The Bionic Revolution


Author: Fil Zivko
27/2/2019

Imagine a future where you could run as fast as Usain Bolt or have hawk eyes which could see a mouse from 3km away. Well if bionics continue to develop, you may not have to imagine for much longer. Bionics is a general term for the integration of technology in living organisms. This could mean replacing a lost limb with a prosthetic or it could mean using super high-tech contacts lenses to zoom in far beyond the capability of the human eye. There have been some great strides forward in this field in recent years, with much more advancement expected. So, let’s take a look at how bionics will change tomorrows humans. Bionics isn’t new, in fact, the earliest recorded prosthetic was discovered on a mummy with a toe made from wood and leather around the 950 BC. Luckily, a lot has changed since then, and humans have a more comfortable experience when replacing a body part. In fact, chances are you know a bionic human, has your grandmother had a hip replacement, maybe your friend has a hearing aid or maybe someone you know has a pacemaker. These are all examples of bionics helping humans live better lives. But what about bionics that helps make you better than you were before? Currently, hearing aids exist which can not only help people with hearing issues hear more but they can focus in on conversations or create white noise if you don’t want to hear what’s going on around you. The US government is also looking at bionics, investing in exoskeletons to make superhuman soldiers. But the MIT centre for extreme bionics and other researchers have some big ideas. The human brain is an incredibly complex dense network of neurons which work by sending electrical impulses. Scientists are attempting to control neurons, through a field called optogenetics. In order to do this, the neurons in the brain are equipped by researchers with molecules which are genetically modified to act as solar panels. These tiny solar panels in the neurons, would absorb light and emit electricity, firing up that neuron. Scientists hope that this will one day allow them to control the brain and its functionality in order to cure brain disorders. MIT researchers demonstrated the potential by placing a blind mouse in a maze, which was flooded with water. Before treatment, the mouse frantically touched the walls until it found the pathway to an elevated platform where it could climb up to safety. This platform had a light above it, but as the mouse was blind, it was no help. After optogenetic treatment on its photo-receptors, the mouse was able to use visual information from the light source to find the platform straight away. Researchers hope that mastering this technology could potentially mean the end of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and Parkinson’s disease. Researchers at Monash University, are also attempting to bio-hack the brain by implanting electrodes directly to the visual cortex. The idea is to place a camera on glasses which wirelessly send signals to the electrodes and activate the parts of the brain in such a way to produce an image of what the camera is seeing. Trials began in 2018. Researchers in the US have also been successful in harnessing this method to implant new memories into rats. The idea is to help dementia patients; however, this would open the door for the average person to augment their memory capacity, which in turn opens up a host of moral and legal issues. At the MIT Extreme Bionics Lab, researchers are working on connecting prosthetic limbs to the nervous system. Many prosthetics are rigid and allow very minimal movement. So, researchers are connecting the nerve endings of an amputated limb to sensors which can sense electrical impulses. These impulses work to tell muscles to tighten or relax, resulting in movement. The sensors then convert the information to mechanical movement and allow the prosthetic limb to move in the desired way, almost like mind reading. The limit of our physical capabilities is down to the material that our bodies are constructed from. However, with a prosthesis, we can set the strength of our new bone to be as strong as titanium or use mechanical devices that can make us jump higher than any human naturally could. But of course, we first need to gain full control of the prosthetics. The John Hopkin’s Applied Physics Lab is attempting to bridge this control gap. A major obstacle in the way of prosthetic research is allowing patients to regain a sense of touch. The sense of touch is very important as, for example, it allows us to know how hard or soft to hold something. Using a surgery called sensory reinnervation, doctors were able to find the nerves responsible for touch and remap them onto easily accessible points on the skin. Researches then applied touch sensors on a robotic arm and fed the signals back to the remapped nerves. This allowed the patient to feel when their middle finger was being touched despite being amputated from the elbow down. The patient could also close their eyes and pick up a ball, telling researchers the exact moment when they felt the ball in their robotic hand. However, sometimes it’s better to make organic natural replacements for the human body. Researchers have long term visions of not only replacing the parts of our bodies as they fail or are lost but having parts on demand, like growing brains in the lab until they are required. In the future, you could go shopping for a new 3D bio printed heart or kidney in a store, with pre-made options sitting on the shelf. While this may be a while away, it’s not inconceivable. Scientists have already grown organs to some extent such as eyes, livers and even brains. While these organs currently only serve for scientific research, at some point in the future finding donors for a transplant may be a thing of the past. What happens when bionics become better than the real thing? There are concerns regarding the morality and legality of voluntarily removing a limb in order to gain a superhuman advantage in the future. If we take medications to return us to our normal selves, say in the case of an illness, this is seen as acceptable. However, taking medications to improve one’s abilities such as performance-enhancing drugs in sports is a major taboo. If we have the capability of making a prosthetic stronger or faster than a human arm, should we? If we could, in the future, make the brain exceed its potential, why wouldn’t we? Bionic technology, for voluntary adoption, would needless to say be very expensive, so how does that increase inequality. We can already see this with laser eye surgery, where people can pay to restore or even upgrade their vision. Will we create a world of rich superhumans and people that couldn’t afford the upgrades? Or will the technology be limited to restoring human abilities and made available to everyone?

Tags : bionics, prosthetic, prosthesis, prosthetics, superhuman, brain, equality, research ,2019-02-27
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