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Brainstorm: Humanity’s survival paradox

Nanotechnology and advances in healthcare can increase our lifespans, but what impact does that have on the planet’s lifespan?

By Johan Steyn, 22 October 2021

A few days before he died from cancer, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker was disappointed that his last and most important book didn’t find a publisher. Perhaps it was because he was writing about death and publishers were reluctant to offer such work to readers who were looking for quick-fix, self-help and entertaining books to read.

The manuscript landed on the desk of an ambitious young editor, Sam Keen, at Psychology Today. He read it in one sitting and decided to make it his mission to publish and promote Becker’s work. Keen went to visit the author a few days before he died, and worked tirelessly to get it published. In 1974, four months after the author’s demise, The Denial of Death was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

All biological organisms die. Of the mammalian species, humans are the only ones aware of our impending expiry. Becker argued that ‘the basic motivation for human behaviour is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death’. All life forms share a biological proclivity for self-preservation in the service of reproduction. Humans, however, are unique in our capacity for symbolic cognition, which develops self-awareness and the ability to reflect on the past and contemplate the future. This leads to the understanding that death is unavoidable and can come at any time.

The smart technology era has given us the ability to process enormous amounts of data. We’ve already seen how businesses are using data from sensors or from client interactions to autonomise decision-making, optimising processes, leading to better customer outcomes.

The fields of healthcare and medicine are perhaps where we see smart innovation more than in any other domain. The ability for doctors to look into patient bodies through scans has seen a seismic shift. Image recognition platforms enable medical teams to quickly analyse scans, leading to more accurate prognosis.

What if doctors could view the body from the inside out? What if sickness or death was predictable and controllable? I wonder how death avoidance would change the face of humanity and how it would impact our most basic anxieties.

The next step in our drive to avoid death is technology on the nano-scale. The prefix ‘nano’ refers to 10 to the power of nine, so a nanometre is one billionth of a metre. Medicines can be delivered to sick cells in our bodies using self-propelled nanomotors and other biodegradable nanodevices made of bio-nano components. These small devices may be programmed to deliver molecular payloads while restricting tumour blood supply, resulting in tissue death and tumour reduction.

If we are able to successfully develop these medical nanobots, and get them approved and regulated, it will change the trajectory of humanity. We should care about technology that can end suffering, but we also need to make sure that these advances benefit not just the wealthy minority, but that all humans have access.

A post-death society

We’re already strip-mining our planet of resources at an unimaginable scale. Humans have proven to be a cancer on the face of the Earth. Not only should we be concerned about the impact of technology on our biology or our privacy, we should be aghast at our impact on the environment.

Do we really want more people on the planet? Do we want to create technology that could end suffering and death? This is a difficult balancing act. Our fragile ecosystem will struggle to handle billions more people, who live much longer than at present.

However, if a loved one developed cancer and the doctors could use nano-medicine and smart pills to heal them, I would be the first to say we should speed up our research and development in this field.

Writing in his personal capacity, Johan Steyn is a smart automation and AI thought leader and management consultant, working at PwC, and is chair of the IITPSA’s Special Interest Group on AI and Robotics.


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