Meet the real-life human cyborgs

21st May 2009 | 10:45

Meet the real-life human cyborgs

Digital eyes, USB fingers - implants aren't just for Jordan

Implanted technologies

Stelios Arcadiou has an ear growing out of his arm. Rob Spence has a video camera hidden in his false eye. Jerry Jalava's finger is a detachable USB drive. Kevin Warwick – yes him – likes nothing better than sticking radio chips under his skin or connecting his central nervous system to robot arms.

Four very different men with four very different kinds of technology, but they all have one thing in common: they're cyborgs.

We've had cyborgs for a long time - the term was originally coined in 1960 to describe people whose bodily functions were aided or controlled by technology, so for example anyone with a pacemaker or hearing aid is a cyborg.

In recent years, however, we've gone beyond using tech to fix bits of us when they break. Increasingly, we're using technology to expand the possibilities of the human body and to blur the lines between (wo)man and machine.

But do we really need ears in our arms?

Ear we go

Stelios Arcadiou, aka Stelarc, probably isn't the template for Humans 2.0: his extra ear, grown in a lab from cells, is part of an ongoing performance art project designed to make us think. In interviews, he explains:

"I'm speculating on ways that individuals are not forced to, but may want to, redesign their bodies - given that the body has become profoundly obsolete in the intense information environment it has created…

"We shouldn't have a Frankensteinian fear of incorporating technology into the body, and we shouldn't consider our relationship to technology in a Faustian way - that we're somehow selling our soul because we're using these forbidden energies. My attitude is that technology is, and always has been, an appendage of the body."

Rob Spence is making a point, too. As the Toronto film maker explains: "I am a filmmaker who lost an eye so naturally I decided to modify my prosthetic eye into a video camera. I am not a lifecaster. I will use the eye-cam the same way I use a video camera now - or the same way any filmmaker would use a camera enabled cell phone."

Spence is working on a documentary "about how video and humanity intersect, especially with regards to surveillance."

ALL-SEEING EYE: Rob Spence's Eyeborg project uses a secret video camera implanted in his false eye

That doesn't mean artificial eyes and embedded cameras aren't coming. At MIT, researchers have developed a digital eye that enables the blind to see. At first, it was a giant machine costing $100,000. Then, a $4,000 desktop system. Now it's portable and costs around $500.

Elswhere at MIT you'll find Sixthsense, a wearable computer that uses a camera as an input device and nearby objects as display screens. The current prototype costs just $350 to build.

Rob Spence's eye uses a camera sensor developed by OmniVision, which specialises in high quality cameras for medical devices such as endoscopes. The firm is also working closely with Stanford University's Daniel Palanker on the Retinal Prosthesis project, a hugely complex and ambitious attempt to use sub-retinal implants to restore blind people's sight.

As an OmniVision spokesperson told us, the firm "agreed to participate in the project to jump-start and/or fuel research to provide vision for the blind."

Palanker has published a number of scientific papers detailing the project, and they make fascinating reading. In Design of a high-resolution optoelectronic retinal prosthesis [PDF] he explains how "an image from a video camera is projected by a goggle-mounted collimated infrared LED-LCD display onto the retina, activating an array of powered photodiodes in the retinal implant." Essentially the digital eye enables the blind to see again.

Hands-on technology

When Jerry Jalava was fitted with a prosthetic finger after a motorbike accident, he decided to make the finger more useful - by turning it into a USB drive containing Linux and some key applications.

"I'm planning to use the other prosthetic as a shell for the next version, which will have [a] removable fingertip and RFID tag," he writes.

Prosthetics have come a long way in recent years, with amputees being able to take advantage of myo-electric prosthetics that work just like real limbs. For example in May, Dawn O'Leary was fitted with a prosthetic arm that offers similar fine motor control to a real arm.

Sensors on her skin pick up nerve signals and operate the digits, enabling her to carry out complex tasks such as grasping the handle of a cup.

Researchers in Chicago have gone even further. The Neural Engineering Center for Artificial Limbs has developed techniques that combine myo-electric limbs with nerve transplants to deliver even finer motor control, with patients even being able to feel the objects they grip or touch. You can see the technology in action on YouTube.

TOUCH AND FEEL: Jesse Sullivan operates a bionic arm via nerve signals [Image from RIC video]

Cyborgs in love and war

Arms and the man

Sadly the "bionic arms race" owes much to a very real arms race. In 2005, the US military announced a multi-million dollar investment in prosthetic technology after a surge in the number of US soldiers losing limbs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Improvements in body armour technology mean that attacks that just a few years ago would be fatal are now survivable - but the armour doesn't protect limbs.

Inevitably the military isn't just interested in rehabilitating injured soldiers. It's rather keen on enhancing soldiers' effectiveness in battle, too, which is why it's testing exoskeletons.

Earlier this year, Lockheed Martin inked a deal with Berkeley Bionics to develop the HULC - Human Universal Load Carrier - "to provide soldiers [with] a powerful advantage in ground operations." [PDF]

STRONGER SOLDIERS: The HULC exoskeleton isn't sci-fi: Lockheed Martin is working on it with the US Military [Image: Lockheed Martin]

The big problem with such technology is that it needs power. Military versions are powered by battery packs or small combustion engines, while civilian prosthetics tend to use batteries.

That might change. US and Canadian scientists have found a way for prosthetics to generate power. As Dr Douglas Weber of the University of Pittsburgh told the BBC, "All of the new developments in prosthetics require large power budgets. You need power to run your neural interface; you need it to run your powered joint; and so on."

The solution? A modified knee brace that uses regenerative braking technology to turn movement into electricity.

Tech on the brain

Professor Kevin Warwick - dubbed "Captain Cyborg" by The Register - is famous for headline-chasing ideas such as implanting RFID chips under his skin or attempting telepathy by connecting two people's brains to computers, but behind the headlines he's doing some useful and potentially far-reaching work.

Warwick is helping to develop a new generation of Deep Brain Stimulation equipment, which uses electrodes to make an amazing difference to the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, and in 2008 he unveiled Gordon the robot.

Gordon is no ordinary robot: he's controlled by living brain tissue. As Warwick explains: "The purpose is to figure out how memories are actually stored in a biological brain… if we can understand some of the basics of what is going on in our little model brain, it could have enormous medical spin-offs".

While Warwick and his colleagues are trying to find out what makes us tick, other researchers are finding new ways of making us shriek.

In 1998, Dr Stuart Meloy was implanting electrodes in a patient's spine to make her feel better - but to say he exceeded his remit would probably be an understatement. "You'll have to teach my husband how to do that," the patient told him, moaning with pleasure.

Since then Meloy has been studying the effects of electrodes on the pleasure centres of our brains, and his device - inevitably dubbed the Orgasmatron - will be on sale within a few years.

As Meloy told the LA Times, unlike most medical devices the Orgasmatron won't be tested on animals: "I don't know how to ask animals 'where do you feel the tingling?' or 'do you want a cigarette?'"

SPINE TINGLING: The orgasmatron stimulates the nervous system to induce orgasm - but don't expect to see it in Ann Summers any time soon

So are USB fingers and extra ears part of our future? Probably not. They're impressive but not exactly essential or even particularly worthwhile, and while military exo-skeletons are interesting in an "eek! Terminator!" kind of way the real advances are medical.

From digital eyes that restore sight to prosthetic limbs that generate their own power, work like real limbs and even provide sensory feedback, technology can repair, replace and possibly even improve upon the human body.

Experiments such as Gordon the robot could shed light on the way our brains work, and in the (very) long term computers may even be able to detect and transmit our very thoughts, enabling us to communicate almost telepathically.

If you think Twitter is pretty tedious now, you ain't seen nothing yet.


Like this article? Then check out Child-like robots only a few years away

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