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The inexorable march of the cyborgs

29 April 2010

When will we all become ‘cyborgs’? Some researchers might have specific time frames in mind, but IEEE member, Antonio Espingardeiro* thinks it's already happening. A decade ago, Kevin Warwick, head of the Cybernetics department at the University of Reading, implanted a radio chip in his own arm, causing quite a media stir. The implant allowed him to operate doors, lights, and computers without touching anything. On a second version of the project he was even able to control an electric wheelchair and produce artificial sensations in his brain using the implanted chip. Professor Warwick had become, in his own words, a cyborg.

The idea of a cyborg - a human-machine hybrid - is common in science fiction and although the term dates back to the 1960s it still generates a lot of curiosity and begs the question: when will humans and machines merge?’ Mr Espingardeiro suggests that technological advances are all too readily ‘pigeon-holed’ into distinct periods - before the PC and after the PC, before the Internet and after the Internet, and so forth. In reality, he believes most technological advances unfold slowly and gradually, and that is particularly true with the technologies that are allowing us to modify or enhance our bodies. But radio chips like Professor Warwick's are just
one of several technologies people have had implanted in their bodies.

In a recent IEEE Spectrum blog, Rodney Brooks asserts that our merger with machines is already well underway. “We replace hips and other parts of our bodies with titanium and steel parts,” says Mr Brooks. “More than 50,000 people have tiny computers surgically implanted in their heads with direct neural connections to their cochleas to enable them to hear. In the testing stage, there are retina microchips to restore vision and motor implants to give quadriplegics the ability to control computers with thought. Robotic prosthetic legs, arms, and hands are becoming more sophisticated.

“And then there are other things still further out, such as drugs and genetic and neural therapies to enhance our senses and strength. While we become more robotic, our robots will become more biological, with parts made of artificial and yet organic materials. In the future, we might share some parts with our robots.”

Mr Espingardeiro concurs. He says there's been tremendous progress in the development of advanced prosthetics in recent years. Two examples are Dean Kamen's DEKA Research bionic arm and the award-winning artificial hands and fingers developed by the UK based company, Touch Bionics. These devices are already transforming the lives of people who have received them.

Consider the case of Dawn O'Leary, a woman from Maryland who had both arms amputated after an accident. She was fitted with a prosthetic hand by Touch Bionics called i-Limb. The device uses sensors on her skin to pick up nerve signals that direct movement of the bionic digits, enabling her to carry out complex tasks such as grasping the handle of a cup. You can see a video of Mrs O'Leary trying the device here

These are just two examples of how technologies are evolving in our path to cyborg life. Along the way, Mr Espingardeiro warns we'll have to address many safety, privacy and - most importantly - ethical issues. Nevertheless, the advantages of becoming bionic people are all too enticing, in his view. Imagine a time when we'll all become part of a ubiquitous flesh-and-silicon world where our bodies and devices are constantly communicating. Or, as Professor Warwick described in an article in Wired magazine:

“Will we evolve into a new cyborg community? I believe humans will become cyborgs and no longer be stand-alone entities. What we think is possible will change in response to what kinds of abilities the implants afford us. Looking at the world and understanding it in many dimensions, not just three, will put a completely different context on how we - whatever ‘we’ are - think.”

Les Hunt

*Antonio Espingardeiro studies the ethics associated with healthcare robots and the management policies for implementing these devices into future societies. He believes that machines of every type and design - not necessarily robots with human faces - will soon be able to help us in our daily tasks in the home. He holds an MSc in robotics and automation from the University of Salford and is currently conducting independent research entitled “Robotics Management in Modern Societies”.

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