The most underrated sci-fi sequel on HBO Max reveals a real controversial technology

The replicants may look like humans, but they’re not the same as us.

The biogenic creatures in Blade Runner are made of organic materials but have enhanced capabilities like super strength and increased speed. They’re tailored to serve mankind — until they rebel.

In Blade Runner 2049 — the sequel to Ridley Scott’s original sci-fi classic, streaming now on HBO Max — replicants serve as slave labor to colonize planets or even hitmen who hunt down their own kind. That includes the blade runner and replicant known as K (Ryan Gosling).

“We make angels in the service of civilization,” Blade Runner 2049’s villain Niander Wallace says in defense of replicant creation.

Replicants are obviously fiction (for now), but they raise complex questions about a very real technology. The ability to enhance or modify human bodies using nanotechnology, robotics, brain-machine interfaces and more is already happening, often in surprising ways.

“Whether a human enhancement is unethical does not only depend on the enhancement itself, but also on how it is used and regulated, and in what social and cultural context it is applied,” Philip Brey, a professor of philosophy and ethics of technology and head of the SIENNA project’s AI and robotics team, tells Inverse.

What is human enhancement technology?

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“Human enhancement does not refer to a specific technology or application, but a wide field of interventions and technologies that aim at improving human beings beyond what is considered typical, or as sometimes problematically referred to as ‘normal,” Brey says.

Some examples of future human enhancement technology include:

  • Prosthetic limbs that outperform natural limbs
  • Medicine that boosts cognitive capacities beyond their usual range
  • Genetic modification of age-related genes that allow people to become 150 years old

Is human enhancement ethical?

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Experts make a distinction between human enhancement technology — largely still limited to the realm of science fiction like Blade Runner 2049 — and rehabilitative therapies to help humans restore their natural function.

One common type of rehabilitative therapy that uses human enhancement is rehabilitation robotics.

“Rehabilitation robotics broadly deals with the science and technologies used to help people regain their movement ability and independence after trauma or injury,” Tommaso Lenzi, a researcher specializing in rehabilitation robotics at the University of Utah, tells Inverse.

One example of rehabilitative robotics might include restoring function to a wounded veteran’s arm using electrical sensors and prosthetic limbs, which the wearer controls with their mind.

“Our robotic prostheses are technologies for human enhancements specifically designed to amplify the biological body of a person with an amputation,” Lenzi says.

“A human version of Marvel’s Magneto.”

Most experts find these rehabilitative therapies using robotics or AI ethically acceptable.

“The technology is very useful for rehab and for medical purposes,” Miguel Nicolelis tells Inverse. Nicolelis is the head of the Nicolelis Lab at Duke University and author of the book The True Creator of Everything: How the Human Brain Shaped the Universe as We Know It.

But as the technology becomes more sophisticated, it’ll be harder to know where to draw the line between medical necessity and human desire.

Woodrow Barfield, a professor emeritus who specializes in AI, tells Inverse about “grinders” or “a movement of people that self-implant technology under their skin.”

He argues it’s not hard to imagine people one day “implanting a magnetic sensor under the skin to detect magnetic fields external to the body” — a human version of Marvel’s Magneto.

Indeed some robotics and prosthetics companies employ language to suggest humans are becoming superheroes through their technology. Robotics company Open Bionics even modeled a prosthetic arm based on Marvel movies.

Could we see superpowered humans like in Blade Runner 2049?

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There are different kinds of replicant models in the Blade Runner franchise. Some have been modified to possess extreme strength or speed. It seems like science fiction, but it’s not out of the question that we could see similarly super-powered humans through the use of technology like brain-machine interfaces and AI.

Brain-machine interfaces, also known as brain-computer interfaces (BCI), connect the human mind to a machine using different mechanisms, including implants. Some assistive robotic arms, developed to help people who have lost their limbs regain function, operate using BCI.

Assistive robots help “with a function that cannot be rehabilitated” such as “a robotic glove that enhances a person’s grip strength,” Robert Gaunt, assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh, tells Inverse.

Gaunt adds, “Theoretically, a BCI-controlled robot could give someone the ability to do things they would not be able to do otherwise.

In other words: human enhancement — not just rehabilitation — is possible with our current technology.

Nicolelis says he witnessed artificial enhancement in his own primate research.

“Our monkeys — when we trained them in virtual reality to control virtual arms or robotic arms using just electrical brain activity — we realized that we increased the number of limbs that a regular monkey can control using its brain,” Nicolelis.

“People may feel forced to enhance because of the pressures in the workplace or in schools.”

If we can use technology to enhance the abilities of a monkey, it’s entirely plausible that the same could be done for humans. Nicolelis discusses the time his team built a robotic exoskeleton for paraplegic soccer players at the 2014 World Cup

“We realized that what we were building was capable of delivering a kick that would make the ball cross the entire soccer field,” Nicolelis says — a feat many human beings could not accomplish naturally.

He expands, “In theory, you were creating a robotic device that could be controlled by the subject’s brain activity that could produce forces the humans cannot produce.”

Some experts paint a bleak picture of a future with human enhancement technology, more akin to Black Mirror than Blade Runner 2049, where enhancements like bionic eyes may be accessible only to the wealthy.

“People may feel forced to enhance because of the pressures in the workplace or in schools, and without regulation, there may be physical and psychological health risks, as well as exacerbated inequalities in society between the enhanced and the unenhanced,” Brey says.

But not everyone is as troubled by the potential for humans to modify their bodies and acquire supernatural abilities. In fact, some scholars think it will be necessary in the future.

“Imagine what problems we could solve if we had IQs of 10,000 or more. Why not? In the future, those that don’t become enhanced with technology or genetically will be left behind by those that do,” Barfield says.

What is the future of this technology?

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It’s unclear whether humans will attain superhuman abilities like the replicants in Blade Runner 2049 in the near future using enhancement technology.

But scientists are hopeful that existing technology can be improved in a limited scope to better restore function and help people with disabilities and medical conditions.

“My near-term hope is that we are able to take existing technologies that work well in the lab, like BCI-controlled computers and simple robotics, and make these robust enough to be real products for people with spinal cord injury, stroke, etc,” Gaunt says.

In the near future, it’s likely these technologies will become an everyday part of the lives of many people, who use them for assistive or rehabilitative purposes.

“The next frontier is to break the boundaries of the laboratory and hospital and bring these assistive robotic technologies into the real world, at home, at work, in the community becoming part of everyday life,” Lenzi says.

“As with any type of technology, we need to have regulations.”

We’re already seeing wearable assistive technology — think smartwatches — from big tech players like Google and Apple.

“I think in the next five to ten years, we will see more and more of these human augmentation technologies in real life,” Lenzi says.

But experts still say that the future needs to be regulated, so we don’t see humans use enhancement technology for nefarious reasons. Nicolelis is particularly concerned about the military using these technologies to create artificially enhanced soldiers — not unlike K’s character in Blade Runner 2049.

He also says it’s worrisome that this technology could become common among ordinary citizens. Case in point: Elon Musk’s ambitions to help us one day play video games using just our minds.

“As with any type of technology, we need to have regulations, and society needs to know more about what can be done,” Nicolelis says.

Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.