When Will We Become Cyborgs?

Some researchers might have specific time frames in mind, but I think a better answer is: It's already happening

3 min read

I remember when, a decade ago, Kevin Warwick, a professor at the University of Reading, in the U.K., implanted a radio chip in his own arm. The feat caused quite a stir. The implant allowed him to operate doors, lights, and computers without touching anything. On a second version of the project he could even control an electric wheelchair and produce artificial sensations in his brain using the implanted chip. Warwick had become, in his own words, a cyborg.

The idea of a cyborg -- a human-machine hybrid -- is common in science fiction and although the term dates back to the 1960s it still generates a lot of curiosity. I often hear people asking, When will we become cyborgs? When will humans and machines merge? Although some researchers might have specific time frames in mind, I think a better answer is: It's already happening.

When we look back at the history of technology, we tend to see distinct periods -- before the PC and after the PC, before the Internet and after the Internet, and so forth -- but in reality most technological advances unfold slowly and gradually. That's particularly true with the technologies that are allowing us to modify and enhance our bodies.

Radio chips like Warwick's are just one of the technologies people have had implanted in their bodies. As Rodney Brooks wrote in a recent IEEE Spectrum article:

Our merger with machines is already happening. We replace hips and other parts of our bodies with titanium and steel parts. More than 50 000 people have tiny computers surgically implanted in their heads with direct neural connections to their cochleas to enable them to hear. In the testing stage, there are retina microchips to restore vision and motor implants to give quadriplegics the ability to control computers with thought. Robotic prosthetic legs, arms, and hands are becoming more sophisticated. I don't think I'll live long enough to get a wireless Internet brain implant, but my kids or their kids might.

And then there are other things still further out, such as drugs and genetic and neural therapies to enhance our senses and strength. While we become more robotic, our robots will become more biological, with parts made of artificial and yet organic materials. In the future, we might share some parts with our robots.

Indeed! In the past few years there's been tremendous progress in the development of advanced prosthetics. Two examples are Dean Kamen's DEKA Research bionic arm and the artificial hands and fingers developed by U.K. company Touch Bionics. These devices are already transforming the lives of people who've tried them.

[youtube //www.youtube.com/v/qyCLuVOmZxo&hl=en_US&fs=1&hd=1 expand=1]

 

Watch the video above to see Amanda Kitts, who lost left arm in a car accident, demonstrating advanced hand control of the DEKA arm in a study at at the Neural Engineering Center for Artificial Limbs, part of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Amazing!

Or consider the case of Dawn O'Leary, a woman from Maryland who had both arms amputated after an accident. She was fitted with a prosthetic hand by Touch Bionics called i-Limb. The device uses sensors on her skin to pick up nerve signals and operate the bionic digits, enabling her to carry out complex tasks such as grasping the handle of a cup. From a report in the local newspaper:

Holding something is what O’Leary was excited to try. She said she was able to hold a mug and pick up a tissue. She said she wants to learn how to use the computer and holding a rod and reel.

One thing she really wants to do is hold a crayon.

"I want to be able to color with my grandkids," she said.

(Watch a video of O'Leary trying the device here.)

These are just two examples of how technologies are evolving in our path to cyborg life. Along the way, we'll have to address many safety, privacy, and most important, ethical issues. Nevertheless the advantages of becoming bionic people are too enticing. I can imagine a time when we'll all become part of an ubiquitous flesh-and-silicon world where our bodies and devices are constantly communicating. Or as Warwick put it:

Will we evolve into a new cyborg community? I believe humans will become cyborgs and no longer be stand-alone entities. What we think is possible will change in response to what kinds of abilities the implants afford us. Looking at the world and understanding it in many dimensions, not just three, will put a completely different context on how we -- whatever "we" are -- think.

What you think?

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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