Popular sci-fi TV shows like HBO’s Westworld and Netflix’s Altered Carbon explore ideas of what it means to be human in a world of technology that lets a person transfer their consciousness into a cloned or artificial body. It’s natural for viewers to wonder how plausible such advances are.
While we may not yet have the ability to upload our thoughts and personalities onto disks and swap them in and out of bodies, there have been many breakthroughs in recent decades that bring to mind classic science-fiction tropes like the cyborg and lab-grown replacement body parts.
One field of medical science that’s seen a lot of progress is ophthalmology. Implantable eye prosthetics are helping to restore the sight of some patients who have lost their vision due to specific conditions like retinitis pigmentosa. The first so-called “bionic eye” was implanted in an 80-year-old man in Manchester, England, in 2015. Ray Flynn, who suffered from age-related macular degeneration, was given a retinal implant that converts video images from a tiny camera in his glasses. While his sight wasn’t fully restored, he was able to discern the direction of white lines on a computer monitor.
Flynn isn’t alone, either. Artist Neil Harbisson was born with a rare condition called achromatopsia, or total colour blindness. He developed a sensor on a head-mounted antenna, which is connected to a microchip in his skull. The “eyeborg” converts colours into sounds (Amy Winehouse is pink and red, cellphone ringtones are green), which Harbison hears via bone conduction in his skull. In the 2000s, Harbisson won a battle with the British government to have his eyeborg implant recognized as a part of his body; it now appears in his passport photo.
Limb Replacement and Augmentation
Another area that has seen many impressive breakthroughs in recent decades has been the replacement or augmentation of limbs. Many cutting-edge prosthetic limbs look like they come direct from science fiction, such as Ottobock’s “bebionic” articulated hand (billed as “the world’s most lifelike bionic hand”).
Georgia Tech College of Design has also developed a prosthetic that allowed musician Jason Barnes to once again play the drums and piano. While many of these and similar technologies are state of the art – and expensive, with a computer-assisted prosthesis costing anywhere from $18,000 to as much as $100,000 – they do provide a glimpse into a future where three-armed robotic drummers may not be uncommon.
There are also major breakthroughs being made in efforts to help paraplegic and quadriplegic individuals. Science magazine shared the story of Ian Burkhart, who was paralyzed from the shoulders down when he was 19. Messages sent by his brain couldn’t reach his muscles due to his severed spinal column. But thanks to electrical stimulation technology, Burkhart can once again use his hands and even play video games like Guitar Hero. He does this with the aid of a microelectrode array implanted in his brain that reads signals and sends them to a gel sleeve he wears on his arm, which in turn, stimulates his muscles and allows him to move. While the procedure does involve invasive surgery and is not yet in wide use, it shows that incredible progress is being made.
The advent of 3D printers has led to several innovations in various fields, and medicine is one of them. In 2017, an Australian man facing the loss of one of his legs after an infection had rotted away much of his shinbone got a new tibia, thanks to 3D printing. In the first such procedure in the world, Reuben Lichter had a 36 cm artificial bone, created from a polymer and “printed” in Singapore, transplanted into his leg as a “scaffold” to allow a new bone to grow. And while Lichter still faces a long road before being able to walk normally again, the alternative to the ground-breaking operation was amputation.
Such procedures are expected to become more common in coming years. A so-called “hyperelastic bone” is another option that shows promise; it’s cheap to produce, flexible, and has the potential to be extremely useful in developing countries.
Your Brain on the Internet
Our minds being stored as digital data is far from being a reality – science hasn’t even fully determined what, precisely, the mind even is. “At this point, we do not have a remotely complete picture of what features of the brain give rise to thinking, personality, sensations, etc.,” says Susan Schneider, from the University of Connecticut’s Department of Philosophy and Cognitive Science Program. But in some subtle ways, we are already on the path to uploading our minds – at least in part. It may not be what many of us think of when we hear the word “cyborg,” but the ubiquity of smartphones has already turned many of us into machine hybrids, of a sort.
Studies have linked the rise in smartphone use to a decline in memory function, as we no longer need to mentally recall as much information as we did a few decades ago. (Why memorize a phone number when you can just save it into your device? Who needs to remember certain facts when the answer is a Wikipedia search away?) A 2015 study by Kapersky Lab coined the term Digital Amnesia, describing it as “the experience of forgetting information that you trust a digital device to store and remember for you.” We’ve essentially turned the internet into an extension of our brains. It may not be quite the same as phantom limb syndrome, but who hasn’t been gripped by anxiety at the realization that you don’t have your phone on you?
It’s clear that we’re being changed by technology in fundamental ways. Is it good or bad? While there are certainly some negative aspects to advancing technology, many of those advances are also helping people with disabilities and other challenges live fuller, more rewarding lives. It’s not so much about the technology itself, but how people use it.
Justin Anderson | Staff Writer