Friday Edition: Augmenting Humans
This week has brought several interesting articles about human enhancement. Although much of this technology is still in the research phase, some tech is beginning to make it to the market.
Via IEEE Spectrum, bionic eyes are beginning to help those with some forms of blindness see again. Although the glasses are not elegant, the technology not perfected, and the solution not universal, this represents a serious step forward in biotechnology. I wrote about a chip that did substantially similar things as part of a post on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and now it seems prepared to come to market. Even more exciting is how quickly the problems with the technology should get solved; probably within just a few years. Because this chip-glasses combination works, but is largely limited by resolution, increasing the resolution of the image ought to be relatively easy. After all, from video game systems to cell phones and digital camera, resolution has time and again proven to be a basic fix; the tech is there, it’s just a matter of integrating it.
Other emerging technologies are not as easily remedied. CNN reports on a new bionic hand, another technology highlighted in the Deus Ex video linked above. Matt’s new hand appears close to human level functionality, with an opposable thumb, connecting fingers, and universal application. The CNN video is a little lighter on details than I would like, but I imagine if the hand had touch-sense capability or other upgrades, it would likely have been mentioned. Still, these hands seem to have a quick learning curve and are becoming available for those that need it.
In biological tech, the New York Times reports that doctors in Sweden have replaced a cancer-ridden trachea with one grown in a lab. Although the surgery was very expensive (around $450,000), because the windpipe was grown from the patient’s own cells, no anti-rejection medication is needed. However, the article notes, the body might well ultimately encapsulate the trachea with scar tissue; a process that isn’t exactly rejection but leads to similar results. Other organs are also on the way.
Some people, unwilling to wait for FDA approval and a medical need, are beginning to upgrade themselves. Do It Yourself Biohackers use basic techniques, coupled with a whole lot of courage and determination, to upgrade their senses by doing things like implanting magnets into their fingertips to be able to sense electromagnetic currents, magnetic north, or even the locations of their friends. As the basic technology becomes more widespread, and people become more familiar with how to use it, I imagine this sort of garage-augmentation will only increase in the future. However, I still expect most people will go to a doctor if they can. The posted videos are amazing.
If the private sector isn’t moving technology along rapidly enough, Discover Magazine reports that the US Military, through DARPA (the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency) and other agencies, has been quietly funding projects along many of the same lines. Although the ultimate purpose to which DARPA and these other agencies may put this technology could be questionable, research unhampered by the usual; regulations and solid financial backing are almost sure to push these technologies forward very rapidly. Most scientists involved in the research, apparently, don’t find the military’s involvement objectionable.
By far the most interesting thing to augment, however, is the brain. Many people suggest that we know too little about the brain to effectively augment it. However, experiments like this one on rat brains are pushing forward our knowledge. Scientists are having luck replacing parts of the rat brain with engineered components that perform the same functions. Once they understand how to replace parts of a rat’s brain with engineered analogues, they hope to be able to help restore functionality to humans with damaged brains.
One possible application that I’ve written about at some length is increasing human intelligence. Neuroscientist Natalie Wolchover considers what might happen if the average intelligence doubled. However, increasing intelligence might not be an entirely good thing; George Dvorsky comments on a recent article by the journal Current Directions In Psychological Sciences that argues there are many side effects to heightened intelligence, and that any advances in human intelligence will need to account for those side effects.
Finally, Sarah Wanenchak offers an insightful article about how disabled people who have limbs replaced with prostheses still face discrimination. It’s worth a read, especially for anyone considering voluntarily adopting these technologies in the future (although I imagine that as more people adopt the technologies, the stigma attached will subside.)
Stay tuned next week for more updates. Now that school has started again, I have a nice backlog of articles to share!