The Future of Cyborgs

When we think about cyborgs, most people picture Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator; a futuristic combination of man and metal. But what many people don’t realise is that there are cyborgs living among us today, and that they’re actually pretty common! People with cochlear ear implants and pacemakers could be called cyborgs, since they use technology to assist with the function of the human body.

So how does current cyborg technology work, and will we ever become like the Terminator?

Is this what cyborgs of the future will look like? Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bionic hearing and bionic vision

The chances are that you already know someone with bionic hearing. The cochlear ear implant is already in widespread use, restoring the hearing of people who are either partially or totally deaf. It works by recording sound with a microphone and then using an electrode array to stimulate the cochlear nerve, which transmits auditory information to the brain.

The modern cochlear ear implant was actually developed by an Australian, Professor Graeme Clark from the University of Melbourne. Since the first implant in the 1970s, the technology has become an international success, with close to 200,000 people benefitting from cochlear ear implants worldwide.

Cochlear ear implants restore hearing to people who are deaf. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

So we have bionic hearing, but what about sight? Well it turns out that bionic eyes do exist, and although they’re not as widespread as ear implants, they’re quickly progressing towards mainstream usage. One product already on the market is Second Sight’s Argus II, which is mainly used for people with a type of blindness called ‘retinitis pigmentosa’. The implant relays information from a camera to a tiny electrode array in the back of the eye, which stimulates the optic nerve to send an image to the brain.

Melbourne University is also a leader in bionic eye research, developing their own version of the implant in collaboration with Bionic Vision Australia, which offers higher resolution vision than its competitors. It uses components made from special types of diamond, which are longer lasting and safer for the human body than other materials.

A comparison of how an image would be seen using Melbourne University’s diamond eye compared with current technology. Image credit: iBionics (used with permission).

Brain-machine interfaces

Ok, now we are getting really futuristic. The field of brain-machine interfaces is still at an early stage, but has the potential to completely transform the way technology interacts with the human body. There are two types of brain-machine interfaces: machines that stimulate the brain, and machines that can read brain signals.

The technique of brain stimulation has been in use for several years. Deep brain stimulation makes use of implanted electrodes to send electrical impulses to certain areas of the brain. This can be employed to treat a variety of neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.

On the other hand, implanted electrodes can also be used to read out electrical impulses from brain cells, allowing the brain to communicate directly with machines. For example, reading the electrical activity from certain parts of the brain could allow people who are paralysed to regain control of their movements. This can also be used for amputees, giving them the ability to control robotic limbs.

A robotic prosthetic limb developed at Johns Hopkins University which can be controlled by the brain. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Another mind-boggling possibility for this technology is telepathic communication. If we could somehow decode the patterns of electrical signals coming from the brain, then we would be able to send messages with just the power of thought! Recently, a US government study found that it was possible to discern the consonants and vowels of imagined words just by analysing brain signals.

More generally, there is increasing research into using this technology for human enhancement. Some believe that in the future we may be able to use a computer, or ‘exocortex’, to increase our own intelligence.  Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, announced earlier this year that he is starting a new company called Neuralink, which aims to develop new brain-machine interfaces to ‘improve memory or give humans added artificial intelligence’. However, the details of how he will achieve this are still quite sketchy.

The future

The future of cyborgs is full of exciting possibilities, with the potential to restore and even enhance human bodily functions. But like any new technology, we also need to be aware of the ethical implications, and consider how it should be used responsibly. Although we probably won’t have to worry about cyborg assassins like the Terminator any time soon, most researchers agree that it’s important to develop sound ethical guidelines for the use of bionics. Nevertheless, cyborg technology has the potential to transform lives, and make us rethink what it means to be human. Who knows – maybe at some stage in your life you’ll become a cyborg too!

Disclosure: The author is part of the Melbourne University Cybernetics research group which is helping to develop technology for the bionic eye and brain-machine interfaces.

6 Responses to “The Future of Cyborgs”

  1. Andre Chambers says:

    Hi Stella, I’m glad you enjoyed this post. SQUIDs are definitely one way to measure brain signals; the method I’ve focused on in this blog is directly measuring electrical signals via implanted electrodes.

    As to what is means to have a purely mechanical with only a human mind, that’s a really good question! This technology does really make you ask what it is that makes us human, and I don’t think anyone has a complete answer to that.

  2. Andre Chambers says:

    Hi Jennifer, thanks for your comment! Sorry if that was a bit unclear – a cyborg is a person that has machines or electronic devices incorporated into their body. I definitely do think technology will improve in interpreting brain signals in the future, but whether it will ever get to the point of understanding the thoughts inside our heads, I’m not sure.

  3. Andre Chambers says:

    Hi Claudia, thanks for your comment! Yeah that’s right – the small size of the electrode array does put limitations on resolution. But there is still lots of room for improvement in terms of packing in more electrodes into a smaller space which would hopefully give people really good, but not perfect, vision.

  4. S says:

    Hi Andre, very interesting topic. Is the brain-machine interface where the machine is used to read brain signals is the one where SQUIDs are used to measure changes in the magnetic field? I wonder what it means to be a full cyborg with only consciousness in your body.

  5. Jennifer Feinstein says:

    Really interesting blog post Andre. I am interested (and scared) to see what new technologies will be developed in my lifetime! As someone with more knowledge on the topic than me, do you think we will actually be able to read minds in the future?

    Also, maybe would be good to explain what a cyborg is in the first paragraph, as I still don’t really know what it is! 🙂

  6. Claudia says:

    Interesting stuff! I’m surprised to learn that the bionic eye still has room for improvement. I’ve heard from a researcher from the Bionics Institute that there are limitations on the height of resolution of the image due to the lowered efficiency of a smaller electrode.