I'm ready for my upgrade

Originally published 2007 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


I think we're all agreed that body upgrades are - or will be - a good thing, yes?

Science fiction's just rotten with 'em, from Strogg-ish combat cyborgs through to several flavours of anarchic pseudo-Utopia where the pansexual people with wings and tentacles are often the less adventurous citizens.

Body upgrades are like flying cars, only more practical. We've been reading about them for so long that it'll almost be a letdown when they finally arrive.

Thus far, all the "transhumanist" movement has actually produced, if you don't count zillions of words of variously plausible literature, is a few freaky-deaky individuals covered with ugly hardware, and a lot of heavy stimulant users hanging around Burning Man.

But that's going to change.

Already, passive prostheses are allowing amputees to run faster than organic-legged athletes. Cochlear implants are commonplace; retinal implants are starting out. Not much of the add-on hardware can beat an ordinary human's body parts at anything yet, but the first cars couldn't outrun a horse, either.

More subtly, gene therapy - rewriting the DNA in living cells - is slowly getting off the ground. The gene therapy effort at the moment is all going towards correcting genetic disorders, but there's no technical reason why it has to stop there.

There is, for instance, a rare genetic condition in which an animal doesn't make any myostatin, the muscle-growth-limiting factor.

In mammals, there are two copies of the myostatin-producing gene. If both of them are inactive, the result is a "double muscled" animal. Cattle and sheep have been deliberately bred with the double-muscled condition; they all look like the Hulk. Muscles on muscles on muscles, near-zero body fat. No exercise required.

Minor myostatin inhibition is a big help if you're a bodybuilder, but the full double-muscled mutation makes you one whether you want to be or not. It occasionally occurs in humans, but almost all of the humans who had it probably starved to death before their first birthday. That's because double muscles massively increase your need for food.

If food isn't a problem for you, though - and it isn't, for most people living in affluent countries today - the double-muscle mutation doesn't appear to have much of a down side for humans. Provided you don't mind looking as if Simon Bisley painted you.

The second someone manages to make a double-muscle gene therapy, the world will beat a path to their door. It'll be a bit of a bummer for the bodybuilders who worked on their muscles for years if any couch potato with money for therapy can turn himself into Mister Universe without lifting anything heavier than a beer can, but that's progress for you.

A significant proportion of the people beating a path to the inventors' door, of course, will be there to serve legal papers. Gene therapy like this would constitute a sort of postpartum eugenics program. Anybody with enough money could, in theory, turn their kids into whatever their Glorious Aryan Leader or nutty religious cult ordered. The already-wide gulf between the well-doctored Beautiful People and the Poor and Ugly could become a chasm.

Oh, and someone's absolutely certain to try to use gene therapy to create an army of super-soldiers. Us sci-fi fans know how that always turns out, but they probably won't listen to us.

Personally, I'm looking forward to the horrifying hilarity of the body-upgrade equivalent of today's car tuning scene. A large proportion of the world's "upgraded" cars are actually slower around a track than they were in stock trim, and never mind your plastic surgery disasters - people are already turning themselves into Oompa-Loompas with nothing but fake tan and hair gel. Just imagine what'll happen when Dr. Nick Riviera opens "I Can't Believe It's A Gene Therapy Clinic!"

Upgraded muscles with a stock-spec heart, resulting in loss of consciousness if you try to lift anything heavy!

Super-resolution retinas that let you read a newspaper ten metres away but drive you crazy when you look at a TV - all those tiny RGB dots!

Cirrhosis-proof livers that let you drink like a fish with impunity - but give you a non-stop adrenaline rush if you stop!

Eidetic memory, only $999*!

(* The manufacturers accept no responsibility if you get "The Chicken Dance" stuck in your head for seven months and then jump in front of a bus.)

I'm also not entirely sure I want to know what you'll look like half-way through your course of Uncle Mary's Inside 'n' Out Sex Change Pills.

Done properly, though, body upgrades will let people live longer - possibly much longer - do more, and feel better while they're doing it.

And, with any luck, there'll soon be as much variety among humans as there is today among dogs.

Which'll confuse racists to death.

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