May 2, 2018

How close is science to creating 'The Avengers?' Closer than you think.

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    Scientific breakthroughs in bioengineering and artificial intelligence (AI) have brought the possibility of creating superheroes like the Avengers closer than ever— with one scientist claiming Captain America-like enhancements could be here in as little as two decades.

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    Ahead of the release of the superhero movie "Avengers: Infinity War," reporters from Vox sat down with two scientists who've explored mankind's quest to develop super-human abilities.

    The 4 types of Avengers, according to an evolutionary biologist—and where real-world science stands in comparison

    Shane Campbell-Staton, an evolutionary biologist and a National Science Foundation fellow who co-created a podcast that explores science in the context of fiction, has sorted superheroes into different "biological categories" based on the nature of their abilities—and assessed where, exactly, medical and scientific research stands on the development of those abilities in real life, Karen Turner reports for Vox.

    The first category includes elite athletes—those who came to their abilities "through training and the genetic lottery," according to Campbell-Stanton, such as the Avengers' Black Widow and Hawkeye. These characters are comparable to real-world Olympic athletes, individuals who have "a tendency to have these sort of genetic variants that allow them to realize [via training] aspects of performance that most people just can't."

    The second category encompasses those who acquired their abilities through "scientific experimentation and luck," Campbell-Staton said, pointing to Captain America as an example. The hero's alter ego "was a frail, sickly little human being," who's "given this super-soldier serum and becomes, essentially, the pinnacle of athleticism, way beyond even the elite athletes," Campbell-Staton said.

    "In the real world, scientists are busy trying to perfect ways to manipulate genomes in order to cut and paste different copies of genes into all types of organisms, including humans," Campbell-Staton added, citing CRISPR/Cas9 as perhaps the "most famous" of these techniques. And while it is "cool to think about manipulating these genes to create superheroes ... in the real world, the technology and knowledge of how genes contribute to athletic performance could be the key in helping to cure genetic diseases like muscular dystrophy and cardio-respiratory ailments."

    A third class of superheroes are those who have "have all extended the human genotype through technology," Campbell-Staton explained, such as Iron Man, War Machine, Falcon, and Winter Soldier. For example, Campbell-Stanton said the Arc Reactor that powers Iron Man's armor, which acts like an exoskeleton, protects Iron Man's heart from shrapnel and keeps him alive.

    Outside of fantasy, prosthetics research is "being used to develop high-performing appendages for amputees and disabled people," Campbell-Staton said—so high-performing, in fact, that some are questioning whether prosthetics provide an unfair advantage. He cited Paralympic jumper Markus Rehm as an example, saying the athlete had his bid for the 2016 Olympics in Rio denied because it was unclear whether the fiber blades he uses for his amputated right leg gave him an unfair advantage.

    A fourth category includes only one character: Vision, who represents the "sort of pinnacle of [AI]," according to Campbell-Stanton. "There are a lot of connections between the Vision's story and some of the news that's coming out now about artificial intelligence," Campbell-Stanton said.

    For instance, Campbell-Staton compared how an AI created by Stark "ends up designing the body that [Stark's software program, J.A.R.V.I.S] inhabits to become the Vision" to Google Brain's "AutoML," a deep-learning software that designs AI that create other AI. "This idea of artificial intelligence creating artificial intelligence is this really weird parallel between what we see in science fiction and what we're seeing now," Campbell-Staton said.

    So just how far are we from creating the Avengers?

    According to E. Paul Zehr, a neuroscientist at the University of Victoria in Australia and author of a book on how biomedical and genetic engineering have the potential to change human biology, science is not too far from developing the technology to make Captain America-like enhancements possible.

    Zehr suggested that science is likely two decades way from developing biotech and stem cell implants as well as gene editing tool for "brain enhancements and massive physiological enhancements." He explained that while "plenty of simple enhancements [that] are already possible … are reserved for a select group of people due to the enormous costs," the "full package, like literally Steve Rogers and Captain America, where we have stem cell implants and gene editing and biotech implants and brain enhancements and massive physiological enhancements—that's probably 20 years away, which is really not that far."

    However, Zehr cautioned that scientists "need to go very slowly and be careful about how" they approach and proceed with these kinds of enhancements. He added that he "didn't find a lot of evidence that the people developing these technologies were giving much forethought to the potential consequences," such as editing a person's reproductive cells and affecting his or her children. He said, "We don't want cascading effects for our entire species."

    Further, Zehr also expressed concern that biomedical and genetic engineering might "produce a horrible world of haves and have-nots" when the technology for personal enhancements becomes available on the market. Zehr said he is concerned about "an absolute dystopian nightmare" in which "the haves are an entirely different class of people." He added, "I think we have to be more vigilant about what's coming around the corner so that we don't tumble down this slippery slope. We want these technologies to be distributed equitably and not simply left in the hands of the highest bidders."

    In response, Zehr in his book hopes to open up the conversation about the potential consequences of biomedical and genetic engineering. "I think this stuff is going to happen no matter what, so we've got to ahead of it as much as possible. What else can we do?" Zehr said (Turner, Vox, 4/30; Zehr, The Globe and Mail, 4/30; Watts, Richmond News, 4/4; Illing, Vox, 4/27).

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