Image: Esko Bionics/Flickr
Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, author of The Transhumanist Wager, and founder of and presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.Major media is reporting on what is being billed as a landmark agreement for the physically disabled community. A court has ordered the city of Los Angeles to spend $1.3 billion dollars over the next three decades to fix its dilapidated network of sidewalks and access ways, many of which are in disrepair and present challenges for people with disabilities to traverse.
Such a massive amount of money sets a precedent for other similar lawsuits to take place in America. If we take the largest 50 cities in the US, and just half of them agree to similar actions over the next decade, there might be another $25 billion dollars going to giving people with disabilities better sidewalks.On the surface, this seems like great news for those who have mobility issues. However, with so much radical transhumanist technology being invented in the 21st Century—like exoskeleton suits—should society instead try to use that money to eliminate physical disability altogether?America has long history with what can be called bandage culture—the idea that quick fixes are acceptable, even if they don't eliminate the root of the problem. Take heart disease for example, the #1 killer in America. We spend approximately $500 billion every year treating cardiovascular disease. However, with a market cap of only about $300 million dollars, French company Carmat could change the entire field with its new robotic heart. Carmat recently successfully installed a permanent artificial heart in a patient. If all goes well, in 10 years time, humans may have the option to electively replace our biological hearts for better robotic hearts—thereby possibly wiping out heart disease.The question is: Why hasn't America, its government, and its numerous multi-billion dollar healthcare and biotech companies actually ended heart disease, instead of just treating it? Clearly, we haven't been tackling these issues in the best way possible, as Carmat is doing.
In the case of people with disabilities getting better sidewalks, I'm wondering if the nearly three million Americans in wheel chairs might rather have exoskeleton suits that allow them to run, jump, and play active sports. Exoskeleton technology is poised to become one of the most important innovations of the decade, affecting not only people with disabilities, but also the obese and the elderly—which together account for nearly a third of the American population.But exoskeleton tech is still an industry in its infancy. It's safe to say that if America invested $25 billion dollars into the industry (bear in mind that Obama's massive and much touted BRAIN initiative is for only $3 billion), it would significantly speed up the development of advanced exoskeleton suits and bionic apparatuses. Then, instead of people with disabilities navigating crumbling sidewalks on their wheelchairs, they might soon be running over them at 15 miles per hour while jogging.Additionally, it's not just exoskeleton tech that can help people with disabilities. There's also the possibility of combining exoskeleton tech with wheelchair innovation. Engineer and neuroscientist John Hewitt, who frequently writes on technology, emailed me, "Even wheelchairs that shape-shift a bit to get people up to eye level once in a while would have a great benefit on the disabled."
Should society instead try to use that money to eliminate physical disability altogether?
Hewitt also thinks intrusive exoskeleton tech could be useful. He writes, "They are devices that draw on some intact sensory or motor capabilities still working in the user. It's a peripheral that now skirts the definition of a true bionic system, and it integrates at some level either at that of the peripheral nerve, subsurface brain, and/or osseointegration with the musculoskeletal system."Another method would be to just outright cure various physical disabilities. The field of stem cell technology, where damaged body areas—such as the spine—can be potentially rejuvenated with healthy cells, is showing much promise.Whatever direction the technology evolves towards, there are plenty of useful ways to spend resources to significantly improve the mobility of those with physical disabilities. Unfortunately, a closer look at the Los Angeles lawsuit reveals that some of the people benefiting most are, not surprisingly, lawyers, who are making off with millions of dollars after the court case. To be fair, however, fixing sidewalks will provide many people construction jobs. And cement and wheelchair makers are probably happy with the billion dollar settlement too.But if you really want to consider the macro economic picture, imagine if we could give the physically disabled the real ability to be mobile again. Many Americans' disabilities prove too much for them to be currently employed, but exoskeleton and other types of technology would give them the means to jump right back into the work force. With millions of people in the US suffering from mobility issues, it would be far more lucrative for the country to have its people with disabilities employed, rather than giving them level sidewalks.Ultimately, America's bandage culture is symptomatic of an economic and political system that is based on being too "politically correct." Too often, our nation talks about helping the poor, or the disenfranchised, or the underrepresented by doing good deeds and passing laws to protect those people. Sadly, what often happens is society ends up entombing this group in further despair and neglect, instead of offering it real means to eliminate its problems.As the 2016 US Presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party, I advocate for doing whatever is necessary to eliminate physical disability altogether. We are shortchanging our citizens and our country by not doing otherwise. In the 21st Century, with so much technology and radical medicine at our fingertips, we should reconsider the Americans with Disability Act. It's great to have a law that protects against discrimination, but in the transhumanist age we also need a law that insists on eliminating disability via technology and modern medicine.In Los Angeles, I suggest spending 20 percent of the $1.3 billion dollar award for the very worst sidewalks—and then having the rest go directly into research and development for technologies that over a 10-year period of time will help eliminate physical disability. If all American cities agreed to this approach, potentially $20 billion dollars could be amassed. A national investment entity with public oversight could then spread that money to the most talented engineers, scientists, universities, and companies in the country—most whose current research budgets for overcoming physical disability are only in the tens of millions of dollars, at best. With $20 billion dollars of funding to spread around, we could forever change the hardship of physical disability in America and worldwide.In short, let the sidewalks remain in disrepair. Instead, in the transhumanist age we're now in, let's work to repair physically disabled human beings, and make them mobile and able-bodied again.