What really makes a cyborg? The hybrids have an interesting place in modern culture: from Terminator, RoboCop, or Inspector Gadget, there’s always a futuristic atmosphere that surrounds them. If we go off the definition created by scifi media through the ages, a cyborg is just part human, part tech. In this case, we’re already in the era of cyborgs.
How Medicine is Creating Cyborgs
When you think about a cyborg, you probably imagine someone built for combat; in reality, the cybernetic technology available today is mainly employed to aid those in need. People with disabilities ranging across paralysis, amputations, blindness, bone loss, and more are all benefiting from the new innovations.
The University of Pittsburgh and its Medical Center have been able to create a robotic arm that actually allows its user to feel pressure. Nathan Copeland, a thirty year old man with tetraplegia, paralysis in all limbs, was the first test subject. He was equipped with a prosthetic and four small electrodes placed in the sensory cortex of the left hemisphere of the brain, the part of the brain that allows for touch. With this device, Copeland was able to feel pressure that was applied to his right arm. This project goes further than just giving people with missing or paralyzed limbs back their motor functions. With this program, and further research, patients may actually regain their sense of touch. This is a serious breakthrough that can increase opportunities, independence, and quality of life for to those who need it.
Technology is also giving back eyesight. One current product on the market is the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, a compact combination of a retinal implant, glasses, and a video processor. The Argus II operates much like the human eye does.
The data composing an image is collected by a camera embedded in the glasses, then is sent first to the video processor, then back to the glasses, and then wireless transmitted to the retinal implant. The implant sends pulses through the optic nerve to the brain, and this creates light patterns. The system was made to combat retinus pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that creates dark deposits on the retinas. The symptoms range from night blindness, to tunnel vision, to only being able to see bright flashes of light.
While the technology does not yet have the ability to entirely return normal eyesight, and is unable to communicate color and intricate detail, the Argus II does give back the ability to see light differences. This may not seem like a big deal to those of us with full sight, but it can make a large difference in day to day tasks for those who have this disease. This product is already being improved upon, and scientists believe that they’ll only get closer to restoring full vision as they pursue current research.
Thanks to modern technology, we can even regrow bone. The “hyperelastic bone” is a 3D-printed material made out of: hydroxyapatite, a mineral that exists in our bones that provides is a strong material encouraging cell growth; a solvent that joins the layers of the 3D printing together; and polycaprolactone, which allows for flexibility.The researchers first tested this new “bone” on the spines of rats to see if it would be effective and if it would cause an immune response. The results were astounding: two months later, the researchers found new blood vessels and new bone cells on the “bone”, meaning the body did not reject the new material.
This innovation takes away the need for surgeons to graft bones from other parts of the body, resulting in less invasive operations as well as faster recovery time. The hyperelastic bone will allow people with degenerative bone loss and those who have been in accidents to recover and regain abilities they otherwise would not have.
Future Medical Possibilities
While the current products on the market are amazing, companies are quick to buy patents for the latest cutting edge ideas. Google, for example, bought one for a contact lens that monitors temperature, blood alcohol content, and even allergens in the air. This lens would allow people to better manage their health and their physical interaction with their environment. Google isn’t the only company aiming to give people more control while attempting to capture a part of this quickly growing market.
DARPA and a few other organizations have received tremendous funding for a new type of medicine: electroceuticals. These small implants, unlike current medicine that travels through the bloodstream, are designed to only affect the targeted organs. Electroceuticals would greatly decrease harmful side effects brought about by modern medicines, as the current administration method for drugs tend to have a blanket effect when they travel through body. Not only would the implant provide more effective health care by eliminating the need for physicians to counter the side effects of the blanketing drugs, it would also reduce the long list of warnings in every pharmaceutical drug commercial.
Grinders, Bodyhacking, and Transhumanists
Human beings have had a long history of relying on technology, and that connection with technology is growing. Some people are taking it the next level – they’re biohacking. Biohacking has different meanings depending on who you’re talking to: for some it means training the body to do new things, or genetically altering substances to better suit the body. Grinders have taken it to a different level however. They’re known for bodyhacking – implanting technology into their bodies.
Dangerous Things is a big player in this game. The founder, Amal Graafstra, sells small RFID and NFC transponder chips that are implanted in the hand. These chips take less than two minutes to implant and, among many other functions, can unlock devices like your phone or door,, or serve as your ID to scan into card-entry buildings,. They have several products available, including multiple variations of the RFID & NFC chips, as well as biomagnets you can have implanted to change the way you sense, lift, hear, and interact.
But the trend of bodyhacking extends far beyond him.
There is now the Body Hacking Convention, an event where people come together and learn about the various ways to hack the human body. There are eight areas featured at the BDYHAX Con:
- wearable technology
- software and data tracking
- augmented and virtual reality
- meditation, relaxation, and cognitive training
- brain health, nutrition & nootropics
- fitness and bodybuilding
- cosmetic surgery and body modification
- cybernetics and prosthetics
Each of these areas has something different to offer, and many are surprised to find that, according to BDYHAX, they are already body hackers! In the community, a bodyhacker is considered to be someone who has “made the choice to actively change their body or mind to better reflect what they believe their ideal self to be.” Do you lift weights? Practice mindful meditation? Do pilates? You’re a body hacker!
Some find the prospect of embedding chips and other technology in their body horrifying or against human nature. In reality, people have believed this about every new technological advancement for centuries. The life of new technology begins with skepticism and concern but is then normalized, and becomes common for everyone.
The Quest for an Easier Life
Innovation is driven by the constant need to make day to day tasks simpler- to create something that helps people, that advances society. We have so many things today that we take for granted. Garage doors open automatically. Transportation is exponentially faster than its available counterpart a century ago. Paying by phone is slowly replacing paying with cash. Young kids know how to operate smart phones. You can control the security of your house through your phone. Roombas clean the floors of houses, and Alexa and Google Home answer your questions and control the environment in your house. Technology can even shop for you! Past generations could barely imagine the types of technology we have at our fingertips today. Yet even now, there’s constant innovations that most people are unaware of. The “future” is becoming the present, and whether it is for medical or for personal uses, the cyborg is very much an invention of today.