility back to age 200? It sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, but Smarr says it will be here, soon. So, again - how'd you like a detailed look at what's going on in your gut, right now? And what would your answer be if I told you it might one day help you live forever? Gil Smart is associate editor of the Sunday News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 291-8817.
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