Sign in

Cyborgs

Brain implants to improve our memory, antenna to transmit electromagnetic signals directly to our brainsubstituting mobile phones, magnets or RFID chips implanted in our hands as a replacement to passwords and keys, machines to read our brain, etc.… One might think that all of these are science fiction, but not anymore. Humans have long been fascinated by fiction. Cyborg is an offshoot of the wild imagination of humans to invest in our species with power that does not come naturally. You might get a picture of movie characters like Terminator or Darth Vader or the Borgs in Star Trek in your mind on reading this. This might soon be going to become a reality.

The Past…

Enter the Nyctalope

The concept of the man-machine was widespread in science fiction before World War II. As early as 1843, Edgar Allan Poe described a man with extensive prostheses in the short story “The Man that Was Used Up”. In 1911, Jean de La Hire introduced the Nyctalope-man with a mechanical heart and excellent night vision, a science fiction hero who was perhaps the first literary Cyborg, in Le Mystère des XV. This was later translated as “Nyctalope of Mars”. Later, Edmund Hamilton, in his 1928 novel “The Comet Down,” presented space explorers who were hybrid of man and machine.

In 1960, Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined the term’ Cyborg’ to describe man-machine systems wherein the human being is modified with electronic devices or drugs to live in an environment different from usual. ‘Cyborg’ actually stands for ‘Cybernetic Organism’- Organism augmented with technology to improve its performance.

The Cyborgs……

Johnny Ray, a Vietnam veteran, became the world’s 1st Cyborg in 1997 when Phillip Kennedy, a scientist, and physician, inserted an implant he designed- a neurotrophic electrode near Ray’s brain. Ray had suffered from a stroke, and his doctors called that his body had ‘locked in’. Kennedy’s implant helped Ray get back some movement in his body. Even though the surgery was successful, Ray died in 2002.

Many pioneering experiments were conducted in the following years to design and develop such implants to help the distressed. Kevin Warwick initiated one such series of experiments in 1998. A former professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, Kevin’s experiments involved the neuro-surgical implantation of a device into the median nerves of his left arm to link his nervous system directly to the computer. Kevin’s surgery was successful, and using himself as a guinea pig, he embarked on a mission to become a complete Cyborg. Kevin is also popularly referred to as ‘Captain Cyborg’.

Clockwise from top: Kevin Warwick with his prototype; Neil Harbission; Jesse Sullivan with his bionic arms and Stelois Arcadio with his artificially implanted ear.

In 2004, Neil Harbisson permanently attached an antenna inside his skull. Neil is the first human to be legally called a Cyborg. Neil was born with extreme achromatopsia(extreme colour blindness). His antenna has 2 implants- one for vibration or sound and the other a Bluetooth implant. With the help of this Bluetooth implant, he can connect to the internet and receive colours from satellites and other people’s cameras directly to his brain. He also can receive phone calls directly into his skull.

Stelios Arcadio or Stelarc is a maverick performance artist. He believes that the human body is obsolete, and to prove this, he has got an artificially-created ear surgically implanted in his left arm. He also performs with robots and used them in crazily different ways- even letting them control him.

Jesse Sullivan, an electrical linesman in 2001, met with a tragic accident in which he lost both of his arms. Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago helped Jesse in replacing his arms by substituting his arms with bionic limb. Now he can control his bionic arm by his mind. If he thinks that he has to lift to hand, certain muscles in his chest contract, and the bionic arm interprets this as an instruction to move in a certain way. He can even feel the temperature, how much pressure his grip applies as well. Few doctors even consider people using hearing devices as Cyborgs as these devices help differently able people live an everyday life.

The Present…

The examples mentioned above are just a few successful experiments. A lot of research and workforce is being put in in recent times to develop Cyborg technologies. Bionic prosthetics have become incredibly advanced. Even though prosthetics don’t give us the feel of a silky texture of the cloth, things like electronic skin are being designed to help the wearer pick up and feel objects more naturally.

BioStamp- a product of MC10

MC10, a company started by University of Illinois material scientist John Rogers has launched products that use stretchy electronics for health monitoring applications. If it’s placed on a person’s forehead, this device can read the brain’s electric activity and provide an electroencephalograph of our brain just as accurately as conventional devices. When these kinds of devices are surgically attached to our chest near the heart, they can fully oversee cardiac activity and even possibly function as low-energy pacemakers or cardioverter defibrillators(control irregular heartbeat). In collaboration with L’Oreal, MC10 has produced My UV Patcha stretchable skin sensor that monitors and measures user’s UV rays exposure when affixed anywhere on the body. It also contains photosensitive dyes that change colour based on the level of UV exposure it receives.

In 2014, scientists from the University of Illinois and Washington State University developed a device that could keep the heart beating endlessly. Scientists have also developed an electronic membrane that can replace pacemakers. ‘Spider web’ like network of electrodes and sensors are used to maintain and monitor heartbeat with electrical stimulus. Thanks to 3D printing which had made all this possible.

Artificial eye produced by the scientists at Hong Kong University

Researches at Hong Kong University have recently produced eyes that mimic their human counterparts. Their device design has a high degree of structural similarity to a human eye. They have fabricated an electro-chemical eye with a hemispherical retina made of a high-density array of nano-wires, which performs the function of the photo-receptors of the human retina. Their device has a variety of applications, one being bio-mimetic photo-sensing devices.

DARPA’s Nerve-Muscle Interface to aid wound healing

Cyborg technologies are even being used in warfare. Defence Advanced Research Projects, Agency(DARPA) is making leaps and bounds in the use of Cyborg technology in warfare. Their Land Warrior, Objective Force Warrior, and Warrior Web projects aim to equip soldiers with high-tech suits, computers, advanced communication gear, head-up display, and even robotic exoskeletons for greater protection and increased mobility. At the same time, DARPA is also doing neural mapping and brain manipulation experiments. Even though these have not been implemented, the results of these experiments are very promising. A technique called Trans-cranial Direct Current Stimulation(tDCS) has been shown to enhance the concentration and alertness of soldiers. tDCS is a non-invasive, painless brain stimulation that involves using direct electrical current to stimulate certain parts of the brain.

The Future….

The practice of integrating technology with the human body is happening more often and beyond the medical field, thus setting the stage for the next chapter in human evolution. Many researchers even believe that we have already started walking down the path towards a Cyborg future. An example of this is our dependence on bionic ears, insulin pump technology, prosthetics, etc… As advanced Brain-Machine Interfaces are being discovered, it is for sure that we will blur the boundary between man and machine in the near future.

Inorder to encourage Cyborgs and sports amongst the Cyborg community, a bi-annual Cyborg Olympics or Cybathlon was started. The first Cybathlon was conducted in 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. In this event, about 16 teams participated from all over the world. Disabled athletes used technologies to turn them into Cyborg Athletes. This event consisted of tests of powered exoskeletons, arm and leg prostheses, powered-wheelchair races, Brain-Computer Interface(BCI) races, etc…

Cyborg Olympics

Vance Bergeron, a Chemical Engineer turned Neuroscience researcher, met with an accident in 2013 and lost full control of his legs and could only partially control his hands. As soon as he got well enough to use wheelchair, he started researching prosthetics and functional electrical stimulation(FES)- a technique to deliver electrical signals to rudimentary limbs, causing the muscles to contract and restoring function to an extent. Using himself as a guinea pig, Bergeron and his team artificially stimulated his legs to produce at most 20 watts of power. Even though this is just 1/10th of power produced by a cyclist, he and his team are building FES controller and electrodes into a carbon fiber recumbent tri-cycle. Beregron hopes to participate in future Cybathlons.

Few reports tell that Pentagon is doing highly confidential experiments to produce Super Soldiers- who can be deployed anywhere in the world at any time. Their body performance could be substantially increased with the help of nano-sensors that monitor their health status constantly, nano-needles that release drugs whenever necessary, and possibly even nano-robots that heal wounds quickly in the war field. Reports tell us that Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, MIT is doing highly classified research on the development of biotechnology for human advancements. Chips(EEGs) are being developed, which when embedded in soldiers’ helmets, might help them control weapons through the power of their thought.

Neuralink, a company backed by SpaceX and Tesla CEO- Elon Musk is trying to fabricate the first neural implant that will let us control a computer or a mobile phone from anywhere we go. They are also developing Neuralink App-which enables a user to remotely control keyboard, mouse, and iOS device directly with their brain activity. Neuralink is also creating technologies to help people with paralysis to regain independence through control of computers and mobile devices. They are also designing devices that give people the ability to communicate more easily via text or speech synthesis.

Neuralink’s neural implant and electrode array.

Nativity and elimination is nature’s rule. It takes around 25–30 years for the birth of a new generation in humans and about thousands of years to complete one mutation in the evolutionary process. As we are living in a technologically competitive world, this process can either be hastened or even directed as we wish. Technology is also playing an important role in natural selection.

Human needs are not limited. As time passes, new technologies are being invented to help us. Today mobiles and computers have become our masters. Our vehicles are our feet, calculators our mind and Google our memory. The difference between the Carbon and the Silicon is decreasing day by day. The humanness in us is slowly eroding as we depend more and more on technology. Stephen Hawking told the German news magazine Focus in 2001, “ We must develop as quickly as possible technologies that make possible a direct connection between brain and computer so that artificial brains contribute to human intelligence rather than opposing it.” If a large number of people fear that AI can take control over humans, a fair number of people also believe that it is the next step in evolution as we plan to colonize Mars. Whatever be the ethical limitations, humans would be forced to become Cyborgs at some point in future . An amalgamation of ‘Man’ and ‘Machine’ will be one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of Science. We peeps need to fasten our seat belts and get prepared for the exciting Cyborg future.