2013: Year of the species divergence?

A biologist, especially one determined to bore or confuse you, might talk about the phenomenon of “allopatric speciation.”

Google’s Sergey Brin models spiffy cheaters. Optional clip-on beard sold separately

He would be referring to the evolutionary process of a species adapting itself by diverging into two, or several, distinct organisms (speciation), initiated through a form of geographic separation (allopatry.)

It can be a challenge to comprehend these phylogenetic concepts, let alone sift through the terminology. To many, the language of biology seems calculated to reveal little — other than raising speculation as to why Charles Darwin wound up marrying his cousin.

That, however, is the thing about evolution: You don’t necessarily recognize it, even while it is occurring. There is no outside authority to advise you, in the manner of Madge the nail-lady in those ancient detergent ads, that you’re soaking in it now.

Consider the matter of the latest tech-gizmo, Google Glass… which you probably will, once you grow tired of constantly needing to look up definitions of “phylogenetic” and other biological jargon that occurs in the scientific literature.

Google’s new form of eye-ware offers a range of clever product features, including the ability to overlay your field of vision with a constant stream of pertinent data, obtained wirelessly from the Internet. The manufacturer is currently taking orders for the product, which will be available later this year at a cost of $1,500. Technology enthusiasts have already coined a term to describe the effect that Google Glass wearers will experience: “enhanced reality.”

By this, they mean that Google’s magic peepers will perform several remarkable stunts, such as invisibly capturing conversations as MP3 files and relaying them to the cloud, while unobtrusively scanning images in the wearer’s sightlines, and cross-indexing them with accompanying information found in public databases. In that sense, it’s almost as if they were intended specifically for drug reps to use while working the room at medical conferences. “Hello there, Dr. Edgar Rasmussen from Smith’s Falls, Ontario. Are you still pursuing your many diverse interests, which include fine wines and driving your daughter to T-ball practice in your silver Buick Regal, and may I wish you a happy birthday on November 21st?”

Thinking, perhaps, that non-enhanced reality is bad enough, the use of Google Glass has already been banned in some public places, beginning with one tavern in Seattle that is not frequented by geneticists at playtime. The bar-owner expressed concerns regarding protecting his patrons’ privacy, and he does have a point. In particular, one question that will need to be addressed in this context is: Why would a barroom patron spend the entire evening paying for cosmopolitans while trying to get the telephone number of a certain individual, when his Google Glass can perform the feat in less than 18 seconds?

As much publicity as the Google Glass have gleaned, a range of other bio-enhancers seem likely to become even more commonplace in the months ahead. Samsung’s Galaxy S4 mobile phone, just about to launch, will contain functions the company has branded as “S-Health.” Samsung claims the device can monitor your cardiovascular system (potentially for tachycardia, bradycardia, or arrhythmia), keep track of your sleep patterns, and estimate your burn-rate for calories. In other words, this cellphone could perform several of the tasks your family physician might have carried out, if only he hadn’t relocated his practice to Fort Lauderdale.

S-Health and other similar apps are only the first wave of the coming quantum jump in mobile-health products and services. Scientists at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) recently presented an implantable nanotechnology prototype of a subcutaneous blood-monitoring device that gathers data directly from the bloodstream, which is transmitted instantly to a physician or hospital — via Bluetooth, through the patient’s smartphone. According to Prof. Giovanni de Micheli, co-inventor of the gadget, “Potentially, we could detect just about anything.” He expects to have it commercially available within 48 months.

Of course, you might not rush to entrust your bio-data, including your up-to-the-minute medical condition, to one of Canada’s wireless voice and data operators. If the phone companies remain true to their record, they will seize upon any advance warning of your impending myocardial infarction as an early opportunity to try to sell you a rental television for your coming week in the ICU.

In the not-unlikely event that the shock of learning about these disruptive technological innovations causes your head to explode, rest assured that there is an app for that, too. A Connecticut company called Oxford Performance Materials won FDA approval this year for a computer-generated cranium replacement that is fashioned out of polymer through a 3D laser printer. The publication Science News reports that the first patient to undergo a procedure had 75 per cent of his skull replaced with an machine-made prosthetic in March of this year. Some regard this development as a bellwether, suggesting that the predicted era of computer-fashioned implantable bone and, eventually, organ substitutes has finally arrived. Will the second-generation deluxe models of these aftermarket skulls come equipped with one of Prof. de Micheli’s wireless interfaces, along with a nano-version of Google’s X-ray Specs? It seems foolish to think that they might not.

Slowly — or, actually, not-so-slowly — the advent of these gadgets will force us to reconsider how we regard ourselves, our fellow citizens, the groups with which we affiliate, and the world at large.

It may seem like breathless hyperbole to suggest that a spate of gimmicky new consumer products may ultimately force a re-examination of what it means to be human. However, that’s precisely the case, when you imagine tomorrow viewed through the enhanced-reality lens of Google Glass.

What we are witnessing this year is nothing less than the human species rapidly adapting to its changing environment, wrought by emerging tools and extensions that are now a permanent part of the external landscape and are beginning to find their way into our internal functions. With that, it’s apparent that some will be drawn to the use of technological enhancements (among them, the young, the well-to-do, the educated elite) and others will not (the aged, the poor, the disenfranchised.)

As uncomfortable a choice as it may be, businesses such as pharmaceuticals and biotech may need to determine where their broadest interests lie: in the cause of scientific advancement, or in the service of humanity. Because it’s beginning to appear that those two missions may no longer be the same.

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