The Eyeborg Documentary: Bridging Reality and Sci-Fi
As I continue to talk with people about transhumanism, I’m often asked whether the sort of hyper-advanced technology I’m so excited about is really possible. After all, we’ve been expecting flying cars since the 1990′s, and those still aren’t here. We don’t have robots cleaning up our homes, ala The Jetsons (Roombas don’t quite make the cut.) We’re not even close to intergalactic travel ala Star Trek, and we don’t have the luxury of mind vacations ala Total Recall. In short, technology often seems to fall short of people’s (probably unrealistic) expectations, and so those same people are understandably skeptical about claims of advanced cybernetic limbs, mind-uploading (or substrate independent minds, as Randal Koene is now calling it), and artificial intelligence.
A few months ago, I posted my thoughts on a few men who chose to have their hands replaced with cybernetic arms. When talking with people, I try to point them in the direction of stories like these; stories that illustrate that we already have the limb replacement part down, and that suggest we’re not so many engineering breakthroughs away from human-level functionality in our prosthetics. There are a lot of stories like this out there, but it’s hard to remember where all of them are when I’m a few drinks deep at the bar. Fortunately, Rob Spence and Deus Ex teamed up to make a short summary of cybernetic technology as compared to hyper-advanced technology still (barely) in the realm of sci-fi. They call it Deus Ex: The Eyeborg Documentary.
Rob Spence is the aforementioned Eyeborg, a man who lost his eye in a shooting accident and replaced it with a prosthetic that has a small wireless camera that transmits video to a screen a few feet away. Rob’s prosthetic doesn’t connect to his optical nerve, so he doesn’t actually see the video captured by the camera unless he looks at the player with his ‘good’ eye. Miika Terho (1:28), on the other hand, had a small chip implanted into his retina that does connect to his optical nerve, allowing his brain to process the incoming visual signal. The resolution is still … crude (to put it mildly) BUT: The blind can see again in some sense. That has to count for something. This procedure is still in experimental phases, and probably won’t be approved for the public for several years yet, but much like most of the technologies highlighted in this video, seems only a few engineering obstacles away from offering excellent solutions to people struggling with blindness and other eye problems. Joseph Junke (2:35) rounds out the Eyeborg tour of the eyes with his HUD display for firefighters; a system that augments reality with information gathered from sensors and other technology. Augmented reality has captured a lot of interest recently because it seems like something we already know how to do; and indeed Junke think we’ll have a sellable product within two years or so. Combining these building blocks, it seems like we can put together the video input capability of a mini-camera, the optical-nerve-attached chip, and the augmented reality display to produce an implant that allows for vision that meets or exceeds human-level while offering a few nice extras. If cell phones are any indication, we’ll see have lots of other small technologies piggybacking on the basic technology, such that we could take pictures of what we’re seeing, transmit them wirelessly, and alter coloration at whim. Just like the Deus Ex implant.
At 4:00 we meet two people who have had their arms replaced; Jason Henderson from West Virginia and Keiron McCammon from California. Both of these people have hands that approximate the human hand; they offer fine motor control, wrist rotation, and grip strength. They also have a few bonuses in the form of attachments at the wrist; Jason can put on fin-shaped scoops for more powerful swimming, for instance. The hands of the prosthetics could certainly use a little better control, but because the prosthetics work by reading the electrical signals traveling down the natural muscles remaining in the arm via sensor, the ability to have very fine motor skills (of the sort needed to type quickly on a keyboard as opposed to hunting and pecking) is somewhat limited. A direct neural connection would work best, but we’re not quite there yet.
A 7:20 we meet Staff Sergant Heath Calhoun, who lost his legs during service in Iraq in 2003. Both of his legs were amputated above the knee and replaced with prosthetics that monitor his movement some 50 times a second, automatically adjusting the hydraulic pressure at the knee and helping Heath to keep his balance. Heath additionally skis for the Mens US Disabled Ski Team, and is able to attach a snowboard more directly to his remaining legs. He’s also into running, swimming, and biking. Despite the impressive array of attachments, Heath has a problem: His knee doesn’t provide power (as needed for, say, getting up stairs) and isn’t able to use his thigh muscles in the same way people with natural legs do. This is an everyday hinderance that takes away from the enhanced ability to replace his prosthetic limbs with attachments that fit the activity Heath is participating in. David Jonsson (8:59) at Ossur Prosthetics out of Iceland has addressed this problem by creating the Power Knee; a prosthetics that does just what it sounds like. The Power Knee provides power to the knee area of a prosthetic, allowing the user to walk up stairs and stand up more easily. Combining the two technologies, we see that the array of attachments Heath has access to, coupled with the Power Knee, leads to prosthetic legs nearly as functional as natural legs, except they can additionally be tasked to particular activities as needed.
The Eyeborg Documentary doesn’t cover every possible prosthetic on the market, and it isn’t supposed to. What it does, and very well, is show how technology as it exists today is already quite close to what we currently consider sci-fi levels, and indicates some of the technical challenges that must be overcome to bring prosthetic technology the rest of the way. The video bridges the gap between fantasy and reality, showing why it is reasonable to expect the technology will continue to advance. The documentary also provides just one place for people to go who wonder whether we’ll continue to have increasingly sophisticated prosthetics and gives me a single place to direct people interested in seeing how close to a truly transhumanist future we currently are. So, the next time someone asks me, I’ll smile, sip my drink, and say “Google the Eyeborg Documentary; it’ll blow your mind.”