The Cyborgs Are Coming

Posted by Peter Cochrane on January 1, 2002

Peter Cochrane ConceptLabs CA, Co-Founder

Our species is on a course to becoming a part of our own technology. Millions already carry sophisticated electronics embedded in their bodies: pacemakers, artificial hearts, respiratory stimulators and pain relief modules are now installed in prolific numbers to sustain otherwise threatened lives. At the very edge of experimentation total paraplegics are controlling computers by thinking, the sightless seeing for the first time, and the limbless or spinally damaged able to move and interact. How? Small chip size sensor and radio units implanted in the brain transmit neural pulses to a computer, and humans train themselves to move a mouse and select keys. An artificial silicon retina implant has given very poor resolution sight to a few people previously unable to see. Robotic limbs have been connected directly to the human nervous system. Finally, attempts to bridge spinal cord damage have given patients the first sense of feeling from limbs in decades. At this point I feel I must point out that all of these miracles of technology look like crystal sets from the early 1900s compared to a modern TV. This is the scale of difference between where we are and where we have to get to for a fully engineered, patient adequate, performance. But on the upside, our technological progress is far faster than in 1900 - so we may not have long to wait.

Cyborgs really are among us: half human - half machine is a state that is not far away. But it does not have to be like the Borg in Star Trek, it does not have to be ugly and threatening, it can be beautiful, it can repair and restore people. I have a vested interest in these technologies as I am becoming increasingly deaf, and my pancreas dysfunctional. To date my left and right ears are 25dB and 15dB down respectively, whilst my hearing range is below 9kHz - about half the norm. As a result, conversation in a noisy room is difficult for me, I'm always deafening my family with the volume of the TV and hi-fi, and I find myself increasingly prone to shout. I suspect my lifestyle and weakening pancreas will soon see me resorting to Insulin. This is all a new and interesting experience, and whilst I instantly receive sympathy for my diabetes, not so for my deafness!

Of course my wish would be to have my hearing and other shortcomings repaired and restored using the same materials of which I am constructed - carbon - and I suspect that genetic engineering will get us their sooner than we expect. Artificial hearing elements such as cartilage for lobes, skin for drums, and linkages to the inner ear are available. However, an artificial cochlea sub-assembly connected directly to the auditory nerve seems to be a long way off. I suspect these possibilities may be another 25 years away from reality. In the short term I will happily subsume any form of electronic technology into my body to overcome my current and worsening physical limitations. However, my inclination would be to enhance my hearing well beyond the original specification our species evolved to, and I would also include other facilities such as an implanted radio, pager and mobile phone. I have recently taken to experimentation with highly sensitive hearing augmentation involving microphones, low noise amplifiers, and ear inserts. It is interesting to discover what I am missing! The breathing of someone across the room, birds singing 500m away, the brush of feet on carpet, and the rustle of clothing as people walk.

If I can enhance my hearing, then I immediately want to enhance my sight. To see into the infrared and ultraviolet, to be able to switch colour in or out for the advantage of contrast available with black and white, all on command, would be life and survival enhancing. But it is in the area of visually enhancing hearing that I suspect we would gain most. For me, one of the worst features of going deaf is a degraded spatial awareness - ambient noise seems to play an important part in my perception processing. I would be significantly advantaged if this ambient noise could be presented visually as a peripheral coloration on a spectacle or active contact lens display, along with text messages, and other awareness enhancing features such as noise direction and intensity indications. Another interesting opportunity I could add to my wish list is a real time speech to text display. Subtitles on every conversation, TV broadcast and movie would be a real boon. The basic technology is available today, only it is far too slow for real-time communication, but in less than 20 years it should be possible.

Predicting the future has always been very risky, but in a curious way the speed up of technology development is making it easier, especially as all our past efforts turned out to be so pessimistic. The future just seems to arrive faster every year! So as we go into the early part of the new millennium, look out for increasing numbers of electronic implants in people, appliances and artefacts. Healthcare, remote working and repair, education, trading, news, entertainment, and almost everything will be online, and if we continue to wear more technology, and accept more implants, then so will we. And if we can control our functions and our devices through implants and thinking, then there is also a real chance we will also be able to communicate with each other by the same means.

By the year 2025 our computers will be over 1,000,000 more powerful than today, and our relationship with technology will have been transformed far more than in the previous 100. In some respects a Borg society is inevitable, and we will all be able to communicate and control by thinking, but it doesn't have to be black, it can be made rich and life enhancing!

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