As a long-time fan of the Gene Roddenberry series, I was thrilled for an unexpected opportunity to cite examples from the “Next Generation” franchise when discussing the future of health and wellness during this year’s TEDMED Conference.
TEDMED convenes and curates extraordinary people and ideas from all disciplines, inside and outside, of medicine. It’s annual conference brings the world together to focus on what’s new and important in health and medicine. This year, Digitas Health LifeBrands served as TEDMED’s social media agency of record and I was part of the social media team enlisted to cover the event.
My opportunity to quote from Star Trek came up during a lunch conversation with new friends. The question posed was at what point a person has to have enough artificial limbs and organs in their body for them to no longer be considered human? One person at the table asked, “What does it mean to be human?” To which someone else responded that there is something undefinable and innate in human beings which separates us from other forms of earth-based life. Call it a spirit, an essence, what have you—this unique quality could not be duplicated by even the most advanced machines and artificial life.
Among the many extraordinary speakers at TEDMED, the theme of technology in medicine surfaced repeatedly, as technological innovations pave the way in solving health problems. Touch-sensitive sensors are used to create model body parts that give way to haptic testing—a previously unteachable skill. Researchers are being inspired by nature to create biomaterials and medical devices that reduce pain and recovery time, and improve efficiency. And a revolution in pathology testing includes a needle-less blood test that makes the practice of taking multiple vials of blood for the same tests, obsolete.
Another major theme to emerge during the conference was the strength of the human spirit— an inspirational message to say the least! Many of the speakers shared stories of events that tested human will—and in which the will triumphed to aspirational heights. Perhaps that is the quality that the speaker at my lunch table was referring to? Human beings are audacious and persistent. Even when faced with failure (sometimes on multiple occasions) we forge ahead thanks to the tenacity which is written into our DNA. And when we demonstrate an unnerving will to persevere—nature eventually bends and the “universe” does in fact help us achieve our goals.
One of my favorite characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation is an android named Data. Data is unique—there are no other androids in the Star Trek universe (well, one, but that’s another story). Data’s character—a modern-day Pinocchio—is the perfect Starfleet officer. He follows protocol, has advanced knowledge and capacity to learn at extraordinary speeds, and he never needs to sleep. Despite this, Data longs to be human. When he plays an instrument, he longs to “feel” the music, he owns a cat, and fails at finding his own sense of humor.
There are many human traits that Data admires, but perhaps tenacity is what he admires most. For Data, if something seems improbable or statistically unlikely, then he adjusts his behavior to make the most reasonable and calculated decision. Taking risks and working against the odds isn’t the most reasonable course of action for an android – but that’s the beauty of being human.