Should we become Cyborgs?
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.
At first it opened slowly and shakily, as though uncertain who its owner was. But when Burkhart engaged his wrist muscles, its upward movement was sudden and decisive. You could hear the joints – unused for years - cracking. The scientists and medical staff gathered in the room burst into applause.
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. When he lost his right eye in a shotgun accident in 2005, the Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence replaced it with a wireless video camera that transmits what he’s seeing in real time to his computer. Last year, the electronic engineer Brian McEvoy, who is based in Minnesota, made himself a kind of internal satnav by fitting himself with a subdermal compass.
“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.
Ever since the earliest humans made stone tools, we have tried to extend our powers. The bicycle, the telescope and the gun all arose from this same impulse. Today, we carry smartphones – supercomputers, really - in our pockets, giving us infinite information and unlimited communication at our fingertips. Our relationship with technology is becoming increasingly intimate, as wearable devices such as Google Glass, Samsung Gear Fit (a smartwatch-cum-fitness tracker) and the Apple Watch show. And wearable is already becoming implantable.
In America, a dedicated amateur community — the “biohackers” or “grinders” — has been experimenting with implantable technology for several years. Amal Graafstra, a 38-year-old programmer and self-styled “adventure technologist”, has been inserting various types of radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips into the soft flesh between his thumbs and index fingers since 2005. The chips can be read by scanners that Graafstra has installed on the doors of his house, and also on his laptop, which gives him access with a swipe of his hand without the need for keys or passwords. He sells it to a growing crowd of “geeky, hacker-type software developers,” he tells me, direct from his website, Dangerous Things, having used crowdfunding to pay for the manufacturing (he raised almost five times his target amount).
Graafstra, a hyper-articulate teddy bear of a man, is unimpressed by wearable devices. “A wearable device is just one more thing to manage during the day. I don’t think people will want to deck themselves out with all that in the future,” he says, dismissing Samsung Gear Fit as “large, cumbersome and not exactly fashionable”. Instead, he envisages an implant that would monitor general health and scan for medical conditions, sending the information to the user’s smartphone or directly to a doctor. This would be always there, always on, and never in the way – and it could potentially save a lot of doctors' time and money as fewer checkups would be necessary and health conditions could be recognised before they became serious.
Graafstra defines biohackers as “DIY cyborgs who are upgrading their bodies with hardware without waiting for corporate development cycles or authorities to say it’s OK”. But, he concedes,“Samsung and Apple aren’t blind to what we’re doing. Somewhere in the bowels of these companies are people thinking about implantables.” He mentions Motorola’s experiments with the “password pill”, which sends signals to devices from the stomach. (The same company has filed a patent for an “electronic throat tattoo” which fixes a minuscule microphone on the skin so users can communicate with their devices via voice commands.)