It has been a while since I last talked about prosthetic devices. For reference, see here, here, and here. This is part one in a several part series, but I intend to put out the whole series over the next week. What are the hottest new things to come out in the last year or so? Let’s start from the top, make our way down, and pretend this is Deus Ex.
Direct brain augmentations are still getting off the ground, but there has been a lot of movement in this area.
Take, for instance, the first pacemaker for Alzheimer’s disease implanted in the United States just a few months ago. This little device has already been used for Parkinson’s patients, and could boost both memory and cognitive resilience. The device essentially runs an electric current through the brain in an effort to electronically stimulate the brain into regaining some of its functionality.
Similar electrical stimulation turns out to be really good for pain relief, too. Speaking to the benefits of implants over medication, University of Michigan senior researcher Alexandre DaSilva says:
“Instead of giving more pharmaceutical opiates, we are directly targeting and activating the same areas in the brain on which they work. (Therefore), we can increase the power of this pain-killing effect and even decrease the use of opiates in general, and consequently avoid their side effects, including addiction.”
Non-implant versions of this (called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation) have shown some success in boosting the capabilities of humans functioning at a normal level. Indeed, the Focus headband is currently awaiting FDA approval. Various less corporate “body hackers” and “grinders” are trying to put together a similar device from readily available parts and believe they can help make these devices more efficient and compatible.
For all this, however, brain implants and brainwave detecting technology are just starting to hit the mainstream. Companies like IntraXon are creating devices that can sense brainwaves and use them for everything from video games to fitness and entertainment. There are even kids toys the use the technology, like the Star Wars Force Trainer.
(If this isn’t the future, I don’t know what is.)
Some very primitive experiments involving telepathy are already being conducted. For better results, the doctor says, he would need to implant the devices into the brain instead of use an external sensor. Admittedly, unless the results were -much- better, it doesn’t seem that the results justify sticking bits of tech in one’s brain just yet.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the various other Brain Control Interfaces (BCIs) that are being developed to control other things, but I’ll talk more about them in relation to various prostheses for limb replacement in another post.
Lest all this brain augmentation seem a little scary, you can take some comfort in the fact that Ray Kurzweil thinks you’re still you, even if you are jacked into a handful of neural implants. The philosophical jury is still out on whole brain replacement, but that’s a little outside the scope of this update.
Outside of the brain proper, implants are also able to restore the ability to hear in some patients. This implant, for instance, replaces the middle ear and uses bones to transmit sound to the inner ear.
“The technique has been designed to treat mechanical hearing loss in individuals who have been affected by chronic inflammation of the outer or middle ear, or bone disease, or who have congenital malformations of the outer ear, auditory canal or middle ear. Such people often have major problems with their hearing. Normal hearing aids, which compensate for neurological problems in the inner ear, rarely work for them. On the other hand, bone-anchored devices often provide a dramatic improvement.”
The implant should be ready implantation by doctors within a year or two.
The ears, it turns out, are also viable power sources. By using nerve cells in the ear, wireless transmitters and other neural implants can function without the need for an additional power source – at least for short periods of time. Reducing the need to charge electrical implants is crucial in making those implants viable in the long term, and so this early research is encouraging.
A variety of implants, all aimed at restoring sight to the blind, have emerged recently. The MIT Technology Review put together a nice survey of these technologies at the end of 2012.
As they note, currently existing technologies often restore sight, but produce crude, roughly 60 pixel displays. This crude image is clearly better than nothing, but is hardly the sort of advanced technology for which anyone would give up their biological eye.
Yet, better technology is in the works. The next generation plans to nearly triple the resolution – moving from 60 electrodes to 200. An Israeli company has produced a prototype, currently being tested in pigs, that contains over triple that number – 676 electrodes – and believes the technology is scalable up to 5,000 electrodes.
It doesn’t take much to imagine that this technology will eventually give people 20/20 vision – or better. Remember that camera technology in cell phones rapidly moved from cruddy images in the late 1990′s to phones released just last year capable of 41 megapixel and 3-D images. In fifteen years, if the same technological progress holds, bionic eyesight might be much better than biological eyesight.
In addition to restoring sight to the blind, or perhaps upgrading current biological sight with enhanced resolution bionic eyes, a whole host of other technologies can be integrated into bionic eyes. Broadly speaking, augmented reality is the superimposition of additional images or information onto another image. Think, for instance, the yellow first-down line in football broadcasts. In this case, we’re talking about overlaying information onto sight.
While a complete overview of augmented reality is well outside the scope of this article, we are already beginning to see AR technology in devices. The much hyped Google Glass ought to be out this year and promises some amazing experiences.
Other technology integrates contact lenses and glasses to allow the user to focus on objects both near and far with the same eye – something difficult to do with glasses-only technology. Google’s augmented reality game Ingress uses cell phones to overlay a massively multiplayer game onto the real world, requiring participants to go to real world locations to affect in game objects. Linking this sort of augmented reality game with Project Glass or a bionic eye means that the user will be able to experience an entire world that is invisible to those people without the device or implant. Augmented reality, used this way, can literally create an entirely new layer of existence. Indeed, because more than one program can create these realities, multiple worlds can be superimposed onto the same physical space – a sort of virtual multi-worlds hypothesis made true on a single physical plane.
To conclude this portion, take a look at this post, where I explore the possibility of augmented reality in the legal setting (it’s not all fun and games, after all!) and the video below, Sight, which explores the potential for augmented reality and bionic eyes.
John Niman is an Affiliate Scholar, a J.D. Candidate at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His primary legal interests include bioethics and personhood. He blogs about emerging technology and transhumanism at http://boydfuturist.wordpress.com.
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