Forget wearable tech. The pioneers of our post-human future are implanting technology in to their bodies and brains. Should we stop them or join them?
Ian Burkhart concentrated hard. A thick cable protruded from the crown of his shaven head. A sleeve sprouting wires enveloped his right arm. The 23 – year-old had been paralysed from the neck down since a diving accident four years ago. But, in June this year, in a crowded room in the Wexner Medical Centre at Ohio State University, Burkhart’s hand spasmed into life.
The technology that made this possible, Neurobridge, had successfully reconnected Burkhart’s brain with his body. It was probably the most advanced intertwining of man and machine that had so far been achieved.But such milestones are coming thick and fast. Quietly, almost without anyone really noticing, we have entered the age of the cyborg, or cybernetic organism: a living thing both natural and artificial.
Artificial retinas and cochlear implants (which connect directly to the brain through the auditory nerve system) restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. Deep-brain implants, known as “brain pacemakers”, alleviate the symptoms of 30,000 Parkinson’s sufferers worldwide. The Wellcome Trust is now trialling a silicon chip that sits directly on the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, stimulating them and warning of dangerous episodes.
A growing cadre of innovators is taking things further, using replacement organs, robotic prosthetics and implants not to restore bodily functions but to alter or enhance them.“This is the frontline of the Human Enhancement Revolution,” wrote the technology author and philosopher Patrick Lin last year. “We now know enough about biology, neuroscience, computing, robotics, and materials to hack the human body.”
The US military is pouring millions of dollars into projects such as Ekso Bionics’ Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC), an ‘Iron Man’-style wearable exoskeleton that gives soldiers superhuman strength. Its Defense Advanced Research Projects Association (Darpa) is also working on thought-controlled killer robots, “thought helmets” to enable telepathic communication and brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) to give soldiers extra senses, such as night vision and the ability to “see” magnetic fields caused by landmines.
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