Technology that merges the human body with digital devices has been a long-time coming – pace-makers have been widely available since the 80s. But in the last few years, we have seen an explosion of applications of technical integration into the body. The speed of these developments is breathtaking. And unlike the previously closed electronic implants, we are now seeing artificial prosthetic limbs equipped with electronic systems able to recognize and respond to neural impulses being connected directly to the brain, muscles, and neurons of amputees.
This means that the amputee’s brain eventually creates specific neural paths to control the new pieces of technology. These devices are literally influencing the make-up of the human brain.
Last fall, it was announced that Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden had developed a thought-controlled prosthetic arm. This robotic limb taps into the user’s nerves and muscles through implanted sensors. This allows the amputee to really have full control of the arm.
In December, a woman paralyzed from the neck down, working with doctors from University of Pittsburg, learned to feed herself with the help of a robotic arm hooked up directly to her brain. She did not have to think about how exactly one uses an arm, but rather had a more general thought like “pick up that piece of fruit” and “move there” and the machine-brain interface that researchers had developed would translate this into actions that that the robotic arm would understand. You can watch a report about it below:
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland just recently developed of a prototype prosthetic hand that is controlled by the brain of the user. This prototype also provides sensory feedback from the fingers, palm, and wrists, so the user does not just control the limb, but can feel what it touches.
Why stop there?
On some level, this is all incredible. You give people who have lost a limb a fully functional replacement. And it doesn’t stop with limbs; researchers have already created integrated replacement eyes for the blind and cochlear implants for the deaf. These are also connected up directly to the brain. These are truly great human achievements and no doubt will make the lives of many people much better.
But why stop at replacing a body part when you could potentially upgrade it. Many of the experimental prosthetics arms are already designed with the ability to spin 360 degrees, bend backwards, stretch longer than biological human arms can. The prosthetic eyes we have developed can already see infrared light.
And why wouldn’t we make our replacement body parts stronger? More nimble? More sensitive than our original biological parts.
I suppose all the senses could be augmented. We could enhance our noses to specific and previously undetectable molecules, our ears to hear previously imperceptible frequencies, our eyes to see through things or truly see in the dark. It almost seems like some of us will soon have superpowers.
And what about human intelligence? Imagine the benefit of actually being able to access vast stores of information without using your phone or laptop. Imagine you just needed to think of the topic and you could get all the relevant info. Or all mathematical computation could be accomplished as fast a computer. And what about connecting our brains with others. They have recently connected 2 mouse brains and had them perform tasks. I can imagine this will be possible eventually for humans as well. Imagine what collaboration would look like through connected brains.
The potential for all this is huge. And a lot of research is already going on in all of these directions.
Who will drive this?
We can imagine the possibilities all we want, but usually the development of tech or research is determined by the combined interests of various stakeholders.
While the original motivation for integrating tech and the body is primarily medical, medical motivation ends at the point that an individual is relieved of pain or disadvantage due to a medical condition. Medical research funding alone won’t push humans to create augmented limbs.
What groups of stakeholders will determine the direction in which we alter ourselves is still to be determined. However, I think it is safe to assume 2 groups – the military and the consumer tech sector – will be involved.
The private sector could also get on board in many ways. Why stop at Google glass? Why not implant the tech right in your brain.
In theory, governmental laws and regulations within the medical profession are supposed to address these issues. Speaking with a contact of mine at the European Patent Office, I understood that there are a number of guidelines that patent applicants must adhere to. Inventions in the field of electronic prosthetics must have truly medical purposes to be awarded a patent, at least in europe.
However, as many of us realize, the military or private commercial entities often fund research in these possibly beneficial areas despite any ethical concerns or potential long term impacts on the health of society.
For now governmental laws and regulations within the medical professsion will probably only delay this. And it seems inevitable that we will see these technologies on the market in the future.
To alter ourselves: the possible implications
And then I guess the question becomes, what is the impact of all this?
I wish we had more time to think about all of this. We still don’t understand what we are actually signing up for when we start letting tech into our bodies. The development of these technologies is often coming from the field of medicine and has at its core genuinely positive intention, allowing paraplegics to walk again, to help people with shut-in syndrome to communicate, allowing the blind to see.
But as these technologies then move into the commercial realm, I worry that the associated intentions start to become fuzzier. The more integrated the technology is with our brains, the more chance that we start change the definition of what it means to be human and how we would relate to one another. And due to the likelyhood that these technologies won’t come cheap it could create huge rifs between the rich and the poor.
Or what about the security of these devices. Could they be hacked as suggested in this older post?
And who knows, this might all be for the best.
But I just don’t believe that we know enough about our own nature and the systems that govern us to guarantee this.
Either way, it looks like the cyborg age really is upon us. Let’s just try our best not to become Borg, cool?