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Science Behind the Fiction: How close are we to merging human and machine?

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Feb 21, 2018, 4:00 PM EST

A long-favored trope of science fiction books and films is the violent machine uprising. Franchises like The Terminator and The Matrix show us a world in which machines have passed us by and humanity must fight for their continued existence. What if there were another way?

Everyone's favorite neighborhood billionaire, potential supervillain, and real-life Tony Stark, Elon Musk, suggests that the day when machines outpace us in terms of performance and intellect is inevitable and if we have any hope of keeping pace, we'll have to merge with them. That day might be closer than we think. Estimates from some futurists place the technological singularity only a few decades away.

When faced with an adversary smarter, faster, and stronger, an entity objectively better than us in every conceivable way, our only saving grace might be to turn to the old adage. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

While technological enhancement is often regarded as a product of fiction, humanity has a long and storied history of making people better, faster, and stronger. Hearing aids are common enough as to be taken for granted. Prosthetic limb replacements date back to at least 710 B.C.E. and glasses that restore vision to those who would otherwise be functionally blind are so ubiquitous as to be fodder for ridicule instead of the technological marvels they are.

The field of bionics aims to take human enhancements even further, realizing wonders like Batou's eyes in Ghost in the Shell and Klaue's arm in Black Panther and bring them from screen and page into the real world.

We've come a long way in prosthesis technology since the 3000-year-old toe and the peg leg, thanks in no small part to the ravages of war. The limb replacement boom in the United States can be traced back to the Civil War, when some 60,000 battlefield amputations were completed with an impressive, for the time, 75 percent success rate. Once the battles were concluded a large segment of the population was in need of prostheses. Government subsidies became available and any time a public need and funding meet, innovation occurs.

The relationship between war and advancements in prosthetics technology is well established and modern conflicts are no exception. In the last ten years, DARPA has pumped more than $144 million into research to combat loss of limb. It's unfortunate that such a relationship must exist but the sad reality is that many researchers depend on the funding that armed conflict brings to do their work. This cloud, however, has a lining of titanium and electricity and the results are astounding.

Hugh Herr, head of the MIT Media Lab's Biomechatronic's group, has developed, along with his team, an array of fantastic limb replacements. Utilizing the latest in technology they've been able to hijack the body's own signals to create devices capable of incredible form and function.

In 1982, Herr lost both of his legs to frostbite in a mountain climbing accident. Undeterred by perceived disability, he designed prostheses that put him back on the mountain better than ever.


"I didn't view my body as broken. I reasoned that a human being can never be 'broken.' Technology is broken. Technology is inadequate. This simple but powerful idea was a call to arms, to advance technology for the elimination of my own disability, and ultimately, the disability of others," said Herr, during a 2014 Ted Talk.

Taking that same approach to the lab, Herr and his team have developed bionic limbs that not only replace missing body parts but can enhance existing ones. Exoskeletons developed at MIT take up the effort normally expended by walking such that, according to Herr, "when a normal, healthy person wears the device for 40 minutes and then takes it off, their own biological legs feel ridiculously heavy and awkward."

Herr and his team at MIT aren't the only ones tackling the interface between the physical and the technological when it comes to prostheses. Touch Bionics has developed the i-Limb Quantum, a prosthesis that responds to signals sent from connection points on the body and capable of complex movements. These devices allow users to effectively control their new limbs with their minds similarly to a natural limb, through a non-invasive interface.


While the results are impressive, the holy grail of limb replacement is a seamless interface with existing neural pathways that are capable of both input and output. New research out of the University of Chicago hopes to solve that particular problem.

Researchers worked with three Rhesus monkeys who had previously had limbs amputated as a result of accidents. What's most impressive is that these injuries were not recent, the oldest of which occurred ten years prior. By implanting electrodes in the brain, the monkeys were able to learn to control a robotic arm and grasp a ball with only their thoughts.

What's most impressive is that prior to implantation of the electrodes, the neurons needed to control that behavior had eroded, likely from lack of use after injury. The brain was able to establish new pathways, suggesting that the age of an injury is not a barrier to rehabilitation. Similar research at the University of Pittsburgh confirms the results.


It's easy to see how the culmination of advancements from various teams and sectors might, someday soon, result in devices capable of function indistinguishable, and even improve upon, our natural capabilities.

Similar efforts are being explored in the realms of hearing and sight. Cochlear implants bypass the ear, directly stimulating the nerves responsible for hearing and restore auditory sense. Restoring sight the blind is, at the moment, a more difficult barrier to cross. The best technology we have is capable of restoring a sense of light and shadow as well as the outlines of objects. Some patients even report the ability to make out individual letters and symbols.

These devices utilize chips implanted in the eye, bypassing damaged cells. They take in visual information and stimulate the optic nerve directly. This requires a functioning optic nerve, making the technology suitable for only a fraction of the blind community. Recently, however, Second Sight, a company based in California, won approval from the FDA to test a new device.

The Orion, based on their previous device, the Argus II, utilizes a camera based on a pair of glasses that gathers visual data and transfers it to electrodes implanted in the visual cortex of the brain. This strategy bypasses the eye entirely, making it suitable for users without intact optic nerves. In fact, patients need not have eyes at all. Similar limitations remain, however, in terms of the signals received. Light and shadow can be distinguished, as well as outlines, but no color or fine detail. Researchers at Second Sight are hopeful that future advancements will improve visual results.

Each of these lines of inquiry aims to replace or improve ordinary physical functions but others hope to do even more. By interfacing the brain with technology some futurists hope to take us beyond what is recognizable as ordinary human ability.

Thomas Reardon of CTRL-Labs has developed a device that takes signals from your arm to control a computer. Users are able to type and play games with nary a movement. The underlying idea is that large portions of the brain have developed to control your hand. Considering it's the primary way with which we interact with the world, there is considerable computational power in your head, directed at your arm and fingertips. By tapping into those signals, Reardon and company hope to interface with machines in ways we've never considered.

First and foremost is shortening the interface time with the devices we use regularly, your phone and computer. Rather than spending the time to tap individual keys on a keyboard, you might only have to think about what you want to say and be able to communicate at a hundred words per minute or more with minimal effort. John Krakauer, a science adviser for CTRL-Labs, (not to be confused with the mountaineer and best-selling author of Into the Wild believes the possibilities are more extensive. "Take whatever body abstraction you are thinking about in your brain and simply transmit it to something other than your own arm. It could be an octopus."


The central hypothesis here is that our brains are capable of more than their currently doing. What untapped capabilities are lying in wait for the technology advancements and the outlets to let them loose? Musk, along with contemporaries believe the potential is there and are investing in technologies like neural lace in the hopes that future developments will unlock unforeseen human/computer potential. If the trajectory of current technology is any indication, what it means to be human might be a subject for heated debate in the near future.