Human+ The Future of Our Species – for better or worse?

Human+ The Future of Our Species opened on 20 May at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. The showcase presents visitors both actual achievements and fictional works in the world of science, yet as you walk from one exhibit to another, the line between the two can sometimes begin to blur.

The point isn’t about separating fact from fiction, though. Whereas the carefully curated journeys within the ArtScience Museum are typically punctuated by quotes from famous figures, Human+ deliberately seeks not to influence, but to invite observers to form their own opinions.

The agenda of Human+ is to question what it means to be human (scientifically-speaking) and what lies ahead in our anatomical future.

One of the first queries to visitors as they begin their journey through the exhibition is this: From contact lenses to heart valves: have we already become cyborgs?

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Prosthetic arm with attachments, a gift by Richard and Carol Dubois, 2004

The first display consists of prosthetic limbs dating back to ancient times – such as a wooden toe discovered on an Egyptian mummy – juxtaposed against more modern conceptions like the flex-foot ‘cheetah legs’ worn by many amputee athletes these days, as well as more ornamental alternatives that become part of the wearers’ unique identity (pictured below).

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The Alternative Limb Project by Sophie de Oliveira Barata, 2011 – ongoing

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FAKE i REAL ME by Corinne Mariaud, 2016 – 2017
Even the vainglorious pursuit of an aesthetic ideal, through the use of coloured or pupil-enlarging contact lenses and surgical procedures (popularised by South Korea), is deemed an enhancement of our natural selves.

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This lays down the parameters for discussion and provides a reminder that by attaching such inorganic implementations to our bodies, or permanently altering our appearances, we are already manipulating our natural circumstances. As homo sapiens, we have also been constantly changing our environment – permanently in some instances. The extinction of various species of living organisms, for example, is irrefutable evidence of our impact on the world we live in.

Every intervention the human race has made is an act of authoring our environment.

The question, however, isn’t whether we should stop; instead, it’s about how we can be more thoughtful in doing so, to ensure a sustainable future for our world.

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Foragers by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, 2009

Built on the premise of an impending global food shortage, the display by Antony Dunne and Fiona Raby, titled Foragers, introduces the idea of extracting nutritional value from non-human food, drawing inspiration from the digestive systems of other animals. By artificially altering our bodies’ ability to consume ingredients conventionally inedible for humans, and utilising the green contraptions to assist with processing these ingredients, it makes you wonder if this is an alternative ‘food’ source we should devote more research to.

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Optimization of Parenting, Part 2 by Addie Wagenknecht, 2012
Optimization of Parenting, Part 2 will undoubtedly strike a chord with every parent, as it attempts to encourage debate about handing off what some might consider menial and repetitive tasks – like rocking a bassinet – to a robot. While the display was instantly relatable, the copywriting might irk fathers who take on an equal share of parenting duties, and maybe some feminists too.

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The last chapter of Human+, Life at the Edges, delves into the subjects of life and death. When DNA modification was first explained to the masses, the idea of ‘designer babies’ was floated as a possibility. Agatha Haines’ project, Transfigurations, comprising five sculptures of babies with different surgical implementations, forces us to consider what might justify the permanent modification of a child’s body without its consent. Would reducing the child’s likelihood of developing severe asthma be an acceptable justification? What about surgically enhancing the child’s physical characteristics, to let it excel in a future sports-related career? What if the child turns out to have no interest in sports at all? Where do such considerations sit in the broader conversation about giving people – including children – free will and allowing them to choose their own destinies? Would that be no different from the act of farming humans? It sure makes for plenty of pseudo-utopian discussions.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if the human race could live to 150 years on average, what would the impact be on the world around us then? How would household dynamics change if up to six generations found themselves living under the same roof? Suddenly, marriage vows of “till death do us part” become doubly intimidating.

And when we have exhausted all means of evading mortality, the afterlife becomes an unavoidable subject to address. Whereas most religions have their own interpretations of life after death to lean on in times of uncertainty, atheists and the agnostics may yearn for similar emotional assurances during the loss of a loved one. By harnessing the latent chemical potential of our (dead) bodies and converting it into a dry cell battery, James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau have sought to scientifically prove there is indeed life after death. As to how this afterlife battery will be used is up to the surviving family’s (or its source’s) decision; some examples lent to the museum’s display included a torchlight and an instrument of love. Yet, if the energy within the battery was the final remnant of your lost one, could you bear to put it to use?

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Nadine (left) and Grace engaging in free conversation

Undoubtedly the most engaging project at Human+ is Nadine, one of the most realistic humanoids in the world. In many ways, Nadine is a chatbot that’s been given a human-like body, the latter which is fashioned after its/her creator, Professor Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, Director of Institute for Media Innovation (IMI) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Visitors can share basic conversations with Nadine, who can process new information and recall them from ‘her’ memory to continue future discourse (take that, Siri).

Nadine apparently also has a sense of humour, and you can ask her to tell you a joke.

When Grace asked what languages she speaks, Nadine’s response listed JavaScript among some of the other popular programming codes.

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The birthplace of Charlie

In the background is a room where a male counterpart, Charlie, is being built. Charlie is expected to be ready for public interaction by October this year – coinciding with the last month of Human+ being at the ArtScience Museum.

But you shouldn’t wait till then to visit. Of all the exhibitions I’ve had the privilege to see in person, this ranks among the top three at any museum in Singapore for me. This was also the exhibition at which we stayed the longest, to carefully read all the descriptions provided alongside the displays, while also taking the time to watch most of the videos in various parts of the curated journey.

If you’d like to ponder about life and wonder what the future holds for the human race, visiting Human+ The Future of Our Species would be the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

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