Artist Nickolay Lamm and computational geneticist Alan Kwan teamed up to imagine what humans will look like 100,000 years in the future, with a series of images of altered faces of a man and woman from the present.

Lamm and Kwan suggested a "possible timeline" in which a combination of genetic engineering, adaptation to life on other planets, and wearable technology, have led human faces to look like those of anime characters, with elongated foreheads and cartoonishly large, gleaming eyes.

Kwan told Forbes that the images, which he stressed are "purely speculative," are based partially on existing physiological trends in human evolution. For example, previous research has suggested that the human forehead has been gradually expanding since the 16th century, and Kwan imagined that it will keep widening to accommodate a growing brain.

In 60,000 years, he suggested that genetic engineering could advance far enough to allow humans to determine the direction of their own evolution, surpassing the glacially slow progress of natural selection.

Physical appearance will be pushed toward desirable facial traits like perfect symmetry and "intense eyes," as well as those that might be adaptive in different surroundings.

Eyes may enlarge dramatically to enhance human vision in dimmer environments, much like bush babies and other nocturnal animals, in order to adapt to planets and space colonies further away from the sun than Earth. A sideways-blinking third eyelid known as a nictitating membrane, like that in cats and other non-primate animals, might be reintroduced to protect the bulbous eyes.

Eyelids might thicken and the superciliary arch, the prominent bone above the eye sockets, might become more pronounced in order to counteract the effects of low gravity in outer space.

People might evolve to have skin with stronger pigmentation to combat damage from UV radiation — that is, if most humans aren't already darker-skinned because of many generations of interracial reproduction.

Wearable technology will become ubiquitous, and much more discreet than Google Glass. "Communication lenses" — contact lenses with visual computer interfaces — will work with nanochips implanted above the ear to keep humans perpetually wired without altering their appearance, since visible technological implants will by then have fallen out of style.

Check out the following images, which show how Lamm imagines human faces will look 20,000, 60,000, and 100,000 years into the future.

Images of a man and woman in the present day, 2013. [Nickolay Lamm]
Images of a man and woman in the present day, 2013. [Nickolay Lamm]

At 20,000 years into the future, Lamm and Kwan suggest that humans might have slightly larger heads, with a subtly wider forehead. The yellow ring around the irises of the eyes indicates a futuristic
At 20,000 years into the future, Lamm and Kwan suggest that humans might have slightly larger heads, with a subtly wider forehead. The yellow ring around the irises of the eyes indicates a futuristic "communication lens." [Nickolay Lamm]

60,000 years in the future, humans might have even larger heads and eyes, and darker pigmented skin. [Nickolay Lamm]
At 60,000 years into the future, humans might have even larger heads and eyes, and darker pigmented skin. The superciliary arch of the brow is also more pronounced. [Nickolay Lamm]

At 100,000 years in the future, Lamm and Kwan imagine that human eyes are cartoonishly large and shiny, to allow people to see better in dim light. The light gray areas of the eyes indicate a protective sideways-blinking nictitating membrane. [Nickolay Lamm]
At 100,000 years in the future, Lamm and Kwan imagine that human eyes are cartoonishly large and shiny, to allow people to see better in dim light. The light gray areas of the eyes indicate a protective sideways-blinking nictitating membrane. [Nickolay Lamm]

Geneticists Are Unimpressed

The altered images have drawn strong responses from researchers and science writers who felt compelled to put the speculation in context.

Matthew Herper of Forbes calls the images an "interesting conceptual experiment," but suggested that speculators should think more expansively about the possibilities of genetic engineering and avoid assuming that human cultural tastes don't change.

"The ability to really muck about in the human genome is only decades or centuries, not millennia, away," writes Herper, and all we can assume with confidence is that in the short term, it will be used for pressing medical concerns like eliminating genetic diseases.

Changing physical traits like height and eye size are beyond the scope of foreseeable technology, he suggests, and preferences about attractiveness are far too culturally dependent to make generalizations about how people in the far future might want to genetically engineer their offspring.

That critique matches the conclusions of recent studies, which have cast doubt on the existence of universal human preferences for specific traits of attractiveness, like facial structure or foot size.

On Twitter, Herper also collected criticisms from other genetics researchers, who identified flawed assumptions in Lamm and Kwan's project.

Evolutionary biologist Leonid Kruglyak of Princeton University points out that while the brains of human ancestors expanded in size for 2 million years, anthropological evidence shows that the average brain volume of modern humans has actually been shrinking for the past 20,000 years.

Gene Expression blogger Razib Khan elaborates on Discover, saying that there is simply no way to predict how much technology will change the future of the human species, even 100 years into the future, since human culture is simply too unpredictable.

"If technological civilization still exists 100,000 years from now, and our species has not gone through cycles of booms and busts," writes Khan, "then I presume that these far future individuals will live in worlds far less recognizable" than even the more ambitious science fiction imaginings.

George Dvorsky of io9 goes even further, criticizing the image creators for lacking imagination. If genetic engineering technology advances far enough to make changes to eye size and skin color, Dvorsky suggests, humans are likely to use it for far more ambitious alterations that we can scarcely even comprehend.

"Within the span of the next several centuries, we could completely rework the human form, whether it be through genetics or cyborgization."

In conclusion, take the images with a grain of salt when sharing with your social network. It may be fun to imagine that your descendants 100,000 years in the future look more like Sailor Moon or Ash Ketchum than any humans alive today, but keep in mind that they might as well be robots, morphing clouds of vapor, or pretty much the same, for all we know — which is not very much.