What types of human augmentation are there, and how might they be used in the future?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is often touted as a technology that will eventually replace humans in many jobs. A more nuanced view, however, is that AI will allow us to work faster and “smarter”, eventually perhaps by augmenting human workers with AI systems.
Human augmentation is a field of research that aims to enhance human abilities through the use of medicine or technology. This may include genetic modification, implants or the use of external tools, such as eyeglasses, “bionic” limbs or other wearable devices.
So, what types of human augmentation are there, and how might they be used in the future?
The bionic human
There are several areas where human augmentation is being developed. One of the most active is in the development of prosthetics, or “bionics”. This includes the creation of prosthetic limbs to help amputees, robotic exoskeletons to help the paralyzed to walk and robotic gloves to help those with limited range of motion in their hands.
An extension of this is the remote presence exoskeleton, a type of robot that can be operated remotely – with the robotic exoskeleton mirroring the movements of a human operator. The operator could even wear VR glasses to see from the robot’s perspective. This would allow humans to operate at a distance in hazardous environments such as inside nuclear power stations and on deep-sea exploration.
By adding a feedback loop, sensory data could also be transmitted from robot to user, making the use of virtual limbs more accurate. This type of augmentation has obvious benefits, and could even extend to the replacement of other body parts, such as eyes, ears, and even internal organs.
But before you start measuring yourself for your very own Iron Man suit, there are a number of big hurdles to overcome. These include the need for an efficient power source and a way to accurately transmit senses, such as the sense of touch, from the limb or organ directly to the brain.
The connected human
The next step is neuroprosthetics, a direct interface between the brain and a computer, which can enable robots and prosthetics to be controlled using thought alone (this has been covered in detail in a previous Tech Explained article). The goal of this technology is to allow the human brain to interact directly with devices and computers, controlling them with our mind.
For example, Synchron is working on an implantable device, called the Stentrode, that aims to provide a safe way for paralyzed patients to achieve direct brain control of mobility-assistive devices, and companies such as Neuralink and Neurable are developing brain-computer interfaces that allow people to control software and devices using only their brain activity.
Neurotechnology is a similar area of augmentation, focusing on improving human cognition. For example, start-up Kernal is working to “hack the human brain” and create, among other things, “neuroprosthetics” that could be used to enhance memory. Other companies are working on ideas such as sending weak electrical pulses into the user’s brain to enhance the efficiency of physical training (Halo Neuroscience) and using brain stimulation to treat depression (Flow Neuroscience) or Parkinson’s disease.
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One possible endpoint for this line of research is the merging humans and computers by using implant technologies to create biotechnology-based hybrids. The technology needed to do this is still more science fiction than reality. However, a number of companies are working in this area in a more limited way. For example, UK-based BIOS is building what it describes as a “USB connector for the body,” an implant which would allow amputees to control prostheses using brain signals.
The altered human
Nootropics are another area of augmentation. These are often described as “smart” drugs whose aim is to enhance the process of thinking. They include everything from Adderall to organic dietary supplements.
While most non-prescription nootropics are relatively harmless, they are also relatively ineffective. Prescription nootropics that may have some effect, such as ADHD drugs, have unpleasant side-effects and should never be taken without a doctor’s prescription. But this has not slowed the industry down. A 2019 report by Zion Market Research estimated that by 2024, nearly $6 billion will be spent globally each year on nootropics.
Finally, there is gene editing. The development of techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 offer relatively fast and cheap methods for precise gene editing. This holds out the promise of not only eliminating deadly genetic diseases but of recoding our genes to create “designer” humans.
Aside from the ethical implications, the physical effect of these techniques on humans is still unknown. That has not stopped the research from proceeding at a lightning pace, buoyed by the promise of big profits for the company that can use gene editing to cure diseases.
Overall, while strides have been made in a number of augmentation technologies, the advent of the cyborg, or human-computer hybrid, is probably still a distant dream.
Written By: Lisa Magloff
4th August 2020