The future is here. Cybernetic enhancements have been available for years now and the technology is not slowing down. We are fortunate to live in such an exciting time of breakthroughs in technology and medicine. But this leads us to several interesting questions regarding where we will go in the future.
Cybernetic enhancements in sci-fi may conjure up images of villains using their technologically augmented physical strength to harm people and gain power in communities. Or maybe you think of superheroes saving a city or town from bad guys. Today, the reality is much different. Such technology is used not to augment people’s body parts but to replace missing limbs and organs and treat congenital birth defects. Let’s take a look at where the technology is now and how it may be used in the future.
What Are Cybernetic Enhancements?
There are currently five major types of cybernetic enhancements. Let’s take a look at what these are and how they are helping people today.
Since the 1980s, we have heard promises of the ability to edit the human genome, adding improvements and using genetic engineering to produce humans free from genetic diseases or even with a particular eye or hair color. Thanks to CRISPR, the future is now here and we are able to edit genes. If we can discover what makes people so smart, tall, strong, or fast we can learn how to code an embryo’s DNA to create a designer child with genetic traits to set him or her up for success later in life.
Nootropics is a class of drug that affects your brain. This is different from your typical brain-altering drugs like DMT, LSD, and PCP. Nor is it an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. Silicon Valley executives reportedly are taking an exotic cocktail of research chemicals and dietary supplements to give themselves an edge over the competition. However, it is currently unclear whether the self-reported memory and learning enhancements are caused by a placebo effect or if the medication is actually helping. Furthermore, no long-term studies have been done on the safety of these chemicals as they have not been around long enough.
Neurotechnology is one of the most difficult types of technology to work with because we are still learning how the brain works. The idea, however, is to improve our mental capacity, maybe one day creating super-intelligence. Currently, neurotechnology is being studied in the context of repairing damage in the brain. However, visionaries imagine a world where human intelligence will be integrated seamlessly with artificial intelligence, allowing people complete recall of every event they have ever experienced from songs they have heard only once to boardroom meetings.
BCIs, or brain-computer interfaces are used to control artificial limbs for the disabled and are being tested as a communication method for those who cannot communicate because of spinal cord injuries. BCIs can help reverse paralysis by creating a neural bypass to allow the brain to communicate with the muscles directly.
Bionics and Prosthetics
Bionics and prosthetics are perhaps the most well known cybernetic enhancements we have today. You can see this is the Cybathlon with athletes called pilots competing in athletic competitions with powered prostheses rather than your run-of-the-mill prostheses powered only by human muscle.
Why Would People Want Cybernetic Enhancements?
Why people would want cybernetic enhancements depends on their unique situation. These include war survivors, aging individuals suffering from the loss of memory or cognition, and people suffering from cancer.
Another group interested in human augmentation are people who have lost limbs or functionality due to automobile accidents, war, or other circumstances. Since cybernetic arms are much less dexterous than our biological arms, people are not lining up to upgrade their limbs just yet. However, some entrepreneurs suspect this may be the case in the future as our technology continues to rapidly advance. One day, cybernetics may end all physical disabilities and replace everything from lost limbs to eyes and ears.
The LUKE Arm
The LUKE Arm, named after Luke Skywalker, was FDA-approved in 2014 and funded in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The motor provides feedback that allows people to feel resistance such as drywall offering more resistance than silk. The arm includes electronic sensors which allow movement after receiving signals from the wearer’s muscles. Using his or her feet, the wearer can operate switches that can manipulate multiple joints simultaneously.
The first units were sold to military veterans in 2016 and amputees can now buy these prosthetics through their physicians. The arm currently costs around $100,000 but this will likely decrease over time.
Engineer Keahi Seymour created bionic boots which were stilt-like in appearance that allow him to run around 25 miles per hour thanks to springs that act like tendons to power his stride. While Usain Bolt can reach speeds of 27.44 miles per hour, Seymour wants his boots to take us to 45 miles per hour and beyond. His ultimate vision is for humans to outrun the world’s fastest land animals. It is easy to imagine law enforcement and military applications of being faster than the criminal or the enemy.
The health industry is very interested in cybernetic technology for many applications including curing diseases, personalizing cancer treatment medicine, and repairing congenital defects. Neurotechnology may reverse diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, or brain cancer.
The Color Blind
Artist Neil Harbisson was born color blind and in 2004 he took steps to change that. He had an electronic antenna mounted to the bottom rear of his skull that allows him to “hear color” by turning light frequencies into vibrations that he can then interpret as sound. The ability to hear light-waves allows him to observe frequencies invisible to the human eye such as ultraviolet and infrared light. He became the first legally recognized cyborg after Harbisson fought the British government for the right to keep the antenna once it was discovered in his passport photograph.
There have been several breakthroughs in cybernetics helping the blind see. In Canada, a man missing his right eye used a wirelessly transmitting video camera connected to a prosthetic eye to film a documentary on his eye prosthetic. The camera can record 30 minutes of footage at a time before the battery loses power. It is a modern marvel that so much technology could fit into such a small space.
Furthermore, in 2002, a man had a television camera connected directly to his brain, bypassing his non-functioning eyes altogether. Dots of light formed shapes and outlines of the world before him allowing him to see. Unfortunately, the device failed after only a couple weeks and the technology’s inventor died leaving nearly no documentation behind. However, it proves that one day giving the blind sight will one day be a possibility.
What Does the Future of Cybernetic Enhancements Look Like?
It is hard to imagine what the future of cybernetic enhancements will look like. Human augmentation does not appear in science fiction novels too frequently, perhaps because writers want their readers to relate to the characters, put themselves in the characters’ shoes, and really connect on an emotional level. It is easier to connect to a human with similar physical and mental abilities to you than a human who trades out his cybernetic parts like you upgrade the motor and transmission in your truck. However, the literature exists. Here are the 10 most common human upgrades in sci-fi, anime, manga, and video games.
Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge bio-gerontologist, identified what is believed to be the seven only causes of aging. These are protein cross-links, cellular junk, extracellular junk, mitochondrial and chromosomal mutations, cell depletion, and supernumerary cells. If scientists can find cures for all seven of these indicators, visionaries believe humans can live forever.
Surprisingly, human flight is already a reality. Yves Rolly is a former military pilot and successfully flew 7,750 feet above the Alps in a 10-foot wide aerofoil weighing 110 pounds and costing nearly $300,000. This makes human flight outside of hot air balloons, airplanes, and helicopters out of reach for most of the population. However, in as little as a few decades, the weight, size, and cost of these airfoils may decrease and allow people to fly with nothing but a small jetpack on their backs that unfolds and folds with ease.
Disease immunity may become a reality in the next 20 to 40 years. Scientists are working on artificial antibodies that function better than natural antibodies. These are tiny robots that work inside the human body, taking up minimal space and moving faster than other cells, they will eliminate all risk of contracting a disease and not be rejected by your body’s immune system.
The future is here, and it is exciting. Executives are taking chemicals to enhance their mental capacity and memory. Former pilots are flying with jetpacks. Inventors are running at 25 miles per hour. All of this is thanks to cybernetic enhancements. As exciting as what technology can already do is wondering where it will take us in the future.Fortunately, the future of human augmentation looks promising. It can allow us to fly like a bird, protect us from diseases, treat us for cancer based on our individual needs, and perhaps give us everlasting life. Only time will tell what is in store for us and future generations but there is no doubt our quality of life will improve, and watching it unfold is exciting.