Redefining ‘Human’ with the Future of Bionics
In 2003, scientist Ray Kurzweil first tested a computer chip designed to replace the hippocampus, the area of the brain often damaged due to disorders such as Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases. In 2015, Ray Flynn received the first bionic eye transplant and in 2013 the first entirely bionic human (named Frank), with fully functional biological systems, was revealed.
Human bionics was once just a dream, a revolutionary piece of science fiction, but it now stands actively in labs, hospitals and within human beings – thanks to the work of forward-thinking scientists and research. Nowadays, human bionics are everywhere; from the artificial limbs and smart pancreas to the cochlea implants, brain chips and smart tattoos.
What is 'Human Bionics'?
Human bionics is defined as technology designed to perform or aid in a biological function or perform an advanced function within the human body.
There are vast arrays of different versions of bionic technology, which can be placed into two distinct categories.
For the Advancement and Benefit of Medicine
Medicine is constantly advancing; scientists worldwide are working tirelessly to cure disease and understand the human body. Humans are living longer, healthier lives and in the last few years we’ve made significant advancements, some of those advancements are a direct result of the application of bionics.
Prosthetic limbs are a well-known version of bionics and go several steps above the standard modern-day prosthetic limb first seen in 1863 by Dubois Parmelee. Nowadays, bionic prosthetics can learn the user’s style and behaviour to achieve greater comfort and efficiency (prosthetic knees, for example). Prosthetic hands can connect to a computer (or the brain), a command can be given and a function performed and they can even learn the difference between picking up an egg and picking up a cup
Prosthetic limbs were just the start of bionics since then we’ve produced artificial organs such as the smart pancreas, the Argus II retina implant and more. All designed to replace the biological organ and, in some cases, send data back to a centralised hub regarding the usage and health of its user.
Detection and repair
The truly innovative and fascinating side of bionics in medicine is the bionic implants designed to detect illness and cancerous cells. One day, bionics may be able to detect and repair those anomalies before they pose a threat (such as pre-cancerous cells, heart conditions, epilepsy etc.) Implants, that can communicate vitals, alleviate pain, heal and control the heart rate, are all currently used or in development (the heart-rate controlling defibrillator has been in use for over five years.)
For the advancement of technology and improved ease-of-life
Bionics aren’t all about medicine, though, the technological breakthroughs have allowed scientists and doctors to specialise in developing bionics that improves the ease of life:
- Magnetic implants into the fingertips are becoming increasingly popular. Magnets are implanted just under the skin to allow the user to effortlessly capture metallic objects and ‘feel’ or detect magnetic fields.
- Smart temporary tattoos comprising of a mesh pattern on the skin, allowing you to open your car, unlock your smartphone, make payments etc. with just a swipe.
The future of bionics
Before we go to the future, let’s look at the past. 200 years ago medicine was in its infancy, amputations often resulted in death, infection was widespread and transfusions were around (since the 1660s) but very new. We now take those things for granted. So, what if all the things that we now view as fatal (such as cancer, heart attacks, brain disorders etc.) are curable or avoidable and this fact is taken for granted by humanity 200 years in the future?
We can’t really know what we will become but we do know that we are constantly advancing and that with the application of bionics, the sky really is our limit. Samuel O. Poole’s paper from 2008 titled “The Morphological Basis of the Arm-to-Wing Transition” spoke about our desire to fly, about how to fashion wings out of human bone and tissue. With bionic technology in development that can build bone and other cells, what if the humans of the future could grow wings and fly?
The use of bionics could see us enter a phase of designed evolution, where technology makes up for our shortfalls and the delicacy of the human body. We could create eyes that saw more of the colour spectrum, cochlear implants that heard beyond our current wavelengths, limbs that could scale mountains and dust that can detect illness.
The morality of a bionic future
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” from the book Lest we Forget by Lt. Col Carlos Keasler.
Just because we have the ability to improve ourselves with bionics, should we? At what point do we stop being ‘human’? Is it when our organs are replaced? When our brain is a computer? When we invite nanotechnology to repair us?
So, the question remains, should we be doing it? Besides, isn’t a bit late for that when we’re already halfway there?