Today, humans suffer from a wide range of diseases and disorders that didn't exist in the past, a trend that will likely continue well into the future. Here are 10 unexpected and wholly unpleasant diseases we'll eventually have to contend with.
Top image: A scene from Floris Kaayk's Metalosis Maligna, a short film featuring a fictional disease which causes cybernetic implants to replicate uncontrollably.
It's impossible to know which pathogens will afflict us in the future, but by looking at technological and social trends, we can make some educated guesses about the kinds of diseases and disorders that are likely to emerge.
Consider this your speculation warning. We're about to journey out of what we do know, into the realm of what might happen.
Deliberate acts of bioterrorism and biohacking will introduce entirely new and unexpected problems, such as the deliberate dissemination of bioengineered viruses or brain hacking. But for the purposes of this list, I've chosen to exclude those possibilities. I'll set those aside for a future io9 superlist. This post will only consider health issues that are likely to emerge as a consequence of our technological advancements and our inability to cope with them.
Remember that episode of ST-TNG when Lieutenant Reginald Barclay became hopelessly obsessed with the Holodeck? Given how much better his make-believe world was compared to his drab life, you can't really blame him. Indeed, virtual reality will introduce us to environments and settings far more compelling — and far more controllable than real life.
Once fully immersive VR becomes available, it'll become increasingly difficult for people to engage with reality. What's more, because VR will offer the opportunity for people to physically interface with their friends and colleagues across vast distances, and with a dizzying array of technological features at their disposal, it'll become increasingly difficult and inconvenient to detach. Consequently, virtual reality withdrawal will become a common and serious problem. We're already seeing the signs of this today in the form of so-called Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) and Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD). Relatedly, psychologists have already had to treat a person for IAD caused by overuse of Google Glass.
On a related note, virtual reality will eventually become so believable and so realistic that it'll be next to impossible for a person to distinguish their virtual experiences from those in the real world.
People suffering from this disorder will be incessantly racked by doubt as to whether a particular modal reality represents the real universe or if it's a sophisticated copy of reality (interestingly, as these lines begin to blur, this distinction will become increasingly unimportant).
This disorientation will likely extend to interpersonal interactions as well — a condition of doubt in which people will not be able to tell whether they're interacting with a "real" virtual person, or just a sophisticated bot.
As time passes, and as strange as this sounds, it'll become increasingly difficult to know who — or even what — we are.
We're increasingly offloading and segmenting our brain's cognitive processes to the Internet. Our artificially intelligent personal assistants will work on our behalf to perform odd jobs and other functions delegated to them. By consequence, they'll start to assume our identities in proxy. These cloud exoselves will learn from us and behave exactly the way we do. Eventually however, either by hard or soft uploading, we'll join them in cyberspace, leading to a potential identity crisis. It will become increasingly challenging to discern which part of the cloud is truly us, and which is not. It's a problem that's sure to be compounded by having multiple personas, some of which live full and distinctive lives in alternate environments. Consequently, we won't know where we start and where we end, leading to a total loss of individuality and pathological confusion about our true selves.
Imagine waking up from cryostasis hundreds or thousands of years from now and trying to integrate into whatever uber-futuristic society you've been plopped into.
Depending on how your frozen body was reanimated, you may find that you've suddenly become a highly advanced cyborg living among speciated humans and posthumans of all types. Alternately, you could wake to find that you're no longer corporeal, living as some kind of virtual being in an elaborate supercomputer simulation.
Regardless, it'll be a wholly unpleasant and distressing experience. You won't know anyone, and you won't have a clue about your new physical and cognitive skills. Nor will you have any inkling about new technologies, your new society, or culture. What's more, you may not even like your new life. It'll be a kind of future shock, but nothing like Alvin Toffler could have ever predicted. To help you cope, your new benefactors could upload everything you need to know directly into your brain, or they could place you into some kind of re-integration class.
We're not entirely sure how our bodies will react to cybernetic implants over time, or the kinds of health problems they'll introduce.
Some implants may cause severe allergic reactions or exaggerated immune responses. Complications could arise in the way implants interact with tissues surrounding it, including infection, inflammation, and pain. They could also interfere with normal bodily functioning. There's also risk of rejection. Additionally, these implants could start to decay and degrade in unexpected ways, leading to life-threatening toxic effects and various forms of infections.
Nanotechnology has the potential to reshape virtually every aspect of the human condition, both for better and for worse. Already today, scientists are concerned about the impact that nanotechnological materials and devices will have on the environment. There's considerable debate as to what extent industrial and commercial use of nanomaterials will affect organisms and ecosystems.
Field-emission SEM images of filters. Images: G. Chinga-Carrasco, PFI.
Because these technologies involve the production of materials at the molecular scale, it's conceivable that particulate matter will begin to bioaccumulate in the environment. Humans will eventually come into contact with these nanopollutants, causing all sorts of serious health problems, including damage to our cells and DNA.
On a related note, nanotechnological devices that are deliberately infused into the human body could cause serious problems as well. Poorly designed nanobots could deliver medicines to the wrong area, or degrade in unpredictable ways. And if their programming goes awry, they could physically damage tissue, or replicate uncontrollably, leading to an internal grey goo catastrophe. And like cybernetic implants, they could also trigger exaggerated immune responses resulting in anaphylactic shock.
Our society fetishizes intelligence, so it's likely that we'll start to boost our cognitive abilities using any number of biotechnologies, including genomics, nootropics, and cybernetics.
Trouble is, our culture is biased towards a very narrow band of intelligence — namely "IQ-type" intelligence, or what Mark Changizi calls chess-and-brain-teaser-like intelligence. But the acquisition of extreme cognitive abilities could prove to be maladaptive. Our evolutionarily-calibrated psychologies may not be able to handle such out-of-bounds intelligence. Should you choose to augment your brain, you may start to exhibit antisocial behaviors and outright insanity, including such behaviors and problems as pattern seeking (a la John Nash), seizures, information overload, anxiety attacks, existential crises, egomania, and extreme alienation.
In the future, some of us may develop an irrational and exaggerated fear of robots.
This psychological disorder will skirt the line between a true phobia and mere prejudice, particularly as robots become more fully integrated into society, as they assume our jobs — and as they progressively become more powerful and human-like in their behavior.
The sex chip is coming — the ability to trigger feelings of extreme pleasure on demand. Sure, sounds great in principle, but most of us don't have the willpower to use it on a selective basis.
Back in 2008, neuroscientists Morten Kringelbach and Tipu Aziz announced that they were able to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain by implanting a chip that sends tiny shocks to the orbitofrontal cortex, the area responsible for feelings of pleasure.
Experiments have shown that rats would rather starve than give up the ability to flip a reward switch. And as the case of a woman addicted to her thalamic stimulator attests, self-stimulation can quickly become habitual. It would be like the ST:TNG episode "The Game" come to life, and it would introduce what science fiction author Larry Niven referred to as "wireheads." Once sex chips become commonplace, expect to see this one written-up in a future version of the DSM.
Once we conquer aging, some of us might get bored living an indefinitely long life. But I doubt it. What's more likely is something a bit more existential — a general tiring of life itself, a related emotional condition known as ennui.
Super-elderly people living in such a state would find everything bland and hyper-repetitive. Barring interventions, nothing would seem exciting or novel anymore. It would be like something John Cougar Mellencamp once said, "Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone." Such feelings could become endemic, leading to a broader social health crisis.