Cybernetic Enhancement: How close are we to a new you?

The union between machine and man has long been a fascination for futurists and scientists alike. With every passing decade the Transhumanists, a cultural and intellectual movement who view technology as a way to transcend the boundaries of human limits sees their goal draw nearer and nearer.

Even popular entertainment is becoming aware of the entwining between machine and man. Movies such as Ghost in the Shell celebrate this union and see it as giving rise to new possibilities in the expansion of human development. Other more cautious sources such as the Star Trek series have given us the machine self in the guise of the Borg, not as a liberator of human limitations but as a yoke which sentient life lives under the bleak tyranny of the uncaring omniscient machine. While games like Eidos’ upcoming Deus Ex: Human Revolution use the entire question of human enhancement as the moral motor to the game’s narrative. 

Are you already chemically augmented?

On what ever side of the argument in which one stands one thing is becoming clearer: human augmentation is not only coming, it is already here. Consider the illegal use of drugs and chemical doping in professional sports. Anabolic steroids, Benzedrine and other chemicals seek to widen the margin between competitors that are pushing their limits. In turn they are pushing the limits of what we consider within the human realm of human possibility.

Augmentation is already all around us. Caffeine is a well known stimulant and the active ingredient in both energy drinks and coffee. Many people may not even realize to what extent their morning coffee affects their neural chemistry. Some are even going as far as becoming dependent upon this caffeine fueled energy boost to shake away the effect of morning drowsiness.

The same case can be put forth for wholly illegal drugs may it be uppers or downers. The crux of enhancement question lies with the decision to change one’s circumstances and not the change itself. In short using exterior means to enter a desired state. 

All of this does not even take into consideration the medicine that many of us take to function normally, may it be painkillers or anti-inflammatory agents. Drugs have so far been used to maintain a certain quality of life but how long until they are used to enhance it? 

So from that we can ascertain that the main difference between medical drugs, illegal drugs and the performance enhancing drugs mentioned above is social acceptability. But for groups that are more worried about performance than acceptability the question of chemical enhancement is moot. Armies across the world have prescribed amphetamines to sustain alertness in pilots sometimes irresponsibly putting them over the acceptable limits that result in tragedies such as the tragic death of three Canadian soldiers during the war in Iraq. (http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/news/2003/02/57434).

It is safe to assume that when more extreme forms of enhancements appear the armies of the world will probably have no qualms about using them, especially if it can take a disabled soldier and return him to duty.

An arm and a leg

And thus we come to the next step of enhancement.  The casualties of modern war are now more often the loss of limb due to the majority of the wounding through improvised explosive devices (IED). As such DARPA and military contractors have every reason to look into artificial limb replacement as a valuable field of research. Some surprising advancements have been made by some unlikely sources, namely Dean Kamen, the eccentric inventor of the Segway. The prosthesis, known as the “Luke Arm” is still in the prototype stages but it’s implication for the augmented future is staggering.

Here are a few examples below of what the Luke Arm can do:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0_mLumx-6Y&feature=player_embedded

http://blog.ted.com/2008/02/16/dean_kamens_arm/

As you can see, gone are the clumsy pincers of yesteryear, this is only the beginning.

Even more surprising is that some artificial limbs are actually outperforming human legs for specific tasks, for instance, running. The Cheetah leg designed for sprinting has actually outperformed human sprinters. So much so that charges were brought against the wearer, Oscar Pistorius claiming that the artificial limb was better than human and thus ineligible for Olympic competition.

To know more about Oscar Pistrious’ fight against the Olympic Committee see the full story here: http://www.slate.com/id/2191801/

There may even be a time when artificial limbs will become a means of self expression, as is the case for Aimee Mullins who has taken limb specialization to new heights. She made them into works of art and embraced the individuality that her artificial limbs brought to her. See her inspiring story here: http://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics.html

   

Less invasive human enhancement is Lockheed’s new exoskeleton suit aptly named the HULC. Worn as a harness this harbinger of the super soldier is being field tested as we speak. They even have a promo vid:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZ_qR8zCLDc&feature=player_embedded#at=31

 

Neural Interface

But why bother with limbs at all? One of Science fiction’s biggest tropes is the direct neural interface, the ability to control machine interfaces with your mind. Gone is the need for buttons, dials and switches. Even the era of dramatic arm sweeping of haptic controls and the stern commands of voice activation may be over before it ever begins. And again it is the innovations to help those of us who are most challenged that bring an answer that may collectively change everything about how we interact with machines.

Brown University and its partners have begun to test what they call Braingate technology. In essence it is a small electroencephalogram that picks up electrical impulses and allows it to be used to move a cursor on a screen. The technology was originally developed to help quadriplegics be able to communicate through a computerized interface. The project has since grown into many ideas including crossing the interface with neuromotor prosthesis. Amazingly, it is actually very easy to learn how to control the cursor through thought alone.

But why stop there, why not eliminate the good old QWERTY keyboard entirely? The applications of this technology teamed with wireless telecommunications are nearly limitless. No more remote controls, your television, computer’s power switch or favorite website could be a thought away.

For more information on Braingate technology see the following site:  http://www.livescience.com/6909-brain-power-mind-control-external-devices.html

        

20 minutes into the future

All of the technologies in this article are but a few years away from the market and each of them will have a profound impact, revolutionizing on how we communicate, act, play, work and live. We already live in an augmented world and Moore’s law continues unabated, with every leap forward our tools doing more and more. It is only a matter of time before we enhance ourselves in ever more dramatic ways to keep up with them. The demands of multitasking increase with every human generation and soon it will be the physicality of our bodies that slow us down. Those who spearhead innovation will be looked upon with curiosity by some and disdain by others but as it became with coffee it will gain in social acceptance and over time become so commonplace that it will be those who resist the change will be looked upon with the same curiosity and disdain as the forerunners were.

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