There’s an old curse which says ‘may you live in interesting times’.
Cursed we are then, for living in very interesting times, especially in the innovative fields of robotics, neuroscience, and biomedical technologies. As we hurtle toward the potential disaster of a robot apocalypse, we should examine the upside of the ongoing cyborg revolution.
It’s easy to see the danger of technological advancement in the recent robots being birthed in university laboratories and military research facilities. Take for example DARPA’s Cheetah robot, the fastest legged robot on the planet; a scary blur of metal running at lightning speed. Or the alarming military robots coming to life via Boston Dynamics, like the massive, alpha male Big Dog, and PetMan, the humanoid robot who has our human movements, but remains devoid of all compassion or care.
This month billionaire inventor Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, made a controversial statement about the dangers of advancements in technology and artificial intelligence (AI). He posted to Twitter that “We need to be super careful with A.I. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” His short description of the perils of rushing headlong into the uncertainty of AI should give everyone pause, especially as Musk this year invested millions in an artificial intelligence firm which works to create machines to mimic the human brain.
Yet even as powerful machines advance, we are harnessing this technology and using it to bring health, happiness, and capability to people.
Strides in Technology
The concept behind bionic augmentations can found throughout history. World War I resulted in a wave of men returning from war who had survived their grievous wounds thanks to better surgery. These veterans became an army of ‘bionic soldiers’ who were fitted with prosthetic legs, enabling them to return to the workforce at home.
In the article “The ‘bionic men’ of World War I“, CNN tells of engineer and professor Georg Schlesinger re-imagining prosthetics at the time: “While earlier prostheses often tried to replicate body appearance, or to follow the inner structural plan of the original appendage — its shape, muscles, sinews– Schlesinger saw no need to do that. He reasoned that airplanes could fly without imitating birds’ wings, so why did prosthetics have to mimic arms and legs?”
Modern bionics companies are outfitting soldiers, amputees, and paraplegics with wearable robotics – bionic devices that can be strapped on to augment strength, mobility and endurance.
Amanda Boxtel, a paraplegic for 20 years after a skiing accident, was able to walk again using a 3D printed exoskeleton suit.
The technology has come so far that a cyborg Olympics has been planned. Cybathon 2016 is to be held in Zurich, and athletes must have a mechanized enhancement to compete.
The Bionic Man
A type of cyborg flesh has been created at Harvard University by merging nanowires, sensors, and human tissue. This combination of half living cells and half electronics is able to transmit data such as heart rate or blood cell count via a sensor network. This tech may one day detect or even target illnesses or tumors.
Biohacking is altering your biology with technological or electronic techniques. Brave (or crazy) ‘do-it-yourself’ bio-hackers have implanted devices in their bodies under their flesh. One such is Tim Cannon, a.k.a “DIY Cyborg” who implanted a bulky computer chip the size of a cellphone under the skin of his forearm last year. The sensor monitored his vital signs and sent the real-time data to his smartphone. Some biohackers end up removing the bionics due to body rejection or other complications.
All in The Mind
Global research projects like the BRAIN initiative and the Human Brain Project are creating their own explosion of innovation with the hopes of understanding the brain to cure or manage brain diseases, mental illness, and more.
LiveScience writes of the development of memory prosthetics, aids for “Restoring Active Memory, to create medical devices that measure and stimulate neurons to ease the symptoms of diseases such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression”, as well as a neurotechnology project which is to “develop prosthetic limbs that would restore control and sensation to amputee”.
This new era of bionics and the expansive frontier of 3D printing has created new, adaptive, lightweight prostheses giving new hands, arms, legs and feet. But now more than just unfeeling tools, the technology has come so far in 2014 that a man with a robotic hand can now feel the objects he touches due to an implant which connects the hand with nerves in his arm. This sensory-enhanced prosthetic works in real time. This touch sensation will allow amputees with prosthetics to manipulate objects properly. As this tech advances, the thought is the loss of a limb or hand will be little to no impediment to happy, quality living, and in fact these augmentations may become as commonplace and voluntary as a nose job or knee surgery.
The Eyes Have It
The idea of using technology and electricity to stimulate the retina and restore vision dates back to the 18th century and was discussed by Benjamin Franklin.
In 2012 history was made in Australia as scientists used a bionic eye to restore the sight of a blind woman. The bionic implant reportedly looked something like the model warn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator movie. RT.com described the technology, “The device consists of 24 electrodes attached to the retina. Each time they receive a signal from the outside world, they stimulate the retina, which then sends an impulse back to the brain.” Dianne Ashworth, who received the bionic eye, said “I didn’t know what to expect, but all of a sudden, I could see a little flash…it was amazing. Every time there was stimulation there was a different shape that appeared in front of my eye.”
So while researchers are still undecided about the likelihood of a killer robot apocalypse, they are sure that as the fields of bionics and neuro-technology advance, our health and well-being will improve. The rise of the cyborgs is already well underway.
The future will reveal how humanity copes with super-intelligent computers and robots possessed of hyper-speed and endless endurance. We may need more human cyborgs with the empathy, compassion and wisdom that machines still lack.
These are interesting times indeed.