The following essay was originally published as a chapter for The Future of Business: Critical Insights into a Rapidly Changing World from 60 Future Thinkers that was edited by Rohit Talwar under Fast Future Publishing. This is not intended to be a response to Party member Alcott Evans’s article, “Transhumanism, Meet Business;” rather to serve as an extension upon its premise that the Transhumanist goal of body modification is now entering the business world.
How will cybernetics, 3D printing, and the biohacking movement change the way we enhance people?
Emergence of a new business sector
In the near future, I expect that the cyberpunk fantasy of cyborgs and genetically enhanced humans will become a lucrative business opportunity. Google co-founder Larry Page once said: “Lots of companies don’t succeed over time. What do they fundamentally do wrong? They usually miss the future.” We are presently accelerating into a future where people can enhance and augment themselves at their whim. The question we need to ask ourselves, and one which I hope to answer in this chapter, is: how will a viable industry business model evolve for a future dominated by cyborgs?
The future of any business is nothing more than a race against time itself. It requires a keen eye on what is going on throughout the different sectors of science and technology, and subsequently a proactionary drive to move forward revolutionary ideas, even with the prospect of there being risks. To not move forward would be to remain in stasis. If you stand still or retreat, the future will continue accelerating, watching as you wither away – cast into the dustbin of history. If you are a business owner, or have any plans to become one in the future, this should scare the hell out of you.
Technology today is accelerating at an exponential pace, with computing power maintaining Moore’s Law – the doubling of transistors in a dense integrated circuit every 18 to 24 months. In addition, most other information technologies are adhering to what inventor Ray Kurzweil refers to as the law of accelerating returns – the exponential growth of evolutionary systems, including but not limited to technological growth. Keeping this in mind, the success of a business – both small and large – requires exponential thinking, as opposed to a linear outlook. My aim is to help you envision that future, consequently allowing you to weigh up the available options carefully and determine the best method of moving your business forward into the future. So keep calm, take a breath, and let’s jump into the rabbit hole, shall we?
Introducing Body Shops
Let me first tell you my vision of this near-future business practice. My vision requires an open-minded understanding of what makes us human and what we can do to help ourselves and others address our current biological limitations. In the next 15 to 20 years, I expect the emergence of what I call Body Shops – that is, essentially, a shop where you walk in human and leave as a cyborg. These shops will be on a par with tattoo and piercing shops in terms of access and popularity. The difference is that with tattoo and piercing shops you merely require staff with experience in both art and the proper means of piercing the body in non-detrimental ways. With Body Shops however, they will require people who are experienced in the fields of both plastic surgery and biotechnology – capable of delivering what I consider to be fast-food plastic surgery.
What do I mean when I say fast-food plastic surgery? Understanding this primarily requires insight into what makes the fast-food industry so popular, as opposed to sit-down restaurants. According to a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the growing popularity of fast food boils down to three simple factors:
- Speed – Their service is quick;
- Convenience – The restaurants are easy to get to; and
- Cost – They are inexpensive compared to full-service restaurants.
When we think of plastic surgery, however, these three factors are practically nonexistent. Plastic surgery requires a lot of time to complete procedures and the healing process; the practice is limited to hospitals and private business establishments; and the price tag for a single procedure costs an arm and a leg (pun intended). So when I say fast-food plastic surgery, I’m basically advocating the idea that we will eventually reach the point where the business practice of modifying the human body will become fast, readily available, and inexpensive for the common person. This will become an essential business model for mass-market Body Shops. Let’s now explore the underlying enablers – cybernetic implants, 3D-printed prosthetic limbs, and biohacking.
Cybernetic implants and 3D-printed prosthetic technology
Demand for augmentation of the human body is on the rise. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), from just 2012 to 2013, they witnessed a clear increase of interest among 30-to-70-year-olds in modifying their bodies via plastic surgery. In 2013 alone, 15.1 million more cosmetic enhancements were undertaken, alongside a 5.7 million increase in reconstructive procedures. ASPS President Robert X. Murphy, Jr., MD, reported that “Facial rejuvenation procedures were especially robust last year, with more Americans opting for facelifts, forehead lifts, eyelid surgery, fillers and peels. With new devices and products hitting the market each year, there are more options and choices available to consumers wanting to refresh their look or [undergo] a little nip and tuck.”
What Dr. Murphy said is especially important, for it paves the way to understanding the growing popularity of modifying the human body, for both medical and non-medical reasons. As more products hit the market, the more options people are given. Increasingly, this offers the opportunity to start re-looking at ourselves and re-defining what our body can and should do, whether it’s how it should appear or how it should affect our daily lives. We can reasonably assume that, the more technological advances create the potential to enhance our currently limited biology, the more people will take the leap forward and embrace the opportunity to modify themselves in ever-more fundamental and dramatic ways.
In fact, we’re already witnessing an increase in the number of people acquiring cybernetic implant procedures. In 2014, CNN Money interviewed Amal Graafstra, founder and CEO of biohacking company Dangerous Things. Graafstra discussed his company’s business practice of providing people with implantable radio frequency identification (RFID) and near-field communication (NFC) tags. Doing so would allow them to control electronics and other devices with simple gestures like waving their hand. “A couple of years ago,” Amal said, “I was selling a tag maybe once a week. Now we’re looking at least one a day. We’ve sold probably around 23,000 implants across all of the different types.”
Dangerous Things isn’t the only company providing implants to help people unleash their inner cyborg either. Grindhouse Wetware is best known for its popular magnetic finger-tip implants. These allow people to acquire the physical sensation of feeling the shape and current of electromagnetic waves. If provision of cybernetic implants is a reality in 2015, imagine what could happen in the next 15 to 20 years!
Pioneering the cybernetic limb market
At the forefront of this revolutionary new stage of human existence are Aimee Mullins and Hugh Herr – two very successful individuals at polar opposites in terms of profession. Both are pushing this train of thought beyond its originally perceived limits by ensuring that cybernetic artificial limbs are readily available, low in cost, and vary in design to help each person acquire their own sense of individuality. Mullins is both an athlete and a fashion model, whereas Herr is an engineer and biophysicist. What connects them is the fact that both are double amputees. I am sure you are wondering: so what? Well, it isn’t so much the double amputation of their legs which brings them together; rather how these two individuals decided to address their disability and their goals for humanity.
During a 2009 TED conference, Mullins walked on stage (you read that right) and started talking about why she no longer considers herself disabled. She recalled the time when she met up with a friend who noticed Mullins was now taller than her friend remembered. Mullins explained that she has an entire assortment of prosthetic legs that vary in length, allowing her the option of choosing her height on any given day. Her friend’s response was perfect: “But, Aimee, that’s not fair!” This response had become her “ah ha!” moment, realizing the practically limitless future possibilities of prosthetic technology and how it could affect our daily lives.
Mullins asserts that: “The conversation with society has changed profoundly in this last decade. It is no longer a conversation about overcoming deficiency. It’s a conversation about augmentation. It’s a conversation about potential. A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space. So people that society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment.”
In 2014, during another TED conference, Hugh Herr discussed the remarkable history of his disability and how he made it his life’s mission to not only conquer his own, but subsequently conquer all disabilities as a whole. He leads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab’s Biomechatronics group, which is making great strides in engineering low-cost, highly efficient prosthetic limbs and exoskeleton suits.
Herr explained how he used different prosthetics to help conquer difficult feats in a more efficient way than he ever could with his original biological limbs, for example mountain climbing. This, in turn, became Herr’s ‘ah ha!’ moment, helping him reach a similar conclusion to Mullins. Herr explains: “Every person should have the right to live life without disability if they so choose — the right to live life without severe depression; the right to see a loved one in the case of [the] seeing impaired; or the right to walk or to dance, in the case of limb paralysis or limb amputation. As a society, we can achieve these human rights if we accept the proposition that humans are not disabled. A person can never be broken. Our built environment, our technologies are broken and disabled. We the people need not accept our limitations, but can transcend disability through technological innovation.”
The coming transformation of the prosthetic limb market
These examples offers an excellent segue into the ongoing efforts of open-sourcing prosthetic technology to the overall populace. Both Herr and Mullins envision a near-future where prosthetic technology is available to everyone, empowering them with nearly limitless options in expressing their self-determination. The largest base of consumers for this future business practice will, at first, largely revolve around those with disabilities. Gradually, as those with disabilities are then enhanced and augmented with advanced technology, we will witness a shift in how we define disabled. In other words, people who are simply able-bodied may start to consider themselves disabled in comparison to those who’ve been enhanced. Once that occurs, a whole new base of consumers could begin to emerge.
The growing popularity of low-cost prosthetic technology is overwhelmingly clear. In 2014, Intel held a contest entitled Make It Wearable. They invited teams to compete in developing new, wearable technologies that would essentially either change how humans go about their day-to-day lives or change the human condition itself. In response, entrants began engineering new and revolutionary technologies. By November 3rd the finalists were selected. The winner was the Nixie – pan autonomous mini-drone that wraps around your wrist. In second place was the newly established UK-based company Open Bionics with a goal of producing low-cost, lightweight, modular limbs by combining bionics with 3D printing.
Since then we’ve witnessed a wave of open-source, low-cost prosthetic limb production. Formed in 2014, volunteer-based group Limbitless Solutions has gained considerable attention for its emphasis on helping disabled youth become able-bodied again using Limbitless’ prosthetics. This was especially welcomed, given the lack of emphasis on youth from corporate prosthetic development companies because they would be developing prosthetic limbs that would need to be re-designed over time as the children grew up. With 3D printing, this problem goes away completely. The company mission states: “Limbitless Solutions is a growing engineering community devoted to changing lives through the innovation of new bionic arm designs and development of a worldwide network of makers and thinkers… Our mission is to create a world without limits, where everyone has access to the tools necessary to manufacture simple, affordable, and accessible solutions through open source design and 3D printing.”
As 3D printing continues its seemingly exponential growth, the amount of options people will be able to choose from to enhance themselves should grow just as fast. As I was writing this, a new 3D printer was introduced to the world that could change the 3D-printing industry forever. Called the CLIP (Continuous Liquid Interface Production), the relatively new company Carbon3D had shocked the world at TED2015 with a 3D printer that uses light, oxygen, and UV-cured resin to develop objects 25-100 times faster than previous 3D printers. This goes hand in hand with the goal of making Body Shop enhancements both affordable and quick.
So we have covered both cybernetic implants and 3D-printed prosthetic technology. The last major facet of future Body Shop establishments will harness the power of biohacking. As noted previously, there are already biohacking companies helping hack people’s biology via cybernetics. However, as fate would have it, in the last couple of years a new potential in biohacking has presented itself under the guise of genome editing.
Previously there were methods of editing an organism’s genome – for example RNAi (Ribonucleic acid interference); however, those methods were quite limiting. Thanks to a group of researchers, led by geneticist and molecular engineer George M. Church, a new method was developed with near-perfect accuracy throughout an entire range of different organisms, including the possibility of editing human biology. This method has since come to be known as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). This uses an RNA-guided DNA enzyme known as Cas9 to help target and manipulate, or altogether change, entire genome sequences. The possibilities for such a revolutionary new tool – medical and nonmedical – are practically limitless.
The prospect of gene hacking was predicted by Ramez Naam, who authored the book More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, in which he stated: “In just a few decades, we’ve gone from the first tinkering with human genes to the discovery of dozens of techniques that could alter the human genome in very precise ways. Those techniques give us the power to cure diseases or to enhance and sculpt our bodies. This new control over our genes promises to enhance our quality of life as dramatically as the medical discoveries of the past century.”
The path to body shops – imagining the future
So imagine with me, if you will, what these groups of radical technologies could achieve in the next 15 to 20 years. With cybernetic implants, we have the prospect of changing how people will interact with firstly their various electronic possessions, and subsequently their surrounding environment. A growing number of people are already acquiring magnetic finger-tip implants, solely for the purpose of enhancing their sense of touch. Once cybernetics advance to the point where a person’s entire body is connected in some way to online systems, we will officially give birth to bio-computing.
The markets for 3D printing and prosthetic technology are accelerating at a remarkable rate, delivering open-source, low-cost bionic limbs in just hours, and soon mere minutes! Enhanced and unenhanced people will walk into these Body Shops to try on new synthetic body parts as if they were a pair of glasses. By that time, we could officially have done away with disability altogether. The new market slogan won’t be “Become able-bodied!” Instead it will be “Become augmented!”
With genetic biohacking, we are truly traversing extremely radical grounds. People will be looking to well-regulated Body Shops for proper genetic enhancements, as opposed to DIY underground establishments. The marketing proposition would be to become superheroes; to become gods! For better or worse, this will be a new booming business opportunity.
Once this book is published, and you’re reading this chapter, months will have gone by, and even more new and radical technologies will have been developed. As noted at the beginning, future business strategy requires a keen eye on what is going on throughout the sectors of science and technology. We are moving at an incredible rate, and actually, I believe my 15-to-20-year estimation for the emergence of Body Shops may be a bit conservative. Getting there, however, requires an open mind, a proactionary drive to move forward, and, of course, it requires you.
As business people, it is up to you to determine how you will proceed with the future of human enhancements. I’ve presented a clear case for how enhancement could turn into a viable business opportunity. There will, of course, be a question of risks and how best to manage them. I can only offer the advice of adhering to the proactionary principle (as opposed to the precautionary principle) when discussing the mitigation of any possible risks. And of course, there’s the question of when these Body Shops will emerge. Whenever they do, I predict many will achieve dramatic success with the Body Shop business model, on which other businesses will eventually base their own strategies.
Having said that, this chapter certainly raises other questions you’ll need to answer for yourself:
- How might your future business respond to laws that may or may not limit the degree in which a person can be enhanced?
- Given the open-source nature of 3D-printing technologies, how can your company stand out from everyone else in terms of design, manufacturing, and service capabilities?
- Given the potentially contentious nature of this market, are you prepared to become a business that represents the customers’ interests when they are put into question?
Let the future commence!
- Ha, T., 2014, “Computing Is Still Too Clunky: Charlie Rose and Larry Page in Conversation,” article, 03/15/15.
- Kurzweil, R., 2001, “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” article, 03/15/15.
- Cyborg (or Cybernetic organism): A being, both human and nonhuman, which contains significantly interconnected organic, biomechatronic and electronic parts that enable it to perform biological, mechanical, and computational functions
- Rydell, S. A., Harnack, L. J., Oakes, J. M., Story, M., Jeffery, R. W., French, S. A., 2008, “Why Eat at Fast-Food Restaurants: Reported Reasons among Frequent Consumers,” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 108(12), pp. 2066–2070
- American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2014, “2013 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report,” report, 03/15/15
- 2014, “American Society of Plastic Surgeons Reports 15.1 Million Cosmetic Procedures in 2013; Marks Fourth Consecutive Year of Growth,” article, 03/15/15
- Naik, R., 2014, “The Business of Being a Cyborg,” article, 03/15/15
- Clark, L., 2012, “Magnet-Implanting DIY Biohackers Pave the Way For Mainstream Adoption,” article, 03/15/15
- Mullins, A., 2009, “Aimee Mullins: My 12 Pairs of Legs,” TEDtalk, 03/16/15
- Herr, H., 2014, “Hugh Herr: The New Bionics That Let Us Run, Climb and Dance,” TEDtalk, 03/16/15
- Murphy, B. J., 2013, “Will Today’s Handicapped Become Tomorrow’s First Post-Human?,” article, 03/16/15
- Murphy B. J., 2014, “Intel Wants You To Become A Cyborg!,” article, 03/16/15
- 2014, “Development Track Finalists,” webpage, 03/16/15
- 2014, “Mission Statement,” webpage, 03/17/15
- Murphy, B. J., 2015, “Carbon3D’s CLIP Has Just Re-Revolutionized the Entire 3D Printing Industry!,” article, 03/17/15
- Biohacking: Managing or altering the body’s own biology using medical, genetic manipulation, nutritional and electronic techniques.
- Mali, P., Esvelt, K. M., Church, G. M., 2013, “Cas9 as a versatile tool for engineering biology,” Nature Methods, 10(10), pp. 957-963.
- Naam, R., 2005, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, Broadway Books, New York, p. 41, Chap.1.
B.J. Murphy is the Director of Social Media of the U.S. Transhumanist Party.