In a recent article posted on the The Guardian website, author and new-age guru Deepak Chopra made an interesting observation.
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“A cyborg future is coming. Man’s relationship with machine is merging and machines are an extension of our own intelligence. I’m so into it. I wear all kinds of bio-sensors to tell me what’s going on inside me. It’s the future,” said Chopra.
Anyone who has read my posts lately will know that I’ve been going through a bit of an obsession, not just with bitcoin, but with biologically inspired technology. From wearable tech, to medical implants to complex interfaces between brain, mind and machine, recent developments in combining machines and organisms of various types is a fascinating subject, but it also gives rise to some major ethical concerns.
In a recent paper published in the renowned journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition, German scientists discuss the state of the art of research, opportunities, and risks facing so called “Cyborgs.” Although published in German, the paper explores the latest developments at the interface between technical systems and living organisms.
First a bit of background, a “cyborg” is an acronym for a cybernetic organism. More simply, it describes a kind of chimera, a living organism combined with a machine. For many this may sound like some far-fetched Sci-fi novel, but today many people use intracorporeal medical systems (occurring within the body) such as pacemakers, complex prostheses or cochlear and retinal implants. In a technical sense, many humans can already be considered as cyborgs.
The report’s authors note that in recent years, the current needs in the field of biomedicine and the enormous advances in micro-and nanotechnology have driven the original idea of cybernetic organism to new levels. They describe a compound yet functional interaction between living tissue and technical systems that have reached an astonishing level of complexity. Modern man made systems are now able to interact or even replace central body functions. One common example is the frequently of implanted cardiac pacemakers. These types of implants help to compensate for diminished sensory abilities, for example using cochlear implants for hearing. Often they can complement nonfunctional body structures, such as arms or legs that can be partially or completely replaced by technical prostheses that can interact directly with your brain.
The use of prostheses or implants certainly isn’t a new idea. Humans have been using implanted technical aids of various types for thousands of years to compensate for defects and impairments caused by traumatic events or illnesses or just vanity. Back as far back as Roman times, artificial dentures made of forged iron were used as dental implants to replace lost teeth
Today, when a technical system or machine is used to replace a complex function within the body, such as gripping a hand, it is essential that the system be closely related to the living organism. Ideally, the system itself should be capable of receiving and sending the appropriate signals for the movement and control directly from the central nervous system and especially the brain itself. Such “hardware / wetware interfaces” are typically referred to as brain-machine interfaces. They represent the interface to receive control commands from the technical systems and to which they may return feedback or stimulation.
Low-cost brain-machine interfaces make interfacing with our central nervous systems more accessible then ever before even for laymen. One example is the SpikerBox that is commercially sold by Backyard Brains. The company describes the product as “a great way to get introduced to hands-on neuroscience.” Technically it is a” bioamplifier” that allows you to hear and see spikes (i.e. action potentials) of real living neurons in invertebrates (cricket, earthworm, or cockroach) which you can order from us or pick up in a local pet store or backyard. The company even offers a Smartphone Cable to plug your SpikerBox into your smartphone or tablet to look at the neurons firing in real time.
Needless to say, there are some pretty serious ethical concerns when you start talking about experimenting on backyard invertebrates. Ethical concerns aside, interfacing directly with lower forms of life opens up the potential for variety of interesting usages. The brains of lower organisms, such as insects, are much less complex. They allow us to more easily understand how a certain movements are programmed, such as running or flying. The use of autonomous electronics implanted with in insects has enabled researchers with the able to remotely control insects for up to 3 hours. In many ways, insects provide the gold standard in terms of aerodynamics, sustainability, energy efficiency and biochemical sensor capabilities.
By understanding these core biological processes, the opportunity for so-called biobots, (i.e. large insects with implanted electronic and microfluidic control units) can be used in a new generation of tools, such as small flying objects for monitoring or even autonomous drones, which can based upon real life processes found within organisms. Moreover, these systems could also be powered by the organism’s own thermal, kinetic, electric or chemical energy making them extremely energy efficient.
Grasping the fundamental way our biological processes work offers a huge potential to tap into some of the efficiencies we as humans enjoy. One such example is the energy efficiency of the human brain. It is both the most powerful and most efficient computer ever created. Running on just 23.3 watts, the brain makes up 2% of a person’s weight. Despite this, even at rest, the brain consumes 20% of the body’s energy. The brain consumes energy at 10 times the rate of the rest of the body per gram of tissue. Even though your brain is the most energy intensive organ in your body, by computing technology standards, your brain uses extremely low amount of energy for an estimated 1exaFLOP (exaSCALE) computing capability. Theoretically, an exaSCALE computing system – 100 times more computing capability than today’s fastest systems – could be built with only more common x86 processors, but it would require as much as 2 gigawatts of power or roughly the peak power generation of the Hoover Dam. In terms of bang for your computing buck, your brain is by far the winner, at the rate of about 86,956,521 times more power efficient than conventional computing systems.
Some believe that the relationship between technology and biology may provide the next step in our evolution. For me this is both fascinating and terrifying.