Category: cyborg

The Future is Here: Six Of Today’s Most Advanced, Real-Life Cyborgs

Today, people’s bodies are more perfectly melded with technology than we could have imagined mere decades ago. Superhuman strength, dexterity, and senses are no longer science-fiction — they’re already here.

Though cutting-edge technology offers us a glimpse into the capabilities of enhanced humans in the future, it’s most useful these days as support for people who have been affected by a disability. Cyborg technology can replace missing limbs, organs, and bodily senses. Sometimes, it can even enhance the body’s typical function.

Here are six of the most striking examples of this cyborg present. They show us how far we have already come, and how far we could go in the future.

Hearing Colors With An Antenna

Image Credit: TED

Activist and artist Neil Harbisson was born without the ability to see color. In 2004, he decided to change that. He mounted an electronic antenna to the lower back of his skull that turns frequencies of light into vibrations his brain interprets as sound, allowing him to “hear color.” These frequencies are even able to go beyond the visual spectrum, allowing him to “hear” invisible frequencies such as infrared and ultraviolet.

“There is no difference between the software and my brain, or my antenna and any other body part. Being united to cybernetics makes me feel that I am technology,” he said in a National Geographic interview.

His body modification was not always well-accepted: the British government took issue when the antenna showed up in Harbisson’s passport photo. Harbisson  fought the government to keep it in. He won, becoming the first “legally recognized” cyborg.

The LUKE Arm

Image Credit: DARPA

The LUKE Arm (named after Luke Sywalker) is a highly advanced prosthetic that lends the wearer a sense of touch. A specialized motor can provide feedback to mimic the resistance offered by various physical objects — users can feel that a pillow offers less resistance than a brick. With the help of funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the finished design received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in 2014.

Electronic sensors receive signals from the wearer’s muscles that the device then translates into physical movement. The wearer can manipulate multiple joints at once through switches that can be controlled with his or her feet.  The first commercially available LUKE arm became available to a small group of military amputees in late 2016. Amputees can now buy the prosthetic through their physicians, but the device is rumored to cost around $100,000.

Artificial Vision

Image Credit: seeingwithsound/YouTube

In his 20s, Jens Naumann was involved in two separate accidents that shot metal shards into his eyes, causing him to lose his vision. In 2002, at the age of 37, Naumann participated in a clinical trial performed at the Lisbon-based Dobelle Institute in which a television camera was connected straight to his brain, bypassing his faulty eyes. Dots of light combined to form shapes and outlines of the world around him, giving him “this kind of dot matrix-type vision.” The system enabled him to see Christmas lights outlining his home in Canada that year.

Unfortunately, the system failed only after a couple of weeks. And when William Dobelle, the original inventor of the technology, passed away in 2004, he left behind almost no documentation, leaving technicians no instructions for how to repair Naumann’s system. In 2010, Naumann had the system surgically removed, rendering him completely blind once again.

Mind-Controlled Bionic Leg

Image Credit: RIC

The mind-controlled bionic leg was first used in 2012 by Zac Vawter, a software engineer from Seattle whose leg was amputated above the knee in 2009. The technology that translates brain signals into physical movement, called Targeted Muscle Reinnvervation (TMR), was first created in 2003 for upper-limb prosthetics. But Vawter’s prosthetic was revolutionary because it was the first leg prosthetic use it.

In 2012, Zac Vawter climbed the 2,100 steps of the Willis Tower in Chicago, with the help of his prosthetic leg. It took him 53 minutes and nine seconds.

 

The bebionic Hand

Image Credit: Ottobock

Prosthetics company bebionic has created some of the most sophisticated prosthetic hands to date. Individual motors move every joint along every digit independently. To help with everyday use, the bebionic has 14 pre-determined grip patterns. Highly sensitive motors vary the speed and force of the grip in real-time — it’s delicate enough for the user to hold an egg between his or her index finger and thumb, and robust enough to hold up to 45 kilograms (99 pounds).

The bebionic hand has been available commercially since 2010. Models released in the years since have improved its battery life, flexibility, and software.

The Eyeborg Project

Image Credit: The Eyeborg Project

Toronto-based filmmaker Rob Spence decided to replace his missing right eye with a prosthetic equipped with a wirelessly-transmitting video camera. Thanks to a partnership with RF wireless design company and a group of electrical engineers, Spence created a prosthetic eye shell that could house enough electronics in such a small, confined space.

The camera can record up to 30 minutes of footage before depleting the battery. Spence used footage captured by his eye prosthetic in a documentary called Deus Ex: The Eyeborg Documentary.

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Cyborg Bacteria Could Be the Key to Commercially Viable Artificial Photosynthesis

Cyborg Bacteria

Although most life on Earth relies upon photosynthesis as its source of energy, the process has a weak link: chlorophyll. Plants and other organisms use the green pigment to harvest sunlight during photosynthesis, but it is rather inefficient. To that end, scientists have been searching for ways to upgrade natural photosynthesis so humans would be able to capture and use energy from the Sun more efficiently.

Now, Kelsey K. Sakimoto, a researcher at Peidong Yang’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley, has come up with a new alternative to natural photosynthesis: cyborg bacteria that were trained to cover themselves in solar panels that are much more efficient than chlorophyll at converting sunlight into useful compounds.

“Rather than rely on inefficient chlorophyll to harvest sunlight, I’ve taught bacteria how to grow and cover their bodies with tiny semiconductor nanocrystals,” Sakimoto said in a press release. “These nanocrystals are much more efficient than chlorophyll and can be grown at a fraction of the cost of manufactured solar panels.”

To produce his cyborg bacteria, Sakimoto fed them the amino acid cysteine and the element cadmium. The bacteria then synthesized cadmium sulfide (CdS) nanoparticles, which efficiently absorb light, functioning as solar panels on the bacteria’s surfaces. The new hybrid organism, called M. thermoacetica-CdS, produces useful acetic acid from light energy, water, and CO2 at a rate that outperforms any sources of natural photosynthesis.

Today, Sakimoto is presenting his work at the 254th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

New Materials, Novel Approaches

Humanity is facing an ever-growing need for alternatives to fossil fuels as we face down the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions and a rapidly increasing population that requires energy to sustain.

Artificial Photosynthesis: The Energy Source of the Future
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Artificial photosynthesis is not a new concept, and a system that requires only sunlight and simple organic chemicals to generate renewable energy cheaply and cleanly is understandably highly desirable.

While some limited progress has been made in this area, until now, no proposed solution has been nearly efficient enough to warrant commercial use.

Sakiomoto’s bacteria, however, operate at an efficiency of more than 80 percent and are both self-replicating and self-regenerating, making this a zero-waste technology with multiple uses. “Once covered with these tiny solar panels, the bacteria can synthesize food, fuels, and plastics, all using solar energy,” he explained. “These bacteria outperform natural photosynthesis.”

While he does acknowledge that more research is needed, Sakiomoto is hopefully that his cyborg bacteria could prove to be a viable alternative to fossil fuels, helping the world produce energy more cheaply and cleanly.

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Amazon’s Alexa Helps This Exoskeleton Respond to Spoken Instructions

“Alexa, Let’s Stand Up”

Canadian robotics company Bionik Laboratories has demonstrated a prototype of its Arke lower-body exoskeleton that can be controlled via Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa.

In normal usage, the Arke is controlled using an array of sensors that respond to the wearer’s natural movements. However, as the user gets used to the exoskeleton, they typically use a tablet to issue instructions. Since this could be too much multitasking, some might find voice commands to be more intuitive.

exoskeleton amazon alexa voice assistant
Users would typically control the Arke with this tablet interface. Image Source: Bionik Labs
The question is whether Alexa is reliable enough for use in clinical spaces, as neither the voice assistant technology or the exoskeleton itself has been cleared for this context. Amazon’s Echo device has a history of listening to the wrong instructions, which could cause major problems in this kind of situation.Alexa can be used to control everything from the world’s smallest drone to the locking mechanism in the doors of your BMW. However, most use cases aren’t quite as consequential as an exoskeleton that’s vital to the user’s ability to walk.

Rise of the Exoskeleton

Exoskeletons can also benefit able-bodied people — for instance, the “chairless chair” could be a major boon to anyone working a job that requires them to stand for long periods of time. Of course, the most life-changing effects will be felt by people who don’t have full control of their body.

Whether the condition is caused by old age or disability, an exoskeleton can vastly improve the wearer’s quality of life. Integrating support for Alexa commands into the Arke makes this technology much more accessible.

The First Cyborg Olympics [INFOGRAPHIC]
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While researchers have made progress toward developing non-invasive brain implants that could potentially control an exoskeleton, this is still an intimidating prospect for many potential users. Issuing voice commands isn’t anywhere near as daunting.

All this aside, there’s plenty of work to be done before an Alexa-enabled version of the Arke is commercially available. To make good on the promised prototype, a plethora of certification requirements are needed if this exoskeleton is to graduate to the advanced applications.

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A Biohacker Put an Implant in His Hand to Pay for Public Transport

Tiny Tech

When train cards were invented, the idea was to make public transportation less of a hassle. Instead of taking out coins, you’d just access the train platform with a swipe of a pre-loaded card. However, cards can be misplaced, and that’s a problem Aussie biohacker Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow — and yes, that’s his legal name — was determined to never face again.

Not satisfied with the (in)convenience of carrying an Opal card, Meow-Meow decided to have the card’s near-field communication (NFC) chip implanted just beneath the skin on the side of his left hand.

To that end, he removed the NFC from the Opal card and encased it in a bio-compatible plastic, resulting in an implant about 10 by 6 millimeters in size. The implantation procedure itself was undertaken by a piercing expert and took about an hour.

Meow-Meow urges anyone interested in following in his technological footsteps to be sure to do their research and be aware that the implant is considered a breach of Opal’s terms of service. However, he does seem satisfied with his body’s new addition. “It gives me an ability that not everyone else has, so if someone stole my wallet, I could still get home,” he told ABC News.

Our Cyborg Future

Implanted devices are, as Meow-Meow pointed out to ABC News, not as rare as some may think. Usually, they serve some medical purpose, such as chips for prosthetics or pacemakers. Meow-Meow himself has two other NFC implants aside from the Opal chip, including one he uses to store documents, like an implanted hard drive.

Bionics: The Astonishing Future of the Human Body
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This mirrors a number of science fiction flicks, which feature implanted devices that serve as information storage, identity trackers, and health monitors, among other things. It certainly seems like the next step into the future, as numerous companies have been working on developing technologies that meld human beings with machines.

As chip implants become more advanced, they will undoubtedly become more common in the future, but for now, this Opal implant is at least making Meow-Meow’s daily commute less of a hassle.

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Humanity’s next Stage of Evolution Could Be the Cyborg

The Next Evolution

Cyborgs: humans who have been merged with machines; a hybrid of sorts. What was once the subject of far-out science fiction has now entered reality as a medical tool. From implants to robotics, there is a whole host of emerging technologies that aim to treat health conditions and aid those suffering from different disabilities by turning people into, technically, cyborgs.

It might seem to be going too far to use the term cyborg when discussing, for instance, new versions of prosthetic limbs. However, carbon fiber and titanium prostheses are now commonplace, and most artificial limbs are fully functional. For example, in the video below, you can see the dexterity and capabilities of one prosthetic arm. Since this video was created, prostheses have advanced even further, with researchers going so far as to create robotic hands that can be controlled with one’s brain — and they have a sense of touch.

Artificial limb technologies like the “blades” used by Paralympians are even so advanced that some have started to discuss whether or not they are more capable than organic limbs. But artificial limbs aren’t the only advancements in so-called “cyborg tech.” One Swedish company is implanting its employees with microchips to allow them to do things like access doors with the wave of a hand instead of with a key. Elon Musk thinks that his neural lace could actually make human beings smarter. Many are experimenting with the many possibilities of merging humankind with machines.

A Cyborg Future

The authors of a recent paper in Science Robotics discussed the potential issues with the future of such technologies:

There needs to be a debate on the future evolution of technologies as the pace of robotics and AI is accelerating. It seems certain that future assistive technologies will not only compensate for human disability but also drive human capacities beyond our innate physiological levels. The associated transformative influence will bring on broad social, political, and economic issues.

Once we officially cross that line, once the technologies that we create to assist those with difficulties and disabilities begin to advance human capabilities beyond what is biologically possible, we will have a teeming variety of moral and practical issues to deal with. Many believe that this will be humanity’s “next step in evolution.” Indeed, if we are ever going to colonize Mars and expand our reign in the Solar System, that might be a necessary evolution. Whatever moral and ethical quandaries may exist, it might not be possible for us to take such large strides without becoming cyborgs.

Highlighting the Cybathlon: The Bionic Olympics of 2016
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So, more likely than not, the day will come and we will cross that line. Will cyborg humans have the same rights and be bound by the same laws as biologically ordinary citizens? Will cyborgs be vulnerable to hacking and manipulation? Will warfare forever change with the possible advancement of military exoskeletons? The list goes on and on. And so, while we might not all be walking around as half-machines just yet, it might be a good idea to plan ahead.

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Meet the Eyeborg: The Filmmaker With a Video Camera In His Right Eye Socket

Meet the Eyeborg

While smartphone technology has already made many of us cyborg adjacent, there are some who are truly pioneering the world of the future. Take filmmaker Rob Spence of Toronto, for example. He lost his eye due to an unfortunate mishap involving his nine-year-old self, a pile of cow dung, and a shotgun. The gun kicked back after he fired it and severely damaged his eye.

While he did not lose all sight in the eye, he was declared legally blind. Years later, the eye began to physically deteriorate, prompting doctors to replace the eye. Instead of going for the traditional glass eye, Spence worked with a friend to build an eye camera. Spence’s eye can record up to 30 minutes of footage before the battery dies. The eye is not connected to the optic nerve so he cannot use it to see.

In preparation for the release of the video game sequel Deus Ex: Human Evolution, game developer Square Enix recruited the filmmaker to make a documentary of Spence interviewing other recipients of high-tech augmentation. He even included some of the eye camera footage in the doc.

The Age of Enhancement

While the word “cyborg” is still more closely aligned with science-fiction, more and more people are augmenting their bodies with technology. Many of these augmentations correct limitations, like this Star Wars inspired prosthetic arm, or these exoskeletons designed to give paralyzed people improved functionality. However, the next wave of available augmentations could focus on enhancing human capabilities, both physically and cognitively, beyond what is biologically possible. Tech wizards like Elon Musk and Bryan Johnson are working on systems that would integrate the human brain with computers, making the subject smarter.

However, each new capability could bring along specialized ethical concerns. For example, Elon Musk’s neural lace isn’t likely going to be cheap. Could giving those who can afford to purchase this technology access to higher levels of cognitive ability only lead to a massive widening of societal gaps? This and other ethical conundrums must be carefully considered as we quickly approach this Age of Enhancement.

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Real-Life Cyborgs: A Company Is Implanting Its Employees With Microchips

Worker Implants

A company based in Stockholm, Sweden, is turning its employees into “cyborgs” using a microchip implant about the size of a grain of rice. Though not the first time such microchip implants have been used, this program is the first example of such implants being made available to a company’s employees on this sort of level.

Bionics: The Astonishing Future of the Human Body
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“The biggest benefit I think is convenience,” Patrick Mesterton, co-founder and CEO of Epicenter, told the Associated Press. Epicenter provides network and office space to budding digital startups, and it is currently home to more than 100 companies and about 2,000 workers. The company calls itself “Stockholm’s first digital House of Innovation,” and it only started implanting workers in January 2015.

The microchips, which are implanted in the hands of employees and startup members, function as swipe cards. “It basically replaces a lot of things you have, other communication devices, whether it be credit cards or keys,” Mesterton said, who demoed opening a door just by waving his hand near it. The implant doesn’t just open doors, though. Epicenter’s “cyborg” employees can operate their printers with it or even order smoothies with a wave of their hands.

The devices aren’t mandatory, but “being chipped” has become popular amongst Epicenter’s employees, with more than 150 now implanted with the devices. The company even hosts monthly events where participants can get the implants for free, as well as parties to celebrate those who got implanted.

Cyborg Security

An obvious concern is security and privacy. “Of course, putting things into your body is quite a big step to do, and it was even for me at first,” Mesterton said, recalling his initial doubts about the implants, which carry information that can be transmitted to other devices via electromagnetic waves, but cannot receive information themselves.

“The data that you could possibly get from a chip that is embedded in your body is a lot different from the data that you can get from a smartphone,” explained Ben Libberton, a microbiologist at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute. Such devices, he said, can be exploited by hackers to gain huge amounts of information.

“Conceptually you could get data about your health, you could get data about your whereabouts, how often you’re working, how long you’re working, if you’re taking toilet breaks and things like that,” Libberton added. The more sophisticated a microchip is, the bigger the ethical dilemmas that can come with them.

For Mesterton, there really isn’t a problem. “I mean, people have been implanting things into their body, like pacemakers and stuff to control your heart,” he said. “That’s a way, way more serious thing than having a small chip that can actually communicate with devices.”

Indeed, devices that augment the human body, whether through implants or other means, have been turning people into cyborgs for some time now. Some call the trend biohacking, and it can potentially help us do much more than simply navigate an office environment. The tech could be used to monitor health conditions or to treat neurodegenerative diseases. Elon Musk is working on his own version of such a device with a soon-to-be-launched company, Neuralink.

As one Epicenter employee said while she was being implanted, “I want to be part of the future,” and that may just mean becoming a cyborg.

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A New Brain-Interface Device Lets You Control Animals With Your Thoughts

Turtles and Your Thoughts

A team of researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have developed technology that allows them to control the movement of turtles using human thought.

Scientists Just Created Tech That Lets Us Use Our Thoughts to Remotely Control an Animal
Credit: KAIST

Think of it as a real life — but significantly scaled down — application of the 2009 blockbuster Avatar concept where humans control the body of an alien by remotely transferring human consciousness into another biological body. The team uses a brain-computer interface (BCI) that helps translate brain waves into commands that guide or control the movement of the turtle.

KAIST wrote in a press release, “Unlike previous research that has tried to control animal movement by applying invasive methods, most notably in insects, Professors Phill-Seung Lee of the Mechanical Engineering Department and Sungho Jo of the Computing School propose a conceptual system that can guide an animal’s moving path by controlling its instinctive escape behavior.”

Turtles are instinctively drawn towards light. The team harnessed this natural impulse by attaching a semi-cylinder that can block light onto the turtle’s back, which can be opened and closed using human thought, thus allowing them to control the turtle’s movement.

Brain-Computer Interface

The human-turtle BCI setup features a human-operated, head-mounted display integrated with BCI, while the turtle is controlled using what the team calls the “cyborg system” — a system consisting of a camera, Wi-Fi transceiver, a computer-control module, and a battery attached to the turtle’s shell.

The Evolution of Brain-Computer Interfaces [INFOGRAPHIC]
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As much as we’d like this technology to develop into an actual Avatar-like machine that will one day allow us to control alien life forms, this kind of brain-interface tech will probably find more use here on Earth. Possible application include improving augmented and virtual reality technology, use in positioning systems, as well as military reconnaissance and surveillance, especially given its versatility.

The research team highlighted the versatility of their tech, as demonstrated by the variety of environments in which it was effective, in the study they published in the Journal of Bionic Engineering. The interface was able to get the turtles moving indoors and outdoors as well as across different surfaces like grass and gravel. The humans even caused the turtles to tackle multiple obstacles, like shallow water and trees, making it a handy tech to have during stealthy military operations.

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