It has always been in the nature of mankind to employ machinery to improve the quality of our lives, and the productivity of our work. We, as a species, will always push the boundaries, applying new knowledge to create fresh, innovative ideas. All technology has both creative and productive potential, yet never before has our kind been on the cusp of such a radical, evolutionary step.
A PROSTHETIC LEAP FOR MAN-KIND
Today, amputees can be fitted with a synthetic leg giving them a new lease of life. Sensors and microprocessors within the prosthetic limb are able to pick up nerve pulses directly from the brain enabling its user a full range of movement. However, these cybernetic parts are not yet capable of sending messages back to the brain, providing a sense of touch that a person usually experiences, but the progression to this next step is well on the way. One cannot deny that this technology is life changing for those who need it, and such innovations should be continued to be researched and developed, providing a better quality of life for many.
With human augmentation already so advanced, it is easy to imagine the development of further integrated artificial components in the not too distant future. Synthetic organs may become more than the ray of hope to amputees that it is today. Soon, augmentation will likely be marketed to the masses as a catalogue of upgrades that would give abilities that have previously existed only in comic books. Improved vision with Zoom capability, or hearing that can isolate particular sounds with laser precision and adjust volume with a thought. Arms that are capable of lifting incredible weight and being able to run at speeds previously believed impossible.
The future may hold non-anthropomorphic additions to the human body, such as wings to be attached to the shoulder blades enabling us to experience the skies in a much more personal and connected way. Muscle re-configurations will soon allow us to sense and feel exoskeletal augmentations, combining man and machine and allowing human beings, control over their own evolutionary path.
THE ETHICS OF SYNTHETICS
A great prospect and vision for most developers who stand on the cutting edge of augmentation technology, is in providing the human body with abilities normally considered supernatural. Such things as telepathy and telekinesis could become a reality. Neurological technology could anticipate intended words or movement through the thought process mapped in the human brain. Utilising wireless radio frequencies, it is conceivable that we could have the ability to communicate our thoughts directly to the intended recipient over vast distances.
One of the challenges that this form of techno-telepathy would surely face would be how to overcome possible violations to our personal privacy. Any system such as this would be based on a computer interface that would directly interact with the mind, and any computer system has the potential to be hacked.
If this synthetic / biological arrangement was in any way vulnerable to attack, an individual’s personal security and privacy becomes virtually non-existent, placing themselves and their loved ones at great risk. There is also the question as to whether someone could place thoughts into another using the same technology that is used to read them.
To appreciate how truly close to this technology we already are, it has been reported that researchers at The University of California, Berkley ran an experiment to visually construct the thoughts of those participating. They had their volunteers watch movie trailers, and then later, to think of them and remember while attached to the team’s equipment. The experiment actually produced recognisable, low-resolution video fragments of the trailers from only the thoughts of the willing test-subjects.
This is far from tomorrows dream. So how secure is a secure system? Well, every designer of some form of secure network will attest to its unbreakable walls, right up to the point that some hacker smashes them down. This may be of little concern, if the only content on the hard drive is photographs of your dog or complaint letters to your local council. But, when the hard-drive is your mind, your secret desires, passions and dreams, well that is something else altogether.
We are all naturally entitled to the private sanctum that is our mind, and creating technologies that violate this may well become one of those things that we would wish to un-invent.
All technological discovery throughout human history was either conceived for military application or at the very least, weaponised in some form or another. Augmentation that would increase strength, speed and agility would surely be kept hidden within the military industrial complex for many years before being released to the general public.
Whilst we can appreciate the potential for both positive and negative applications for the commercial use of this technology, surely there can only be one result of its use as a weapon, and that is destruction. Automatic ammunition fire that locks on to a target through the soldier’s vision, never missing a shot is merely a step up from technologies that are already in existence.
The Apache helicopter, described by many as an ‘absolute death machine’, tracks the head movements of the pilot to lock onto targets approximately 150 km away with a huge compliment of missiles at its disposal as well as its 30mm automatic gun canon. To apply this deadly accuracy to each individual soldier would have the potential to completely decimate an entire city in a very short space of time.
When this human augmentation technology is released to the masses, we have the potential for a government, a terrorist organisation or a corporation to see what you see, hear what you hear, and record this information whenever they choose to. Whether they would do this or not is beside the point. The real question is, should we give them that level of power?
Immortality remains the ‘Holy Grail’ for all major companies and innovative individuals who pioneer the development of human augmentation technology. Could I transfer my entire consciousness into a digital form to be installed onto a computer system, to live forever as the ghost in the machine?
New research may take this idea of living forever away from the pages of fictional fantasy and horror novels, and plant it firmly into the ground of our reality. The information existing inside the brain is stored within the synaptic connections between neurons. There are about 100 billion neurons in the human brain, and each neuron, every pathway would have to be scanned, mapped and then digitally reconstructed with a precision that allows 0% margin for error in order to not only behave as a biological brain, but potentially contain the experiences, thoughts and memories of the person being scanned.
In truth, the driving force behind this research is in gaining a complete understanding of the brain, but those at the frontier of this exciting new technology, freely admit that it could hold the key to a kind of immortality.
In 2014, the simple brain of a round worm was scanned and then later, a digitalised simulation was installed into a simple LEGO™ robot. The machine then began to move around the room without any human interaction or intervention required, seemingly of its own freewill.
At the Allen Institute in Seattle, scientists were able to successfully map and digitally reconstruct a cubic millimetre of a mouse’s brain. Even though the size of this may seem insignificant, that grain-of-sand sized piece of rodent mind contained 100,000 neurons and over a billion synapsis. This was done by first slicing the brain 25,000 times as thinly as 40 nanometres, which is about one fifth the thickness of a human hair. Of these slices, millions of images then had to be taken. So, this may give you an idea of the sheer immensity of the task of mapping a human.
That said, we are certainly well on the road toward this achievement, and once completed, we may finally be able to answer some of those age old philosophical questions of consciousness and what exactly makes us individually unique.
MENTALITY OF MANKIND
Evolution deprived man of many natural advantages that other creatures of this planet possess. Some sea creatures, including a particular species of Starfish, can regrow their severed limbs. Others, are given fangs that can chew through bone like butter and claws that can scale vertical surfaces with ease. For human beings, we were gifted with such beautiful minds, capable of creative thoughts and a will to bring these ideas into existence. Whatever mistakes that we have made, it is this evolutionary advantage that has ensured our species’ survival down the ages as the dominant life-form on this planet. To deny the reality of technological augmentation in human biological systems in the near future, is as futile as standing against the powerful oceanic tides. We can only embrace these tides of change with a vigilant awareness of the dangers that inherently lie in our exploration of dreams, and our continued effort towards making the impossible a reality.
©Written by Christopher Roper