/ Experts


People of the future will have different sensory capabilities and will be powered by electricity


Are there other rational beings in the universe? What will the people of the future look like? Will they be able to see in the dark, be powered by electricity, and be made aware of illnesses before symptoms appear and without a doctor’s assistance? We spoke with Sergei Varfolmeyev, a Ph.D. chemist, chair of the department of chemical enzymology at Moscow State University, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and director of the RAN Institute of Biochemcial Physics, who contends: Nothing is impossible!


2045: Mr. Varfolmeyev, what can science offer in terms of new ways of expanding the capabilities of man?

Sergei Varfolomeyev: Expanding human beings’ sensory capabilities is of immediate concern. What do we have right now? We have vision—90% of information we receive through vision. We have our sense of touch, a set of receptors that is responsible for physical interaction and for sensing heat and cold. We sense smells (for many animals this is vitally important) and have a sense of hearing.

But our sense organs can provide us more information! Humans should see in infrared, sense radiation and magnetic fields—and they can. The whole sensory environment is equipped with a range of special chemical structures called “sensory receptors”. Over the last 10 years, to some extent thanks to our efforts, systems have been created that significantly expand the possibilities for chemical analysis of the environment using biosensors. A biosensor is a combination of biological material (a sensor, an enzyme) with an electronic device. It’s a kind of bioelectronic device. An incoming signal is converted in the biosensor to an electrical response, with which you can do whatever you’d like: redirect it, convert it, analyze it. The development of new materials has given rise to an entire generation of such devices.

Using these biosensors you can, for instance, measure the level of glucose in the blood. There is demand for this—there are 20 million diabetics in Russia. Glucose monitoring is currently done using savage, outdated methods: You have to give blood to do it. But more pleasant, non-invasive methods can be developed. Glucose levels can be measured at home in one’s sweat, saliva, or cutaneous membrane. This would be a good advancement in the chemical detection of substances.


2045: A human being can learn to sense and perceive almost any bodily function. And if you represent that function as feedback...

S.V.: ...and train...


2045: ...regularly, then with each new function he receives a new internal sense organ!

S.V.: That is very interesting. I think that with time that idea will be developed. A person perceives an ailment only when serious morphological changes occur. But if you set up monitoring at the level of 10-20 metabolites, he can find out about it in advance and the information will go straight into his brain, or into a computer.

Cars have had internal diagnostic systems since the end of the 19th century! If you fill a person with sensors and create a program that will inform you about what’s happening and why, it will take medicine to a whole new level!


2045: Alexander Logvinenko did experiments in the 1970s in which a camera was installed on the backs of blind people and information from it was turned into a pattern of vibration.

S.V.: And after some amount of training the person began to perceive that vibration as a two-dimensional or even a three-dimensional picture! You have to use different receptor systems—not just vision, not just hearing. For example, on our skin we have a huge number of receptors that register heat. If you convert signals into heat responses, then you will be able to see in the dark. Heat is given off by everything and is also three-dimensional, just like a visual shape. But at the moment, we don’t have a good interface between those weak signals and the skin’s thermoreceptors. It is, however, a realistic goal to create such an interface—it can be done and it definitely will be done. Then, a person will be able to see in the dark with his hands.

But there exists a more interesting challenge. If you understand the mechanics of synthesizing proteins and receptors, then you can create new receptors! For example, the density of receptors for seeing in infrared or radiation fields has a resolving power of no more than 3-5 cm. But if you increase the receptor density 10 times, you increase the resolving power 100 times.

We learn things very easily. The presence of constantly active instructional signals will automatically create a three-dimensional picture. The brain is very flexible. Human beings learn very easily—how to use a computer, how to drive a car. We learn how to do and do things that are far from simple as though it were self-evident how they are done.

One other thing seems to me to be very important. Right now humanity is transitioning to new sources of energy, and the role of those sources in supplying energy to the world is growing. The trajectory of development in power generation is such that by 2045, we will be able to completely end our dependence on coal and almost completely stop using oil. We will still use gas since it is cheap. By 2045, more than half of all energy will come from clean, renewable sources: wind, the sun, biomasses.

Given that we are transitioning more and more from chemical energy sources to clean electricity, with time nothing will stop us from also transitioning to powering living things with electricity!


2045: A human who can be charged at an electrical socket?

S.V.: Humans’ power supply is provided by a fueling system. Energy-dense compounds—typically this is basic carbohydrates, like glucose and sugar—initiate combustion reactions (or burning, which is the same thing) in the bodies of humans, animals and the overwhelming majority of beings on the planet Earth. We breathe oxygen and burn glucose and we receive not only warmth but chemical agents that initiate metabolic cycles. The nervous system, the muscular system—all the organs and tissues are fueled by this energy. What is this exactly from the point of view of chemistry? This is glucose plus oxygen, which produces carbon dioxide and water. In place of glucose you can have amino acids, which also produces carbon dioxide and water. All biology is based on that chemical reaction!

Now let’s do the opposite reaction. It’s possible only by bringing in energy. The most effective and environmentally acceptable energy source is electricity. If we create a system that turns CO2 and water into glucose by using electricity, then we will be able to power living things with electricity. Humans breathe, emitting carbon dioxide, which goes through a small device that rebuilds it into pyruvic acid, not even into glucose, and puts it back into the blood stream. It could also go not directly into the blood stream but through the digestive organs.


2045: And food won’t be needed?

S.V.: No! The carbon dioxide that people breathe out will be the building material for the entire body. And air isn’t needed, because you will begin to produce oxygen on your own. Electrochemcial systems are unique in their potential capabilities. I don’t know about human beings, but, for example, moving agriculture onto a system of fueling animals using electricity is an entirely realistic goal.

Cows are fueled by hay—they do everything else themselves using secondary processes. And hay, except for having weak mineral content, is nothing but a polysaccharide, i.e. polymerizable glucose.


2045: And we deal with the problem of the greenhouse effect at the same time.

S.V.: It would disappear as a phenomenon. All aerobic life on earth is supported by the oxygen, as well as the carbohydrates, produced by plants (they convert CO2 into carbohydrates). This happens as a result of photosynthesis. You can do the same thing with electrosynthesis. As far back as 15 years ago I published an article in a respected professional journal titled “Electrosynthesis Versus Photosynthesis”, or something like that. But this has to be studied. You have to create electrodes with an interface that would transfer an electron to molecules of some kind, and that electron would in the end be in a situation in which pyruvic acid is produced from CO2.


2045: What you’re talking about is some kind of—I swear I won’t be afraid of the word—nanoelectronics.

S.V.: This is a kind of biological electronics—almost the same thing as biosensors, only in the opposite direction. There you have a signal, whereas here you have currents. Such ideas don’t inspire many people because everyone thinks that there are perpetual delays in seeing a result. But in fact everything is happening very quickly right now. In 10 years it may be that cattle barns are fueled directly with electricity: with solar cells collecting sunlight and CO2, which there’s plenty of—and a cow will grow that provides normal milk and meat.

An extremely complex task stands in the way—building a nano-electric membrane. An electrical current is a stream of electrons. Molecular structures are streams of molecules. This interface forms only as a result of electrochemical processes that convert a transfer of electrons. Various tacks could be taken here, including mobilizing whole proteins on the surface or creating organs that would take in electrons (like breathing does) and in the opposite direction carry out reconstructive reactions (not combustion reactions but reconstructive ones). It could be done with enzymes. I am the chair of the chemical enzymology department at Moscow State University. We study hundreds of different enzymes that perform chemical reactions. It could also be done with chemical catalysts. If demand appears for figuring out how to do this (and demand will appear), the chemistry will change.


2045: That is very encouraging! Our thinking is the following: A person should live in his body until it is completely worn out, and then we have to think up some new vehicle for his consciousness, possibly an artificial body. We want to extend human life span.

S.V.: That’s an interesting way of posing the problem, though I’m not sure the issue can be solved by transferring a person’s brain into an artificial vehicle. Our brain is completely non-competitive in comparison to a computer for one physical reason: The brain computes using ions, while a computer does so electronically. An ion is a heavy particle, a thousand times heavier than an electron. As a result, all electronic processes run three to four orders of magnitude faster than ionic ones, and electronic transfers at some point will simply supersede brain operations.

The brain is also connected to whole range of receptor systems, sensory systems. It is effective when it has a body and can see and feel. First of all, no one knows what responses the brain can have. But what’s most frightening is that the brain is very fragile and extremely susceptible to infection. The great thing about the human body is that it protects this poor brain from everything.

I would put it this way: You don’t need to transfer the brain—you need an electronic form of the brain. The physical brain, in my opinion, cannot be a subject of interest because it is too fragile. But creating an electronic copy fully equipped with receptors and the same personal history, stimuli, motives—that could be very interesting. It would turn our perception of the material world upside down!


2045: We want to create a center where scientists from different fields of study will come together to work on the project of creating an artificial human body.

S.V.: The first thing you should do is to create an informal electronic club for people who know something and see potential areas for development. It should be global—it should be an international philosophical society.

The next step should be creating a celebrity program. And it should be based on the participation of very high-level businessmen. People who already have major resources and who have lost interest in quotidian problems like “where to get money” can end up being of critical importance.

I think that this will be a successful project. There is a certain subsection of people who would like to see what lies beyond. It’s clear that people are concerned with more than just the here and now, beer, and girls.

Professor Sergey V.
Ph.D. in Chemistry, Head of the Chemical Enzymology Department at the Moscow State University, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Director of the Institute of Biochemical Physics (Russian Academy of Sciences)

‘An electronic version of the brain is needed. The physical brain, in my opinion, can not be a subject of study, since it is very subtle. But an electronic analog having all the receptor equipment and the same story, incentives, motivation - it might be very interesting...’

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