The Cyborg Times

Published Date
01 - Jan - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Jan - 2005
 
The Cyborg Times
Defying Death

Mumbai: Which of the following is science fiction?
(a) A rat's brain flying a plane
(b) An android removing his biological eye
(c) A monkey controlling a robot using its thoughts

Though it is the least weird of the three, the answer is (b)-from the movie Terminator. Yes, it's finally come to pass-science fact is truly stranger than science fiction. We have all watched blockbusters such as Terminator, and are all familiar with the terms cyborg, cybernetics, android, etc. However, what is a cyborg? Dictionary.com's definition: "Cyborg: A human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices." So, in theory, a person with an artificial limb, or heart, or lung, or even a hearing aid, could be considered a cyborg.

However, this is not about nit-picking over definitions, it's about us, humans, and how technology is changing us; making us evolve into part-tech, part-tissue beings.

So how many people that you know are already on their way to becoming a cyborg? There are several out there already!

Scientists at the University of Tokyo are experimenting with how cockroaches can be put to use. This cockroach has, attached to its head, electrodes that can be remote-controlled

Life As A Cyborg!
It's 2050: are you still completely human? Read on to find out what you are missing in life...

Experience A Much Richer World:
Wire up your brain to accept all kinds of input, beyond your current five senses. See the "colours" of an X-Ray, "smell" an infrared signal!

Control Yourself Via A Computer:
Using brain implants, you can unite with a computer that stores all your experiences. You can then play them back when you wish, truly reliving each moment!

Have Infinite Knowledge:
A global consortium of supercomputers awaits! Everyone's experiences and knowledge are stored inside this collective. Log in to absorb knowledge and relive others' experiences!.
Mini-Me: Instead of a companion computer that resembles a metallic box, why not employ a clone instead! With a computer instead of a brain in his skull-send him out on a mission, and experience the dangers of life through him without jeopardising yourself.

Never Die:
When a body part malfunctions or drops below a specific performance level, your trusty Mini-Me will remind you that you need to have a servicing done. Even if your brain starts dying, create a clone, upload data from your old brain to your new one and live on through the new brain and body.

"I Want To Be A Cyborg"
"My being born a human was an accident," confesses  Professor Kevin Warwick

Reading, UK: Kevin Warwick, Professor in the Department of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, has proclaimed that his being born human was "an accident of fate," which he says, can be changed. In his "Project Cyborg," Warwick experimented with what measure of control could be achieved using implants-electronic chips married to his body, specifically, his arm.

His first implant, back in 1998, allowed him to control doors by hand gestures or walking in a certain direction. In 2002, an implant comprising an array of 100 electrodes, with a neural interface allowed him to go further.

The new implant sends signals back and forth between Warwick's nervous system and a computer. The idea is to "tap into his nerve fibres" and try a series of experiments. His first goal was to record and identify signals associated with motion.

When he twiddled his left index finger, a signal was sent, via the implant, to a computer where it was then recorded and stored. The next step was to transmit this signal back to the implant, in an attempt to generate an action in Warwick-trying to get his left index finger to twiddle.
Project Cyborg

Warwick's team would attempt this exercise with emotional signals as well. When he was happy, they would record the signal. Then, when his mood changed the next day, they would play the happy signal back, to try and cheer him up. Similarly, the team wanted to see whether signals such as ultraviolet, ultrasound, and X-rays sent to the implant, would be capable of being processed by Warwick's brain.
The electrode-array experiment in 2002 was successful, and the signal produced was detailed enough for a robot arm to be able to mimic the actions of Warwick's arm! Also, using the neural interface, Warwick controlled an electric wheelchair and an intelligent artificial hand. The implant was able to measure nerve signals transmitted down Warwick's arm, and was also able to create artificial sensation.

Warwick's experiments and ideas are worth noting because he is not only a professor and researcher; he is also an actual cyborg, by virtue of his implants.
There has been no dearth of criticism about Warwick, though-for example, why didn't he do something more interesting with his first implant than control equipment?

 

Fact Stranger Than Fiction
Computers controlled by brains, brains controlled by computers... Would you like to have your brain wired for remote control?

Soon, say several experts, sci-fi will need to catch up with reality.

In 1997, researchers at the University of Tokyo attached some of the motor neurons of a cockroach to a microprocessor. Signals were sent to the neurons, through electrodes, and the cockroach was propelled involuntarily. The next step is to eliminate controls-wire up a human brain to the cockroach, and let the human control it by thought! So how long before humans can be wired up and controlled? More importantly, who will do the controlling?

Warwick once spoke of an experiment in which a team at Emory University in Atlanta implanted a transmitting device into the brain of a stroke patient.

After the motor neurons were linked to the silicon, the patient was able to move a cursor on a computer monitor just by thinking about it. If thought control of a cursor is possible, why not thought control of an implant in someone else's brain-effectively, the direct transmission of thought via implants? What about mind-reading?

In December 2004, four people were able to control a computer using their thoughts and an electrode-studded "thinking cap," US researchers reported. The experiment, reported in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, required no surgery and no implants. During the experiments, the four volunteers faced a video screen wearing a cap that held 64 electrodes against the scalp to record their brain activity. The key, of course, was the algorithm that translated brain signals into an interpretation of what the users wanted the computer to do.

A normal by-product of such advances is paranoia, and understandably so. So your brain is directly connected to your PC, but what stops the commands from being sent from PC to brain? No system is perfect, and all of us computer users will testify to that. What if someone developed a virus that could seize control of your brain the next time you "interfaced" with your computer? Paranoia is the leveller of the over-enthusiastic, and some believe that mass mind control already exists-visit http://snipurl.com/ bjvi and http://snipurl.com/bjvj, which are indicative.

Rat's Brain Flies Airplane
A brain in a dish! Seriously!

Thomas DeMarse, a University of Florida (UF) scientist, grew a living "brain" that could fly a simulated plane. The "brain" was a collection of 25,000 living neurons taken from a rat's brain and cultured in a glass dish. DeMarse's experimental "brain" interacts with a flight simulator of an F-22 fighter jet through a desktop computer, and a specially designed plate called a multi-electrode array. DeMarse says, "Over the electrode grid in the dish, we put living cortical neurons from rats, which rapidly begin to re-connect themselves, forming a living neural network-a brain." The brain and the simulator establish a two-way connection, similar to how neurons receive and interpret signals from each other to control our bodies.

To control the simulated aircraft, the neurons first receive information from the computer about flight conditions-for example, whether the plane is flying level or if it is tilted. The neurons then analyse the data and respond by sending signals to the plane's controls. Those signals alter the flight path and new information is sent to the neurons, creating a feedback system. The "brain" slowly learns to fly the plane, through trial and error.

So is this just another neural network displaying learning behaviour? In a sense, yes. But the fact that it is living makes it a milestone. If a rat's brain cells can pilot a simulated plane, what might a human brain in a dish be capable of?

The Artificial Heart
October 2004, federal regulators approved use of an artificial heart, marking the first time a mechanical device has been made widely available to replace a failing human organ. In contrast with early hopes of permanently replacing an ailing heart with a man-made pump, the new device substitutes for the bottom half of the heart and can be used only to sustain critically ill patients in the hospital, until they can get a heart transplant.
The CardioWest Total Artificial Heart offers hope to Americans who would otherwise die each year without it. "It's a milestone," said Robert Jarvik, whose Jarvik-7 heart caused a world buzz when it was implanted in Barney Clark in 1982.

Electronic Eel
Israel: Dr Amir Karniel, an expert in electrical engineering from the Technion, and a researcher in the area of motor control, has participated in several fascinating experiments. In one of them, he and other researchers separated the brain stem of a lamprey-an eel-like fish-from its body, and kept it alive in a container filled with oxygenated salt water, with electrodes attached to its side.

They connected a standard robot with wheels and light sensors to this floating brain. The robot was surrounded by a ring of light bulbs, controlled by the researchers. When a light bulb was flashed, the robot would send a signal to the floating brain, informing it of a flashing light.
The brain was able to understand this data, and send back a signal, commanding the robot to move, correctly, towards the light.

Now we know that disembodied brains can indeed command robotic appliances to act on their behalf. Perhaps the people who have spent millions on cryogenics (freezing human brains, with the hope of living again someday) will have the last laugh after all.

But living forever, as utopian as it may sound, is not the be-all and end-all of such research.

Wire Your Brain To The Net
Rodney Brooks, a leading roboticist and Professor of Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has said, "Direct neural control of complex machines is a long-term US military goal. DARPA has a brain-machine interface program aimed at creating next-generation wireless interfaces between neural systems and, initially, prosthetics and other biomedical devices." Brooks, who is also Director of the MIT AI Lab, goes on to say that the brain-Internet interface is not as far off as we think. Imagine that-broadband to your brain! (Visit http:// snipurl.com/bjvk to see the full article.)

For a roundup of some exciting brain implant research, head to http:// snipurl.com/bjvl. 
Time Machine
500 BC: Earliest known written reference to an artificial limb
300 BC: Capri, Italy. In 1858, a copper and wood leg dating from 300 BC unearthed
1863: Improvements to the attachment of artificial limbs
1898: Dr Vanghetti invents an artificial limb that moves through muscle contraction
1946: Major advancement in the attachment of lower limbs
1954: The first kidney transplant in Boston by Joseph Murray; also the first successful human organ transplant
1962: First breast implants
1963: First liver transplant; the patient dies within a few days
1966: First pancreas transplant, immediately after the transplant, patient's blood sugar level begins to fall
1967: First successful liver transplant. The liver functions for 13 months
1978: Rod Saunders implanted with the first research multi-channel cochlear implant
1982: Graham Carrick implanted with the first commercially-available 22-channel nucleus cochlear implant
1982: Dr Barney Clark implanted with the Jarvik-7, an artificial heart intended to last a lifetime. Patient survives 112 days
1988: First successful liver-bowel Transplant. A liver and six metres of intestine transplanted
1989: First combination heart, liver and kidney Transplant. Surgeons transplant a heart, liver, and kidney into a 26-year-old woman.
2000: "Smart" legs-entire smart lower limbs, with digital control systems-expected to be on the market after two years
2000: "Jerry," blind after a blow to his head 36 years prior, regains his ability to see thanks to an artificial eye. Jerry sees a simple display of dots that outline an object
2001: First completely self-contained artificial heart transplant
2003: The world's first brain prosthesis-an artificial hippocampus-is tested. Unlike devices such as cochlear implants, which merely simulate brain activity, this chip implant performs the same processes as the damaged part of the brain it is replacing

 

There Is A New World Order

With implants recording our experiences, and with the ability to play them back, will all experiences boil down to the right kind of implant?

Will we have any use for a "regular" life at all? Will we, as cyborgs, lie asleep, Matrix-style, experiencing the world via our implants? If thought control becomes possible, who will control whose thoughts? Who will be the ultimate controller, preventing us from bringing back slavery? If we can read each other's thoughts, we will not be able to lie-is that good or bad? Will the exorbitant prices of such implants mean that the rich will live forever and the poor will continue to die, relatively, young? Will there be exorbitantly-priced implants that offer control over other, lesser-priced variants?

These are profound questions, and they will become more and more important. A simple example: the Total Artificial Heart costs $100,000 (Rs 44,61,000). Who gets to be in the queue?

The facts are simple: the technology exists; it needs to be improved; it will be improved. Immortality is just a few years or decades and a few thousand successful experiments away-providing you can afford it!

What It Boils Down To...
So what does all this research amount to? What do Warwick's experiments, DeMarse's rat brain-controlled flight simulator, Karniel's lamprey-controlled robot and the remote-controlled cockroach have in common?
Apart from scientific curiosity, it is evolution. Human evolution has hit a plateau; we have reached the limit of interaction with the universe-you cannot move a cup just by thinking about it. Telekinesis may be beyond our reach, but biological cybernetics isn't. It is biological cybernetics that allows Warwick's computer to respond when he enters the room, or lets a disembodied brain, or parts of a brain, control a robot or a flight simulator.
As our brains develop, our bodies and the universe around us become bottlenecks. Soon we won't have to control hand muscles, and reach out for a mouse, move it to a Web link on our screen, and then control our finger muscles to click on it-instead, we will only "think it"! No longer will your life be dependant on how long your tissues and organs hold out; instead, you will get a brand new android body for your brain-your only concern will be visiting the "service centre" and "changing your oil"!
Ultimately, it boils down to controlling your own mortality, and achieving super-human feats. We all want to live forever! 
 



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