Wednesday 17 October 2012

From I-Limbs to iPhones

Superhuman, Wellcome Collection, London

What do genetic engineering, botox, cocaine and Specsavers have in common? They all make you a superhuman of course. The Wellcome Collection’s exhibition on human enhancement, Superhuman, certainly takes a broad definition of the subject. The range covered is mind-boggling in fact. Oscar Pistorious, the blade runner of Olympic and Paralympic fame, has an artificial leg on display just around the corner from a newspaper cutout on the thalidomide scandal, which left thousands of babies with deformities. Then there’s a video of an artist, Regina José Galindo, being projected onto a wall. She is completely naked and being drawn on using a marker pen.

Adjacent to her, but attracting slightly less attention, is a tiny statue of poor old Icarus standing next to the entrance. In Greek mythology, his father fashioned him wings from wax and feathers. He flew, escaping his exile but travelled too close to the sun causing the wax to melt and Icarus to plummet into the ocean. The tiny model has its silhouette eerily projected onto the wall: a warning to all visitors of the perils of the superhuman. Then I hear a buzzing noise. No need to be surprised. It’s only a robotic wheelchair, devoid of owner, guiding itself around the exhibition. It’s all pretty weird to tell you the truth.

But that’s no bad thing. It certainly makes your brain work: constantly trying to link every artefact to the theme of human enhancements. A pair of Nike trainers from 1977 got me thinking. If they are a human enhancement (and the Wellcome Collection certainly thinks they are), then what is so special about performance enhancing drugs? My question was soon answered when I noticed a video of Tom Simpson, the English cyclist who collapsed and died on the 1967 Tour de France after taking amphetamines and alcohol. The parallels with Icarus were not lost on me.

But not all enhancements are bad. Even the 17th century iron prosthetic arm would have been a great aid to its owner, however crude it looks now. And, boy, does it look crude in comparison to the I-Limb. It reads impulses and translates them into complex movements so well that even those with limited mobility in their hands opt for an amputation just so they can get one. I don’t blame them.

From I-Limbs to iPhones, that’s an enhancement too, you know. Orla, our engaging guide, floats the idea of having them inserted under our skin in the future. But, she notes, people are afraid of enhancements. This doesn’t surprise me. If people are up in arms every time Facebook tweak their privacy settings, then I don’t see too many consenting to have a smart phone built into their body. It’s all becoming a bit too 1984 for my liking.

But it’s great here. As soon as it all gets a bit scary, you can walk a couple of metres and find something new and amazing. I chanced upon a picture of Aimee Mullens dressed as a cheetah. She is lying on a table and is wearing one of her dozen or so prosthetic legs: the ones with paws on. Next to this is a cabinet containing some transparent plastic. It looks a bit like a jellyfish and doesn’t look like it belongs here. I read the caption. Silly me. It’s only Aimee’s tentacle legs for when she wants to dress up as a Portuguese Man o’ War.

The tour moves on and I’m dragged, kicking and screaming out of my holiday from reality. Or should it be holiday from fantasy. It’s hard to tell how seriously to take the futurist Ray Kurzweil when he talks about humans and technology merging. But Superhuman has certainly made it clear than humans are embracing enhancements and apparently it wont be too long before robots get morals too. So when will human become robot and robot become human? Hopefully a very long time indeed.

What’s that timeline on the wall though? Apparently by 2030, ‘fast broadband interfaces between the human brain and machines will transform work in factories.’ That’ll be another unemployment bomb waiting to go off then. I walk past the ‘Daley Can’ Lucozade advert, Incredible Hulk comics and a video of a man apparently enjoying scarring himself. Does that really count as an enhancement? As soon as I’m outside the dimmed room, the worries fade. No one is really going to stick an iPhone in their forearm or get broadband in their brain. But still, there is a shadow of doubt. Crazy it may be, but that only makes Superhuman more thought-provoking


Louis Woodhead is a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy, which is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award.


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