Date posted: 10/03/2020 5 min read

5 things you didn’t know about human augmentation

Advances in science and technology are delivering extraordinary outcomes for people with disabilities and construction workers.

In Brief

  • Bionic limbs are being developed with the sensitivity to pick up coins and the strength to handle tools.
  • US company Sarcos has developed a robotic exoskeleton to reduce workplace injuries in construction.
  • Human augmentation has also been used to edit human genes to be resistant to certain diseases.

By Seamus Byrne

1. Elon Musk will wire your brain

If there’s a new idea worth exploring, you can bet Elon Musk is working on it. The tech entrepreneur and Tesla co-founder is developing a technology with his neuroscience company, Neuralink, that aims to build a direct interface between brains and computer systems. Why, you ask? So paralysed humans can control phones and computers with their brains.

“The long-term aspiration with Neuralink would be to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” Musk said in 2018.

To date, the research has been conducted on rats, but there are plans to begin testing Neuralink’s ‘neural lace’ in paralysed humans. Longer term, Neuralink will explore embedding wireless chips so subjects won’t be directly tethered to any equipment. The aim is for the implant process to be as simple as LASIK eye surgery.

2. Bionic limbs for everyone

The Open Bionic 3D-printed Hero Arm in Star Wars coloursThe Open Bionic 3D-printed Hero Arm in Star Wars colours.

Bionic limbs make it possible for amputees to enjoy the benefits of replacement limbs that can be controlled via the slightest of muscle movements. At the cutting edge are devices such as inventor Dean Kamen’s ‘Luke’, named after Luke Skywalker’s replacement arm in the Star Wars films. It has the sensitivity and subtlety to pick up grapes or coins, and the strength to handle power tools.

At the other end of the spectrum, UK-based Open Bionics 3D-prints affordable, medical-grade prosthetic arms. The company also makes limbs in cool designs, styled after Disney and Marvel characters, so the prosthetics are something kids and teens can be proud of.

3. Super suits

US company Sarcos develops robotic systems for industrial use. It recently announced a new wearable exoskeleton, the Guardian XO, that gives construction workers super strength. Partly an enhancement to human capability, and partly a smart way to reduce workplace injuries, the Guardian XO will even be offered under a ‘Robot-as-a-Service’ business model. Similar suits have been developed to use in health care, giving carers a greater capacity to lift patients in and out of bed without causing injury.

4. Super vision

Bionic eyes are still in their infancy. Human patients have received implants, but the signals produced are simple flashes of light and a long way from replicating human vision. Contact lenses, however, are being used to explore ways to augment our vision. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have tested lenses that work like a 2.8x zoom lens. Tech giant Samsung also won a patent in mid-2019 for a design that would put an augmented reality display onto a lens sitting atop our eyeballs.

5. Hacking our genetic code

Genetic testing is now an over-the-counter experience, making it easy to find out many genetic predispositions for everything from allergies to serious illness. In 2017, CRISPR technology was used to edit genes in human embryos that related to serious heart problems, and in 2018 a Chinese doctor announced babies had been born with their genes edited to be resistant to HIV. Such edits have raised serious questions about ethics and safety, with many countries and universities continuing to set new laws and regulations about human gene editing.

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