Is the Age of the Cyborg Here?

Is the Age of the Cyborg Here?

The YouTube video below is a fascinating TEDx talk entitled Future Human, delivered by Will Rosellini, Director of Commercialization at the Texas Biomedical Device Center. With a background in neuroscience, regulatory science, computational biology and neurostimulation, he believes that "you will be a cyborg by 2027". 

Imagine if we could use electronics embedded in our body to repair lost functions and limbs. Leading big pharma company, GlaxoSmithKline, is working on "bioelectronic medicines" - miniaturised devices - that will control biological processes and treat disease by modulating the body's natural electrical impulses. They state that such an approach will "allow us to treat some diseases that have so far been untreatable, and others with far greater precision and fewer side effects than with conventional medicines.  

The Second Sight Argus II retinal prosthesis system is helping early patients with degenerative eye diseases to see again. Technology is already here to offer bladder control to those who struggle with it, and an implant in the brain - Deep Brain Stimulation - already helps people with Parkinson's control their tremors. Similar technology is also being used to treat people with depression. DARPA's Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies project is spending millions of dollars on developing brain implants further, so that they can actually notice the onset of depression (or other mental disorders) before it starts and prevent an "attack". Their latest project aims to restore the sensation of touch in amputees using prosthetic limbs. 

Over in the US, Les Baugh has just become the first person to have both his prosthetic arms controlled by his own brain, thanks to the team at John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. His robotic arms have 26 joints, can curl weights weighing up to 45 pounds and works by thought alone. 

There are scores more examples. In short, there are already cyborgs among us. 

While many of the existing bionic implants are designed to overcome disease states and restore natural abilities, how long will it be before we use such technologies to improve nature? In future, a chip in the brain could record our thoughts, memories and functions. Disturbing memories and resulting post-traumatic stress disorder could become a thing of the past. A small company called MicroTransponder, together with researchers at UT Dallas, are using vagus nerve stimulation to help people who are undergoing rehabilitation for brain damage. A stimulator in the neck combined with rehab leads to dramatic changes in cortical plasticity, speeding up their recovery. How long before we use a similar technology to help a five-year-old learn how to ride a bike in a few hours? And Will poses the question that he thinks we will all have to face sometime soon: When will you use your cell phone as a drug?

Don't believe the hype? It might be time to think again. As Will concludes:

"If you struggle to get through my talk and not check your phone, or if you curse when you don't get cell coverage and get frustrated and continue to try to hit the internet site but you know doesn't have coverage then you'll be one of the first adopters to take this technology directly in your nervous system... The question isn't if you become a cyborg the question is when and the answer is in 2027."

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