Homo electronicus

By Robert Hickson 22/02/2013 2

If you could have bionic bits, would you, should you? Which ones? Currently your options are limited, but that seems likely to change over the next couple of decades. There is increasing activity in wiring up appendages and organs to the brain. As recently noted by Miguel Nicolelis, cyborgs rather than Singularity seems more likely. Lots of money is going into research to better understand and manipulate the brain.  

Pace makers, defibrillators and cochlear implants have been around a while now, and despite high costs are routinely inserted in more affluent countries.

A bionic hand that can feel as well as move is being tested, as is an arm controlled solely by thought .

The FDA has just approved a bionic eye implant that can restore some vision (it’s been available longer in Europe). The device, made by Second Sight Medical Products, costs US$100,000 and has 60 electrodes that need to be wired up. Future developments aim to increase connectivity, and hence vision quality. Costs will also probably fall. Similar devices are also being developed by others.

Researchers have also given rats a new sensory capability as they investigate how to rewire the brain.

DARPA’s investing in developing a brain-computer interface to help handles lots of data, as well as other enhancements to improve soldiers physical and mental capabilities. The large numbers of military and civilian casualties from Afghanistan and Iraq is also stimulating development of advanced prosthetics and implants.

As far as I know, no one with normal hearing has had an implant to make them hear better, and rewiring your retina to have x-ray or eagle eye vision also seems unlikely for most people. More probably people will go for cheaper and less invasive external enhancements, like electronic contact lenses, or advanced Google glasses. Some implantable devices that can communicate with external devices or brain signals are also much easier and cheaper to insert, so have the potential to be more widely used.

Some people are interested in introducing RFID chips into themselves (or their children). Kevin Warwick has had several operations to introduce electronic components into himself as part of his research. However, some RFID recipients now regret their decisions or recognise that they weren’t sufficiently well informed.

The increasing number of chemical and electronic “enhancements” becoming available raise concerns about the ethics, equity, privacy, liability and long term safety of them . What if your employer required or encouraged some enhancements to enable you to work more effectively, efficiently, or safely? Or cyborgs were more likely to be employed?. What if an implant to correct a medical condition results in other unforeseen enhancements

There is a sense that we’ll become more intimate with electronics this Century, through choice or obligation. That’s not a done deal, widespread public discussions on the issues are only just beginning.

2 Responses to “Homo electronicus”

  • I assume Aimee that you mean improvements in every domain that your current body provides you with?

    ie. you would forgo bionic arms if they gave you enhanced strength but reduced feeling? (or range of movement, or dexterity [-1 to dexterity!], etc)

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