“Will be just keep getting better at fixing ourselves, or will eventually move beyond our inherent biological constraints?”

In a recent interview we were able to catch up with Jim Karkanias, Executive of the Health Solutions Group at Microsoft. With a background in information theory, bioengineering, and AI – and experience in a number of startups, and now working with Microsoft – Jim’s vision into the future of emerging technology is more keen than most.

In some respects, Jim believes that our transition to human augmentation seems to be relatively inevitable. It begins with an orientation of positivism with regards to medicine and medical technology – a shift towards prevention and wellness, not just repair.

Second, this shift beyond biology is furthered by a deeper system-level understanding of “what makes us tick.” Jim aptly states that “health” is still a bit of a “black box” in that we can essentially only fix what goes wrong, and still don’t understand “the wiring diagram of what makes us tick – as machines.” We still have to wait for things to break in order to fix them.

Jim Karkanias on the Sentient Potential Vimeo channel.

Jim Karkanias on the Sentient Potential Vimeo channel.

Jim sees this “black box” problem as one of the many reasons why our focus in medicine has traditionally leaned in the direction of amelioration rather than augmentation. When things go wrong, we can reason as to how to get back to the status quo, but we still can’t improve upon a thing that we can’t understand. Amelioration ensues.

Combine a positivist orientation and a deeper understanding of our inner biological / neurological “wire diagram” with a human tendency to want more and better, and ideas like transhumanism spring up rather quickly, says Jim.

As of now, however, Jim doesn’t necessarily believe that most medical professionals are anchored in the idea of augmentation. The idea is still “far out” for the day-to-day physician running his practice, but groups of researchers (like those lead by Jim) are pushing to bring new possibilities to more people.

As for augmentation itself, Jim is optimistic. “The old paradigm has to make way for the new one.” He believes that because the transition is nearly inevitable (particularly when we understand the systems that make us up), we should be looking for a best path forward rather than resisting the future.

The potential changes, Jim states, are difficult for us to consider now, but that the human desire to push for more and better. “People overclock their computers all the time, and if they could, they would overclock themselves.” For the non-techies, “overclock” means to push a computer beyond it’s normal performance levels with additional ad-ons, or by removing fetters to performance. Jim uses the other apt analogy of putting moth balls in your drag racing fuel, and how that strategy can work rather well to add some kick to the motor before it melts.

What happens, though, when there is no downside of this kind of “overclocking”? What does a retirement plan look like when people live to be 200 or 300 years old, and have the health of a 25-year-old the entire way through? What happens when one company find a technology that allows their employees to only sleep 2 hours per night with no negative health consequences? Can any competing company hope to stay in business without making a similar shift themselves?

Within 4-5 years, as systems biology reaches a level of maturity (having it’s origin in the 1990’s), Jim believes that we’ll have the ability to turn the “black box” into a white one, and a plethora of new opportunities will be available that had previously never been conceived of. Jim’s ambition is to make that transition a good one.

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