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Tech for Autonomous Systems – Advanced Interaction Capabilities VII

Technology is rapidly progressing in the creation of bionics complements or substitutions of human parts, relieving acquired deficits as well as augmenting human capabilities. Credit: Mega Online

Augmented Humans Technologies

Humans have benefitted from several augmentation technologies over the centuries, from tools to increase their manipulation capabilities and their strength to devices to extend their senses, like microscopes and loudspeakers.

This progress continues by providing augmentation that is more effective and that is becoming seamless, invisible and integrated in the human being.

Five main areas of augmentation technologies may be considered:

  • Bionics
  • Brain Computer Interfaces
  • Neurotechnologies
  • Drugs and Nootropics
  • Genetics

These will be considered in the following looking at their characteristics and expected evolution along with the issues they pose. In the area of human augmentation there are clearly strong ethical issues, such as:

  • Will the potential of augmentation create a gap between the have and the have not?
  • Will augmentation be regulated or let to the individual decision (and economic possibility)?
  • Will employers start to look for augmented individuals better fitting the jobs?
  • Will augmentation turn into a sort of slavery, like being able to carry heavier loads or be immune to fatigue in working long hours turn into forcing people to do things they wouldn’t have done before, protected by the impossibility of doing them?

Here only the potential created by tech evolution is presented, the ethical aspects will be considered in a later post.

Bionics

Bionics can be seen as an evolution of prosthetics where the prosthetic has a deeper interaction with the human. A prosthetic leg (like the one of Peg-leg Pete …) is a coarse make-do for a real leg, connected with some straps to the leg stub resulting from the partial limb amputation). A bionic leg provides a replacement of the missed limb leveraging on ever more sophisticated technology that emulates a real limb movement and interfaces with the body capturing electrical signals arriving at the muscles on the stump and in today’s most sophisticated bionic leg by providing electrical stimulus that can be interpreted by the brain as sensations. A computer inside the bionic leg analyses signals from the body and from sensors in the prosthetic leg and recreates the appropriate movement to match the normal movement of that person.

A set of synthetic ankles – foot created at the bio-mechatronics group at MIT. Credit: Hugh Herr

The goal is to have bionic prosthetics that can seamlessly integrate with the body.

Technologies at the core of bionics are:

  • mathematical modelling
  • sensors
  • actuators
  • signal processing
  • smart materials
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Bio-mechatronics
  • 3D printing

The whole field of bionics has grown with the objective of helping people with an acquired deficit but is starting to look into augmentation of performances of normal people. As an example, military research in this area is clearly targeting to augmentation of soldier performance, e.g. through the use of exoskeleton to help carrying loads and decrease fatigue.

An old time prosthetic like glasses, used by millions of short-sighted people has been evolving into a bionic device to augment vision. From night goggles to glasses extending the visible light spectrum (to see, as an example in the infrared, used by rescue teams to detect bodies) to glasses overlaying digital information on the line of sight.

Google Glass made a milestone in this direction, augmenting human sight through augmented reality, providing additional information in an almost seamless way. On the horizon are contact lenses able to overlay information (both text and images) on our line of sight and further down the road chips that can augment the retina capability. At first these chips are targeting people with a damaged retina, aiming at restoring function, like Argus II, but in the future they may be used for augmenting a normal sight.

Similarly, prosthetics for bettering aural perception are widespread, again aiming at restoring aural function although there are prosthetics to increase hearing sensitivity. Also here the trend is towards an integration of these bionic devices in the human body (cochlear implants are a first example).

Haptic interfaces can increase the sense of touch and they are already being used by surgeons for microsurgery.

Augmentation can also take the form of providing new senses, like the possibility to detect magnetic or electrical fields, like some animals have. Chips can be embedded under the skin to detect electrical fields and convert them into signals that can be perceived by the person. Through specific training the person can become able to detect these fields. Notice that this “capability” opens the door to increase communications capability. As an example one could have a chip detecting WiFi fields and decoding messages carried over WiFi converting them into specific sensation. A guard can become aware of the presence of an intruder by receiving a radio signal that generates the sensation of “unwanted presence” felt like a twitching in a muscle in the left hand. Different level of twitching may mean the presence of one or several intruders. This potential military application may turn into a “mass market” application targeting shop keepers to let them know that a customer has entered the shop as they are in the back doing some inventory, or that a customer is standing still for a certain time looking at an object and may be it is time to go and help him to take the decision of buying it…

This form of augmentation is basically converting an incoming stream of data that would not be perceivable by our senses into one that can be perceived by transforming the media, i.e. a radio wave into a tactile nerve termination stimulation. Through training the person brain will become able to make out the meaning. This conversion sometimes happen in the brain of a few people –synesthesia- where a sensation picked up from a sense, like an image from the eyes, is converted into a complex perception by the brain (as an example a person reading a series of numbers and feeling them as spatial points, or a person reading words and feeling colours in place of letters…).

Bionics is going to become a main trend in the next and following decades. By the middle of this century organ manufacturing will become common and it is likely that these organs will be bionic ones, providing augmented features. Actually, bionics will progress to the point that some people might be tempted to exchange part of their body for a bionics replacement.

Bionics add on will become widespread creating a strong business opportunity, although fraught with ethical issues.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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