Thanks to the editors of Medgadget for inviting me to visit and contribute as a guest blogger. As an introduction, I am an Ob Gyn Fertility Specialist with a special interest in the development of surgical tools and procedures and the translation of new technology to medicine. My blog, docinthemachine, focuses on the impact of future technology on medicine. I look forward to posting here frequently.
The bionic man is far more than a cheesy 70’s TV show. The idea of a human-machine interface has now become reality. In the next decade we will only see an explosion of these developments.
The greatest progress in bionics so far has been in the the realm of retinal implants and prosthetic limbs. Recent reports of clinical trials in blind cats and humans have included miniature video cameras that send electrical signals straight to the brain while others are chips with tiny electrodes implanted into the retina. There are even developments working to interact with individual retinal light sensing cells.
Just as video cameras are increasing resolution and shrinking chip size, a new retinal implant has been developed that ups the resolution of the retinal chip implant four-fold. A description of the project’s history can be downloaded here and MIT Tech review reports the start of clinical trials.
The device, developed by Mark Humayun and colleagues at USC, consists of a tiny chip dotted with hair-thin electrodes. When implanted in the retina, the electrodes transmit electrical signals from the chip to neural cells in the eye, which then send the message to the brain. A wireless camera mounted on glasses and a video processing unit worn on the belt capture and process visual information from the wearer’s surroundings and wirelessly transmit those signals to the chip.
The new version of the implant… has quadrupled the number of electrodes-from 16 to 60.l. The researchers recently received permission from the Food and Drug Administration to start human tests.
In the next decades as these implants progress and expand, we will be faced with two major philosophical questions: 1) would you choose a bionic implant if it could enhance your abilities and 2) at what point do these human-machine creatures cease to become human. If You Transfer Your Mind to Robot Which One of You is “You”?
Kurzweil and others have been forecasting the coming of the technological singularity for some time. The term, coined by Vernor Vinge, describes the creation of “humans 2.0” when man and machine become connected in the creation of a new type of being. For more background information on this concept and predictions for it’s coming in the future read here. As Vinge writes:
The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater-than-human intelligence.
You can read my thoughts on how far people will go in the future to enhance their bodies here. If you think plastic surgery is the rage of body enhancement – wait until we get performance enhancing bionics and cognitive enhancing drugs and implants! I predict the first major performance enhancement “crisis” will be the release of upcoming drugs that eliminate the need for sleep for days while enhancing performance without addiction or rebound.
If you want more human-machine bionic borg examples look here for a video and link fest of implants in development or, if you want to go cut the human out altogether, here for a video of the most life-like android ever made programmed with sophisticated artificial intelligence features that can recognize babies vs. adults its creator and people it has seen before.