The second problem, which is the one I want to discuss here, is that of "by what path" will these augments come into the social consciousness. How will we come to accept the artificial replacements of our natural functions? I believe that it will happen through the medical field. Included below are some videos that show some of the remarkable advances in function replacement through technology that have happened in the last few years.
There are real hurdles to having technology improve our natural performance. As Dean Kamen mentions in the fourth video in this post; "(Our arm) is way, way, way better than a plastic stick with a hook on it, but there's nobody here who would rather have it than the one they got." Our technology is still trying to catch up to natural function, and lags behind in many crucial aspects.
However, we have been able to take some amazing first steps. Remember, in most of our lifetimes we have gone from computers that took up entire rooms to ones that can fit in your hand and out-perform those early models by several orders of magnitude. Just recently, in 2010, doctors in Britain and China have independently produced photosensitive chips that can restore sight to people with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that causes the light-sensitive rods and cones in the retina to deteriorate. Below is a video of a Finnish man, who had been completely blind, now able to recognize table settings and even read! Image, in 40 years, what the smartphone version of this technology could do.
Also, in breaking news, brought to us by the guys who made BrainGate, which allowed people to control a cursor on a computer screen by thought alone, comes BrainGate2, which allows people to move a robotic arm just like they would their own limb. In the video below, a paralyzed woman who hasn't moved her limbs of her own volition in 15 years is able to pick up a thermos and take a sip of coffee. Technology like this could revolutionize treatment for paralysis, and is likely a first step to full-on cybernetic bodies, especially when paired with the work done by Dean Kamen and Darpa (see next videos). Also, they hope to be able to use the decoding software that translates the brain's impulses to bridge spinal cord faults, possibly allowing paralyzed people to use their own limbs again... in a rough estimation of a technological nervous system.
In this report, the capabilities of DARPA's newest prosthetic arm is showcased. These arms are controlled by nerve impulse rather than directly by the brain. This results in a more precise and natural level of control than that of the BrainGate system, because it's one less set of logistical hurdles to overcome. It works well for people who have lost limbs, and would not work well for people suffering from various forms of paralyzation. They are even working on a rough approximation of haptic feedback by moving nerves that would transmit touch sensation to places on the shoulder and side that mechanisms in the prosthesis could then press on in order to let the wearer gauge the amount of force applied by the arm, or even gain improved fine motor coordination through more delicate control of individual fingers. Imagine the eventual combination of these two technologies, and the eventual use of similar techniques for leg prosthesis.
In this video, which is quite long, but worth it to watch in full (if you just want the technical stuff, the first 7 minutes cover the meat of it), Dean Kamen, the creator of the DARPA arm, talks about the challenges, triumphs and reasons he is so passionate about this work. The desire to replace what was lost, especially for those who have served in the military, I believe will propel this research into the realm of augmentation. As Dr. Kamen said; "I'll stop when your buddies are envious of your LUKE arm."
And in a similar vein, here is a TED talk given by Aimee Mullins, a paralympic athlete (and main guinea pig for the sprinting prosthetic legs that Oscar Pistorius uses, who I'll talk about next), and model. She talks about the ability of prosthesis to not only be functional, but beautiful as well. She talks about how, through the imagination of children, and the envy of friends ("You're so tall! That's not fair!"), prosthesis can possibly take us from merely human into the superhuman.
Finally, Oscar Pistorius is a paralympic athlete from South Africa, dubbed the Blade Runner and The Fastest Man on No Legs. He was born without fibula (similar to Aimee Mullins above) and had his legs amputated below the knee when he was less than a year old. He is currently one qualifying race away from making the 2012 London Olympics in the 400m. Yes Olympics, not Paralympics (he'll be competing there, too), but the real thing, against the most able of able-bodied men. A man with no legs, with the use of technology may soon be competing in the most prestigious athletic competition in the world. He was actually banned for a short time from the Beijing Olympics because the IAAA thought his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage. Here is an excellent interview with Pistorius in which he talks about all of the things that have brought him to a place where he can make such spectacular history.
We are verging, in many ways, on the ability to match or exceed human ability with our technology, and it is my firm belief that through our attempts to give back to people what they have lost, we will slide unbeknownst into augmentation. When the first person chooses to replace a natural limb with an artificial one, or the first person decides to implant a chip which lets him surf the web or use an external computer, we will have truly entered the time of the cyborg. Once that happens I don't think there's going to be much that can slow it down.
There are many hurdles, however. Next time I will be talking about those hurdles, and what we may be able to do to clear them.