Science Wants to Build (and Is Already Building) a Better You
Human augmentation, or Human 2.0 as it's sometimes known, refers to technological innovations that are intended to restore, improve, supplement, and surpass human cognitive, sensory, and physical capability. Implants and devices that can be embedded within, worn on, or connected to the human body are examples of human augmentation technologies.
Human augmentation is not a new concept. Since ancient times, humans have been trying to improve the way their bodies and minds function. A 3,000-year-old wooden prosthetic toe was found on a female Egyptian mummy in an old tomb in Egypt. Prajit Datta, an AI researcher, writes in a Forbes Council post that reconstructive or plastic surgery was being performed in India as early as 800 B.C.
Up until a few years ago, most of these attempts at human improvement were directed at restoring bodily or sensory functions. It is only recently that part of the focus in this field has shifted to human enhancement, with a view to exceed natural sensory and physical abilities, in a quest to create super-strong, super-capable, and super-intelligent humans.
Different kinds of human augmentation
At present, there are three classes of human augmentation: sensory augmentation, physical augmentation, and cognitive augmentation.
Sensory augmentation technologies are designed to restore or enhance sensory capabilities. For example, cochlear implants are electronic devices that enable deaf people or those who are hard-of- hearing to process sounds. These devices are not known to be capable of restoring normal hearing, but can enable a person to hear partially. Glasses that enable humans to view augmented visuals are another example.
Examples of physical augmentation include prosthetic limbs. Thanks to technological innovations such as robotics and advances in material science, there have been remarkable developments in the field of prosthetics. Today, there are prosthetics that are almost as flexible and functional as natural human limbs.
In 2019, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) developed a mind-controlled robotic arm that uses non-invasive brain computer interfaces. The CMU researchers claim that this robotic arm is capable of precise, continuous movements.
Cognitive augmentation technologies are designed to improve cognitive or learning capabilities. Augmented cognition is based on multiple disciplines: neuroscience, cognitive reasoning, computer science, and engineering. Neurophysiological and physiological techniques are applied to sense the user's cognitive state.
Augmented cognition technologies are being used for health monitoring and providing assistance to certain types of neurological patients. Augmented cognitive techniques are also used to enhance memory and learning abilities. Besides wearable technology, ultrasound, infrared, and biofeedback loops can also detect functioning of the brain.
Benefits of Augmentation
There are quite a few examples of human augmentation technologies that are enabling, contributing to better health, and improving physical, sensory, and cognitive functioning, and general quality of life. Hearing aids and prosthetic limbs, as mentioned above, are basic and straightforward examples.
Human augmentation devices have helped to restore physical and sensory functions to some extent in humans who lacked the same from birth or had lost functionality due to an accident, illness, age, or disaster. Cognitive augmentation applications that use neurological stimulation can help improve learning and cognitive capabilities.
Drawbacks of Augmentation
With advances in information technology, biotech, and nanotechnology, researchers and human augmentation application vendors are working on developing technologies designed to enable humans to exceed normal human capacity.
This raises a host of ethical, societal, and scientific concerns. Enhancement technologies, particularly those based on nanotechnology and biotechnology, need to be monitored in the interest of safety, equality, and societal ramifications.
What about those who can't afford these enhancements or don't wish to pursue a technological upgrade of their natural abilities? If a specific enhancement becomes compulsory, or a factor for advancement in a particular profession, then those who don't opt for augmentation will have to leave their chosen field of work or find themselves at an unnatural disadvantage.
Is this going to give rise to an unnatural and perhaps harmful and unsustainable phase in human evolution? The aforementioned Prajit Datta wonders whether these developments in human enhancement technology will initiate the emergence of man-machines or bionic humans.
We don't know where this contest with nature, this zeal among some to become superior to our original design, will ultimately lead. Science fiction offers reams of cautionary fables in this regard, but it may be decades before we begin to answer the questions outside the realm of pure speculation.
Present and Future Applications
Examples of human augmentation applications that are already in use include:
Prosthetics — Prosthetic arms or legs have enabled numerous humans to regain normal functionality and meet their day-to-day needs without much pain and difficulty. The Jaipur foot, which was developed by a Jaipur-based prosthetics manufacturer, has enabled many to walk again.
Naked Prosthetics manufactures customized hand prosthetics for individuals who have lost their fingers. These finger prosthetics are capable of providing a high level of functionality to users.
Cochlear Implants — The development of this technology has pioneered hearing devices that enable an individual to hear partially without having to wear an external hearing aid.
Vision Augmenting Glasses — There are wearable devices that can help even blind individuals to regain (or develop) varying levels of vision. Some of these applications have cameras that take pictures of the surrounding environment and display them on a screen that the wearer can see.
Additionally, there are digital platforms that enable communication with deaf people. These devices are capable of translating speech into sign language and sign language into speech. Restorative technologies that are in the experimental stage include 3D printed body tissues, such as bones, skin, and some organs.
There are also augmentation technologies that are designed to supplement human abilities. Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap One are examples of Augmented Reality (AR) headsets that come with transparent lenses that enable the wearer to see digitally produced images in their surrounding environment. These computer-generated graphics can be projected somewhere in your surroundings and can interact with objects therein.
HoloLens and Magic Leap One, however, are development hardware and currently only used by some enterprises and educational institutes. They are not designed for consumer use. Google Glass is an example of consumer-available augmentation technology that is designed to augment human vision.
Exoskeletons are wearables that can enable the wearer to perform beyond his normal capability. The Sarcos Guardian is designed for use in industry and can enable an industrial worker to operate heavy machinery with high precision and lift loads up to 200 pounds.
Still in Development
Attempts to develop augmentation technologies that surpass normal human ability have increased in recent years. These technologies are still in the development stage or being used for special industrial or military purposes only.
Elon Musk is working on developing a Brain Computer Interface (BCI). This project, which is still in an experimental stage, is called Neuralink. Other enhancement technologies that are in the experimental stage include nanobots, synthetic memory chips, and artificial blood cells.
Some technologies feel like a blend of rumor, experimentation, and market-ready availability all at the same time. For example, a device that is said to enable humans to fly up to 500 feet is available on the market, but at a very high price.
A great deal of human augmentation technology is still in the early stages of development. The potential to improve human health and make a positive difference in peoples' lives is immense. Still, some developments in human enhancement technology will need to be viewed with caution, taking into consideration concerns about ethics, safety, equality, accessibility, and autonomy.