Slate is running a series of articles about futuristic improvements in human physiology
, broken down by category (eyes, muscles, etc.).
(Link via Charles Murtaugh
Two installments are up so far. Here are three possible eye improvements the article talks about:
1) Laser-Perfected Vision
A laser surgeon can follow the map of errors revealed by the wavefront sensor, making minuscule, precise corrections on the corneal surface. No longer will laser surgery be limited to the big aberrations that surgeons can now eliminate: It could erase every error in the eye.
2) The Cyborg Eye
Brain imaging and miniaturization are improving rapidly. It's possible that Dobelle and others will figure out how to feed 1,000 electrodes, or even 100,000 electrodes, into the brain or build retinal arrays with 100,000 sensors.
This is when super-vision becomes possible. Thanks to the camera, there is scarcely any limit on what an implanted person could see. You could equip the camera with a telephoto or fisheye lens. The camera could swivel. It could receive infrared light (the light that you see in night-vision goggles). So an implantee could see in the dark, or see behind him, or zoom in on a particularly interesting corner of his visual field.
3) The Rainbow Eye
The most audacious supereye would improve us by altering our own genes.
Many animals, including birds and fish, have four cones, not three. The fourth cone is usually receptive to ultraviolet light, meaning these animals see a whole range of light that we cannot.
If this experiment succeeds in monkeys—and assuming progress in human gene therapy, thus far mostly a failure—the Neitzes will try a similar technique on colorblind humans, attempting to give them a third, functioning cone. If that proves successful, the Neitzes hypothesize, you ought to be able to give people with normal sight a fourth cone, equipping us "tetrachromatic" vision.
Some interesting stuff here, but nothing an enterprising SF writer probably already hasn't pondered at some point.
Murtaugh appears to be dubious about the whole enterprise of applying any such modifications to humans, though:
I've alluded before to the ethical issues inherent in meddling with the genes of a nonconsenting unborn individual. One common libertarian strategy is to bring up in vitro fertilization: how did they know that IVF wouldn't result in birth defects? Louise Brown turned out fine in the end, but if we had been obsessed with the safety issue then, thousands or millions of infertile couples would never have been able to have kids in the years since.
The problem with that counterexample is that animal studies could be done to demonstrate that IVF worked in related species. This is in contrast to, say, reproductive cloning, which appears extremely unsafe in animals and would presumably be equally bad in humans. A retarded, obese cow may be the price of doing business, but it's something worse when it's a human being. (Oh you sentimental fool, sez my strawman futurist, you always have to break some eggs to make an omelette.)
And I agree to a certain extent. Though after rigorous testing in animals, I don't see why we'd need to resort to Third World babies, as Murtaugh suggests, for human trials on something like enhanced vision.
I would imagine there are plenty of blind people willing to undergo experimental techniques to give them vision, colorblind people willing to submit to trials in the hopes of establishing color vision, and still more volunteers who would take the risks involved in order to correct or enhance their vision.
There's no need to conjure up images of Uzbek 5 year-olds under the government knife in some secret lab.
Also, I think in the coming years, with even more advanced computing technology, we're finally going to be able to model extremely complex real-world phenomenon (like mammalian nervous systems). Right now such simulations are still beyond the capabilities of our most powerful computers. Hopefully the bioscience corollary to Moore's Law will enable better, and much safer, advances in the biological sciences, and less need for risky experimentation.