Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cyborgs on the Rise

A cyborg is a relatively simple concept that is often misunderstood. defines it as “a person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device.”  So we’ve had cyborgs for quite some time.  Anyone with a hip or knee transplant where diseased tissue is replaced by artificial tissue is a cyborg.  Some argue that anyone who uses glasses is also a cyborg, but I’m not too interested in getting bogged down in definitions.

What I am interested in is how quickly this field is advancing.  Progression in this field lightning fast.  People care a lot about their health and are willing to spend good money on it, so achievements once thought impossible are now commonplace.

Check out this video that compares current state of the art technology to that in the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  It follows Rob Spence, who lost an eye in a shotgun accident and had it replaced with an implanted camera.  Rob has given himself the real groaner of a name of Eyeborg. 

In the video, Eyeborg compares current eye, arm, and leg prosthetics to those in the game Deus Ex.  Basically every prosthetic in Deus Ex is bigger, faster, stronger, and once we get to 2027 I bet we’ll be there.  But what I find even more interesting is the philosophical question that lies at the heart of Deus Ex.

David Jönsson, a prosthetics engineer interviewed in the video, sums it up when he say, “I mean, who says that a normal human leg is the optimal thing for you? I mean, the species evolved to this leg that we have now, but who says that is the end of the line?"

That is one of the fundamental questions asked in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  In the game, some people who have normal, functioning bodies have removed biological legs, arms, eyes, etc. to have them replaced with superior augmented technology.  Not surprisingly, the company that supplies the drug that these newly augmented cyborgs need to live jacks up the price on them.  As a consequence, there are riots and other nastiness.

Would I chop off a functional limb to replace it with a superior mechanical device?  Probably not, and I don’t think many people would.  For one, I would worry about companies abusing their power as they do in Deus Ex.  However, if I lost an arm in a car accident or what have you I absolutely would want to replace it with the newest technology.  But I think that’s very different from willingly removing functioning body parts. 

But who knows?  In the future it’s possible that people will be swapping out arms and eyes like they were getting new cell phones.  I’d make an eyePhone joke but Futurama beat me by a few years.

But in the here and now, the real challenge is the brain-computer interface.  A lot of the prosthetics currently are controlled by muscles.  Directly interfacing them with the brain will most likely be the way to go in the future, but it opens a whole can of worms of bioengineering problems.

But past all the science and engineering, what I find so heartening is that this field is dramatically improving people’s quality of life.  It seems like every other week I read about someone who gets a replacement hand who in the past would have had to do with hooks or someone with replacement legs who in the past would have had to make do with a wheelchair.

And the best part about these stories is that it seems like a different company is making each prosthetic.  There is a tremendous demand for these products, and that is reflected by so many companies throwing their hats in the ring.  Good to see. 

This array of cyborg technology is going to have the opportunity to dramatically improve the lives of amputees, the elderly, and the disabled.  There’s a good chance that normal people will start using it to augment their bodies, as well.  The near future is going to be an exciting and scary time, full of ethical dilemmas.  I, for one, am excited to watch it unfold firsthand.

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