MIND MELD: Science Fictional Technologies That Are Just Around the Corner
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Nanotechnology, lifelike robots, Google Glass, Invisibility Metamaterials, and 3-D Printing are just the beginning. Many technologies that recently existed only in the pages of a science fiction novel are becoming reality. We asked this week’s panelists:
Here’s what our panelists had to say…
Advances in artificial intelligence are not making many headlines these days, but I think within the next decade computer thinking will make inroads in many areas touching our lives. The reason advances in AI don’t seem very “science fictional” to us is that we keep on moving the goal post: computers now can beat humans at chess, answer Jeopardy questions, understand and transcribe your speech, translate in real time, and make billions on the stock market. While most people still seem “skeptical” about whether computers can think, we already live in a science fictional world.
Perhaps two areas will challenge our comfort. One is the military. Right now, military computers are still used in a way that is “supervised” by human decision makers. The drones that are in the news so much are operated by remote pilots, and targeting systems make recommendations, leaving the final decision to kill up to the human (though some have already described the human oversight as “illusory”). But the machinery of war has a relentless logic: eventually, human oversight will be seen as too slow and error-prone and undependable. We will have fully automated robots fighting our wars, where the decision to fire and kill will be made by machines alone—human oversight, if any, will be limited to the crafting of the algorithms governing these systems.
The other relates to the creative endeavors. Many of us cling to the comfortable idea that we’ll never have a computer creating a work of art. But computers have created paintings, music, poetry—albeit often with humans playing an important “pruning” function. We’ve reached the point now where computers can create novel, high-quality recipes indistinguishable from what top chefs can produce, without human guidance (see A Big Data Approach to Computational Creativity by Varshney, Lav R., et al., 2013), and I don’t doubt that soon we’ll see computers reaching similar levels of competency in other fields.
Take creative writing: I don’t think it’s implausible that we will see, within a decade, best-sellers whose plots are created by computer programs (in the case of thrillers, perhaps computers will even do a better job by coming up with complex plots without holes). Entire novels may be drafted by computers for the most part, with a human author providing some very limited editing function. Authors like me will have to compete against machines, and if the history of computer automation continues to hold, humans authors will not fare well. The creative fields are not safe from competition by machines, any more than the field of pounding spikes on railroads, as John Henry found out.
In my opinion? They’ll be about living things. We’re poised to see applications of biotechnology coming to the forefront in the next decade. Some will be seemingly trivial. You can already fill a tank with zebrafish modified to fluoresce. Ponds could be lit at night by the fish put in them, and paths by leaves with undersides that glow. It’s within reach now that pet owners can choose to have their present pet cloned. Currently dog breed popularity waxes and wanes by associated celebrity. Within ten years – or sooner — celebrity pet clones could be on the market. Interesting to imagine how future breed records will handle that. Or will there be some new “perfect” pet, modelled after some anime creation, grown rather than a robot with fluff.
Then there’s novelty foods. As we sequence more and more of the life around us, as we understand what makes this taste or that texture and how to blend them, I would see restaurants vying to offer foods we’ve never seen before.
Not to mention what we’ll do to ourselves. Tattoos will become mutable, perhaps animated. Want to change underlying skin colour? Why not grow an extra eye? Flesh changes could well become fads, and the tech to make them happen is coming. I do shudder to think of DIYers, but biotech, like computer tech, is out there and will be used.
Fads. Trends. Tastes. It’s how we share shiny new things, and how those things spread beyond prediction or caution.
I said these were seemingly trivial, but of course the technology required to take us to this level will have huge impacts on society as a whole. Many will be amazing. Bandages that are skin. Farms that grow organs. The restoration of important foundation species of plants and animals. (And some we shouldn’t, because it’s cool.) Advances in food production and health. Some we’d best watch. Job advancements that require not training, but modification. Tinkering with ecosystems already on the brink. Changing our children because we can.
Regardless, it means rewriting what is life, what we are, and what we’ll become. In ten years, we’ll need new words. What is that thing your child put together like a Lego set? It purrs and eats and poops. Do we let it reproduce (because that’s the cheaper means of manufacture)?
What happens when we dump it, as with so many unwanted pets today?
Because life adapts. It changes. And we’re life too. We’re pushing that change, by this choice or that refusal, and the only thing that’s certain?
It’s going to get messy. (I do love that about living things.)
It is a well-known adage that, when trying to predict the future, technologists err on the side of being somewhat too optimistic in the near term, but far too conservative in the long term. With that in mind, I would expect ten years from now the world will be only incrementally different from what we see now.
In my own field, space, a revolution is currently in progress: personal spaceflight. Not only are several companies almost ready to offer tourist jaunts (if only brief ones) to the edge of space, there is a “cubesat” revolution going on, in which tiny satellites are being built and launched into orbit by universities and even by teams of high school students. It is amazing what is being done with tiny satellites! I see this trend growing and expanding, with small satellites being made and flown by more and more people, even eventually for grade-school science-fair projects, and moving out to beyond Earth orbit and to where we will have student probes flying out to explore asteroids, comets, and in the longer term (although not in the next ten years) the surfaces of planets and moons in the solar system. Spaceflight for everyone! It’s coming.
Every year, new techniques, new bacteria, new ideas lead us humans down paths we could barely dream of a generation ago. Glow in the dark kitties? Not a problem. Want a glittery gold seahorse, that has actual gold built in? It’s here. We’ve found microorganisms that can eat nearly anything, like oil, radiological waste, and pesky plastics. While terraforming Mars or the Moon may be a few generations off, I can definitely see a few things just around the corner.
How about the ability for a human to photosynthesize? Alan Dean Foster wrote an awesome short story, “Village of the Chosen”, that captured many of the pros and cons. Can you picture it? It would be the ultimate in going green, perhaps literally. Your neighbor may recycle, perhaps have an electric car, bicycle to work, etc. But you, my friend, you could be photosynthesizing; using the Sun’s rays to power your body, reducing or perhaps eliminating the need to eat. If that doesn’t reduce your ecological footprint, I don’t know what will.
Chimeras are becoming more and more possible, and while they often result in a sterile love child, the cama (llama-camel cross) are fertile. So let’s take it another step. How many folks want to see the Auroch or the Woolly Mammoth walk the Earth again? I see you, don’t be shy, raise your hand! The technology to retrieve and combine DNA has come a remarkable way since just 2003, when the human genome was finally fully mapped. Unlike Dr. Ian Malcolm in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, I have no qualms about raising dead species, especially ones that modern-ish humans helped put in the extinction grave.
Finally, I expect we will see some petri-dish body parts. Or they will use pigs to incubate them. (Yeah, a pig, because humans and pigs are very much alike in anatomy, in what we can tolerate in our environment, and in our digestive tract. Just something to ponder while you have a side of bacon with your breakfast.) Either way, us humans will benefit from the future mass-produced body parts, such as internal organs, sphincters, bits of intestines, eyes, bladders, etc. It will probably take a little more than 10 years to get to the Repo Men status, where various companies can sell you a vital replacement organ under high-interest financing. But I think we’ll see the start of this path in the next 10 years. Volunteers, anyone?
Actually, when I think of right-on-the-horizon technologies I think of things out of Ross Anderson’s Security Engineering. Or the TV show Leverage, for that matter, although it’s not (I don’t think) science fiction. I’m pretty sure my first exposure to the idea of biometrics was a certain puzzle in the game Space Quest III (which my mom had to solve for me and my sister), and then later in one of Jack L. Chalker’s novels (one of the Rings of the Masters books), there’s some moment where a thief-of-the-future uses dough to get past some security system, which I laughed at for years until I read this bit from Security Engineering 2nd ed. (p. 468): “Fingerprint identification systems can be attacked in a number of ways… The most recent batch of headlines was in 2002, when Tsutomu Matsumoto caused much alarm in the industry; he and his colleagues showed that fingerprints could be molded and cloned quickly and cheaply using cooking gelatin.” Clearly next time I need to rob a bank I should bring the contents of my pantry along!
I started auditing a course on quantum computing taught by Prof. N. David Mermin back in college, although I had to drop it because I was overwhelmed senior year. Back then he said he suspected that quantum computing would not pan out. Now I wonder. I’m sure there are implications all over the place but the ones for prime factorization and encryption are what I’m vaguely aware of. I have not been doing anything more than scanning Slashdot headlines (yeah, I know) on the topic, let alone seeing what clever things sf writers do with quantum algorithms and encryption; I don’t have the background to follow hard skiffy details.
Also, cynically, I think we will see more fantastical skiffy user interfaces–you know, the Tony Stark bright, slick, fancy screens all over the place that respond to gestures and so on but are not actually well-designed for the use of actual humans, just because people see them in science fiction movies and expect them to happen. I am reminded of some National Academies Press study (I can’t track down which one, I read a bunch a while back) that talked about whether those fancy skiffy helmet things would be such a hot idea for soldiers and I seem to recall it not only observing that the added weight to the helmet (to say nothing of the added cost) would increase the risk of head/neck injuries. Soldiers already have situational awareness issues without blippy blinky lights flashing in their field of vision. (I paraphrase, although of course I defer to experts on this particular matter. I have no formal knowledge of user interface design other than the observation than an awful lot of bad examples, especially in video games, seem to be foisted on me.)
1. Space-rated robotics – to service satellites and spacecraft in the burgeoning near Earth orbital zone. This includes working around the hotels about to start business at 200 km up. Later, repairing geosynchronous satellites will be quite profitable.
2. 3D printing of plastics and metals for advanced technology uses. Applied in space, this means making parts in orbit, out of waste materials, not hauling them from Earth.
3. Self-driving cars. Cars that convert to airplanes in minutes. More transportation choices that let us get around in new modes.
The most predictable aspect of such questions is how invariably wrong the predictions are. Also, there is a split between what technologies exist or are feasible versus what technologies become market successes (obvious examples of superior variants that failed: Mazda’s rotary auto engine, digital video alternatives).
I can safely predict that there will be more and more complex gizmos in the smartphone/e-Reader/mobile internet category. Whether e-books will become genuinely easy on the eyes in any format beyond PDF will depend on which particular publishing monopolies get established (Amazon is the short-term favorite in this race but nothing is forever).
Related to that, we will have more expert systems that perform extremely well within their programming parameters and they will increasingly be parts of our daily lives, including the much-vaunted 3D printing process (we may end up with personal units like PCs, though initially they will be used mostly for tchotchkes and/or hobby items). AIs of the Skynet/Weyland variety will just keep receding in the far horizon and neither the badly-conceived and underfunded BRAIN initiative nor any transhumanist hype will change that.
Provided that the First World doesn’t collapse economically, we may get slightly closer to personalized medicine if we get past simplistic “optimization” concepts and the facile equations of genotype with phenotype – and if we can translate the inherent complexity of such intercalated layers as gene regulatory elements and brain connective networks into distinct, targeted molecular keys (a very tall order but theoretically feasible – failing that, the effects of the fancy stuff will be as subtle as chemo or SSRIs). Of course, wide use of genomics additionally poses dilemmas of social engineering and control. Privacy will almost certainly lessen further with routine biometrics – which, conversely, may allow monitoring with less invasive methods (for instance, embedded chips that sense levels of glucose or cholesterol).
We may get the first human clone, which is about as immoral/unnatural as the millions of children who resulted from artificial insemination. We may also get attempts at “designer children” that will give disappointing results (see optimization remark in previous paragraph) and will be abandoned except as tokens of extreme privilege.
There may be significant personal off-grid use of sun and wind for energy, as fossil fuel extraction and use becomes increasingly difficult and/or problematic. Large-scale geo-engineering and GMO agriculture will intensify, with mixed results (and with the latter having better prospects than the former).
If more water is discovered on Mars and the geysers in Europa show even the slightest hint of biogenic signatures, we will probably see some progress in rocket propulsion systems which still dwell happily in the days of chemical reaction engines. Otherwise, we’ll remain as we were – Musk, Diamandis and the various 100-Year Starship grantees notwithstanding.
The problem with thinking about future technology is that we often tend to focus solely on the spectacular – hey where is my hovercar! – and forget how often what seemed science fictional just yesterday is now part of our everyday mundane life. If someone had told me ten years ago I would carry with me a small device that would not only show me how to go from location A to B, but also tell me where I was exactly at the same time, I would have probably whistled the Star Trek tune and laughed.
Yet today I never leave home without my smartphone. If I can’t find a location or don’t know where I am I just consult Google Maps and follow the directions. The feeling of being lost, not knowing where I am or how to get home, has almost imperceptibly vanished with using this kind of technology. In a way my sense of location has been externalized; more and more I rely on technology to tell me where I am instead of relying on my own sense of direction.
I believe that in the next ten years the same will happen with the way we remember and recall our memories. Instead of relying on our own grey matter, we will rely more and more on external lifelogging devices to store and retrieve our memories.
Data storage is becoming cheaper and more abundant. In a speech from 2007 noted science fiction author Charles Stross pointed out that 10 euros (about 14 dollars) would buy you 1 Gb of FLASH memory in a postage stamp sized card, fast forward to 2027 and for the same amount you would get 10 Tb.
10 Tb is more than enough to record every single second of a year on video. In effect you can log every single second of your life. Combine it with a Google-like search engine and everything you did and saw can be easily retrieved with a command or two. Handy if you want to remember a certain SF signal post, say, last Saturday 10pm.
Just as smartphones with GPS changed our sense of location, so there is a chance that lifelogging devices will change our sense of memory. A memory won’t be anymore the story a person tells of a certain event, but the videolog that person made at the time.
In Ted Chiang’s excellent story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” the narrator reflects on how lifelogging changes the way people recall their childhood. Instead of a handful of moments, imbued with strong emotions, there is an almost endless series of crystal clear videos of moments from their childhood. The narrator wonders if his sense of childhood would have been completely different if he would have had access to all that video footage from an early age.
If memories are the stories that make us who we are, the manner in which we remember might for a great deal determine the way in which we construct the stories of our own identity.
Lifelogging will probably have an even greater impact on society. When large parts of the population record everything they see it will raises a few troubling questions about privacy. Just think about the abuse a disgruntled expartner might cause by making intimate memories public. Not to speak of the lifelogs of millions of people being the holy grail for organisations like the NSA.
Lifelogging won’t be a dramatic shift. It will probably be a slow but steady process that changes our society. But just like with smartphones equipped with GPS and our sense of direction, you might realize one day in the near future that the way you remember has changed in a fundamental way.
The first is the newly reinvigorated SETI effort. The discoveries in recent years of hundreds of extra-Solar planets offer renewed encouragement as well as potential targets in the search for alien intelligence. These, plus newly updated astronomical and analytic capabilities and an expanded search–considering a broader range of wavelengths and recording pre- and post-signal as well as peak-signal data–significantly improve their chances. Further, if the program follows through on strategy recommendations by Paul Davies (The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search For Alien Intelligence) and others, based on more sophisticated analyses of possible alien locations, natures, technologies and intentions, the chances for success improve dramatically. Within 10 years? Could happen.
In the mean time, we are busily building aliens right here on Earth.
In the rapidly expanding field of bionics, the development of smart, highly advanced prosthetics and artificial organs with near-lifelike functionality has reached the point that devices now in production or development are already capable of replacing “more than 50 percent of the human body.” (Smithsonian Magazine, Creating the New Human, 9/2013.) This includes, for example, prosthetic hands with a tiny motor in each finger, so each is controlled individually, with the dexterity and pressure-sensitivity to pick up and safely hold an egg between thumb and forefinger. There is an iPhone app giving access to a menu of 24 different grips.
Prices (some in the multi-thousands) could restrict widespread use of such devices in the near future, but maybe not. In many cases, costs are expected to be offset through future medical savings, made possible by the prevention of continuing physical degradation and disease that would normally occur without the exercise and normal life activities that these devices make possible. As another option, I have seen a video about a boy born
without fingers on one hand. Using a 3-D printer, his father produced and assembled the components for an artificial hand, with articulated, electronically-powered fingers, at very little cost beyond the price of the printer itself. And with the printer available, he can build larger hands as his son grows.
The use of both prosthetic and artificial organ devices now nearing or already in production will likely become commonplace over the next ten years, with many more to follow. One inventor predicts the complete elimination of disabilities by the end of the century.
Beyond the ability to repair the effects of accident and disease, these devices and later developments could begin, even in the next ten years, to transform perfectly whole and healthy humans into beings better able to perceive and manipulate the world around them.
A one-armed character in Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (written in 1966) developed specialized prosthetics to assist his work in the construction and repair of machinery. We’ve been seeing real-life examples of that in athletes for years, with prosthetics specially purposed for running and mountain-climbing. I recently met an MS patient who is regaining the ability to walk with the aid of electronic impulses to the muscles of her natural legs. The extension of such uses, even for the able-bodied, can only increase and multiply as the technology is refined.
Limbs adapted for super-human prowess and precision in sports? Just try to hold the athletes back. Could this present a whole new concept in special Olympics? With events testing engineering and equipment as well as human skill and endurance? Why not? Assuming the Committee can get over the cultural hurdles.
Adaptations for better, less expensive life support in other environments? In the seas? In space? Perhaps not in ten years. But in our own rapidly changing world, maybe sooner than we think.
And do keep an eye on the electronics industry. With electronic engineering already fully integrated with today’s artificial human parts, how long before gaming and software entrepreneurs add the brain-computer interface to their bag of tricks? A ticklish technology, to be sure. But I have seen video of Cathy Hutchinson, a 58-year old quadriplegic, with a rather crude socket permanently implanted in the top of her head. This allows her to control a robotic arm and hand by mental impulses, using it to pick up a bottle and lift it to her mouth for a drink.
Recreational applications will hit the markets first, of course, with productivity uses close behind. Links to computers, more likely wireless than wired, for Immersive Technology games or design work? Armchair experiences in extreme sports and exploration? Superhuman sex? High-precision control of tools? Even the tools of the arts? Yes to all, though perhaps not in ten years.
And then, when the full 100 percent of human parts has been duplicated, affordably, can we, like the characters in Fred Pohl’s Heechee books, avoid death by moving our brains into computers? Or better still, into a fully bionic body? Someday, who knows?
But we won’t have to wait that long for the body-rebuilding technologies to transform us baseline humans into beings ever further beyond us. How will we evaluate these truly “bionic” men, women, and children, when ordinary physiology is provided so easily with physical and mental advantages, including broader perception of the universe itself – to see wavelengths of light, hear frequencies of sound beyond the range of our human senses? When will human beings cross the line into something, or someone, other?
Maybe when that first contact with off-planet aliens finally arrives, we can adapt ourselves to compete–or communicate–with them more effectively.
“The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed.”
Science fiction is not a predictive medium. Its purpose is to entertain. Yet, the world changes when a scientist or engineer reads fiction about technological wonders and futuristic innovative ideas and decides to make it so. It’s our collective duty to imagine. Thank you Paolo Bacigalupi, Rob Sawyer, Nancy Kress, Allen Steele, Cory Doctorow, Vernor Vinge, Charles Stross, Karl Schroeder, William Gibson, David Brin, Peter F. Hamilton, Catherine Asaro.
Physicist Michio Kaku is making quite a name for himself as a futurist. With his latest book, Physics of the Future, he predicts what changes will take place by the year 2100: updates in computers, AI, medicine, nano, space travel and fusion (by mid-century). I highly recommend it.
“Technology often has its greatest effect when it is closer to home. Take the production line, the AC motor or plastics, for instance. Such developments are less spectacular than the stuff of science fiction, and their impact is more subtle. Yet they greatly alter the way we live, disrupting entire industries along the way.”
If it wasn’t for the Internet and ease of communication, many of the following predicted changes would not occur.
We’ll all have dashboards in our homes with graphical energy usage monitors. This visible monitoring will help change our culture to be more focused on green living.
Vivitouch actuators are high definition touchscreens with haptic feedback – the extra sensory dimension allows you to feel the action on the screen or the gameplay of a video game with vibrations and 4-D sound. We’re coming closer to virtual reality all the time.
Streets will become friendlier to bikers and pedestrians. Cars will only be one form of transportation, not the supremely favored one they are now in the US. Complete Streets policies have been adopted in twenty-seven states so far. More diversity in vehicles will be seen: three-wheeled cars, pedal-powered cars and electric bikes. New vehicles will have automated sensors for reporting potholes using GPS coordinates. We now share Buzzcars (peer-to-peer car rental), Krowder (crowdsourcing delivery platform) and Zipcars, but shared biking (like Citibike in NYC) will spread.
Parking day celebrations (the third Friday in September) have called attention to the need for more green urban space, which does double duty to alleviate problems with rainwater run-off. In cities across the nation, storm water utility fees are being assessed based on the property’s percentage of impermeable surface in order to urge land owners to add green roofs and parks. Education of the benefits of urban farming is spreading and K-12 schools are getting involved thanks to the readily available online lesson plans.
When is red green? When it’s sugar beet extract used instead of salt for icy city streets. (Okay, I lied. It’s actually a tan/brown color.) It’s an eco-friendly de-icer. It’s non-staining, easier to come by, and freezes at a lower temperature than rock salt. Some places are testing it already (Chicago, Madison, Akron, Columbus).
Commuters will move closer to work or work from home, traffic will be lessened by apps, real-time traffic and parking signage and rerouting. Improved public transit will become a focus of city planners. Japan has offered to contribute money and design for a maglev train system running up the US Northeast Corridor from Washington D.C. to New York City. What’s stopping us from having flying cars, jet packs, and robot driven personal airplanes? Not tech or high prices–it’s government legislation.
22% of the world’s energy budget goes to lighting. Compact fluorescent bulbs are cheaper to operate than incandescent. LEDs and flexible, easy-to-install electroluminescent wire (which looks like neon when electrified) are now available. The International Dark Skies Association is an information powerhouse that will help refit our cities with new lights. After the renovation costs are recouped (about two years), millions of dollars will be saved annually. More efficient lighting, aimed down and shielded upward, will reduce light trespass, one of the last of the pollutions to be meaningfully tackled. As the dreary, pervasive, sky glow of overlighting morphs to dark skies, our sensitive ecosystems will readjust. In humans, circadian rhythms will optimize, some sleep disorders will heal, our melatonin levels will go back to normal (abnormal levels have been linked to cancer in shift workers). Stars, planets and even the Milky Way will again inspire and center us.
Consumerism will sharply drop; minimalist lifestyles will become fashionable and desirable. As our privacy continues to erode, more people will feel the need to go off-the-grid— and this is easier than ever with current technologies. Solar and wind for energy needs. Farming by robot tractors using GPS coordinates. High capacity batteries for portable, charging, energy reserve stations. Portable, inflatable, solar stills for personal water desalination. This last may not be modern science, but it is innovative manufacturing. The bible for the future is The Infinite Resource: the Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet by Ramaz Naam, the best panelist I’ve ever seen at a WorldCon.
Personal robotics will see a flare. IBM has been buying up robotics companies and Google’s eighth robotics acquisition was Boston Dynamics (this week). Robots excel at eldercare, any repetitive tasks in manufacturing, especially those needing high precision, space exploration, hazardous duty (extremes of temperature and pressure, radiation, lack of atmosphere) and military purposes, including training and surveillance. Everything I know about war robots I learned from Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy interview with P. W. Singer (Wired for War) and Daniel H. Wilson (Robopocalypse).
Electronic money like Square Wallet is fun to use, but cryptographic currencies will change the way we think about money exchange. They are decentralized, secure systems that keep groups from abusing the production of money. Bitcoin was the first; Zetacoin is the latest open-source cryptocurrency.
Modeling human behavior is seeing an upsurge, as expressed (before I was born) in the three original Foundation books of Isaac Asimov. “Psychohistory” he called it, using statistics to predict the behavior of groups of people. Now, it’s being used in marketing, predicting civil unrest and financial crises, crowd control, the influence of social media on real time politics and mathematical modeling of economic developments.
So much more, but I fear I’ve run out of space for smart organs (nanowires in the heart that sends signals of oxygen levels), tissue bioengineering, human augmentation (from disease control to performance enhancement), preventative genetics, machine intelligence, additive manufacturing…
So many shiny new ideas, but I’ll end with a shitty one. We cannot yet send a human safely to Mars because we haven’t designed an effective radiation shielding. Water is suitable radiation shield, as is food. Pack the supplies all around the walls of the ship. As the consumables are used, defecation products are then bagged and packed against the walls in their place, providing the minimal radiation shielding necessary. Thanks to Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars for this one, called Water Walls. Onward to Mars!
Humans have been modding their bodies with artificial parts for millennia (the Romans made artificial teeth out of iron), but we haven’t yet created genuine cyborgs in the sense envisioned by generations of SF authors. In “No Woman Born” (Astounding, 1944), one of the most beautiful cyborg stories ever written, C.L. Moore imagined a dancer whose brain was transferred to a prosthetic body, after nearly dying in a theater fire. In her new body, the dancer performs with a coordination and poise beyond anything she could do before. Bernard Wolfe’s 1952 cyborg dystopia Limbo features prosthetic limbs so capable, that people voluntarily amputate their natural limbs and have them replaced with mechanical ones. The Six Million Dollar Man and Robocop are further variations on this theme a cyborg is someone whose wetware has been replaced with engineered prosthetic parts more powerful and responsive than the originals.
In reality, prosthetic limbs have been awkward and clunky. They’re nowhere near as good as our original flesh-and-blood parts. But in the next ten years, that’s going to change, because we’re going to be able to wire devices directly into the central nervous system. Then we’ll have genuine cyborgs whose conscious minds can control the mechanical parts hooked up to their bodies.
The technologies necessary to achieve this are just coming online, in three key areas in particular: materials engineering, electronics, and biotech.
Materials Engineering: To make a direct brain-machine interface you need a material that can be embedded in living tissue. You need something that won’t get fouled up by proteins and other sticky things, and something that won’t be rejected by the body’s defenses. The field of biocompatible materials has boomed in the past few years. You can read about these materials in a recent technical review called “The Chemistry of Cyborgs”.
Electronics: In Limbo, Bernard Wolfe imagined miniaturized nuclear reactors in prosthetics. That’s unlikely to be feasible, but miniaturized electronics are even better. The latest miniaturized electronics now make it possible to pack a lot of functionality into a device that fits conveniently inside living tissue. Just this year, a group at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign reported that they created a remote controlled cyborg mouse, by packing a bunch of sensors and an LED onto a small chip, which they then injected into the mouse’s brain. Miniaturized LEDs, photodetectors, and electrodes made this possible.
Electronics are not only getting smaller they’re also becoming more flexible. Researchers are now engineering “epidermal electronics” that you can apply to your skin as easily as a rubon tattoo. With epidermal electronics you can make the kinds of things you make with normal electronics transistors, sensors, LEDs, and solar powered batteries.
Biotech: 3D printers are great for working with nonliving material. For living cells, you need a 3D bioprinter. When we think about realistic cyborgs, we typically thinking about engineering devices to work with living tissue. But how about engineering tissue to work with devices? Right now, scientists working with 3D bioprinters are focused on building ‘miniorgans’ for drug trials, and replacement parts for the heart and other organs. In the future, these bioprinters could be used to assemble genetically customized cells into an
optimized tissuemachine interface.
Once the basics of the brain-device interface are in place, new possibilities open up. These interfaces don’t just have to used with prosthetic limbs. They could be hooked up to the internet. Today’s lifeloggers use external devices like Google Glass and health-monitoring wristbands; in the not too distant future, they’ll be wirelessly transmitting from electronics embedded in their skin, and maybe uploading the data to their electronic medical records.
So we’ll soon build real cyborgs. Will we confront the same moral dilemmas pictured in SF? C.L. Moore’s cyborg dancer was seen by her creator as slick new technology, and by her former friend as something that was no longer human. In the end, she proved her humanity by her determination to explore the new possibilities offered by the mechanical extension of herself.
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