By Duncan Jefferies
More than human
Scientists recently announced the successful trial of a contact lens that can project images in front of the eyes. It’s early days yet, but in future your emails and information on your surroundings could form part of your vision, and video games will achieve new levels of immersion.
Scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle say the lenses will be safe to use, but there are still hurdles to overcome – such as finding a way to power them effectively. However, thanks to their work, Terminator vision is one step closer to becoming reality.
Many other kinds of cyborg technology are also in development, which will enable us to augment our bodies in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways, as well as offering the potential to dramatically improve the lives of disabled people. Here are some of the most exciting examples of the cyborg technology that could make us more than human.
Cochlear implants can provide a sense of hearing for profoundly deaf people. A receiver transmitter – effectively a tiny microphone – picks up sound, sending it to a sophisticated processor as an electrical impulse. Finally, the sound is converted into electrical signals by a receiver inside the skull, and electrodes implanted in the inner ear then stimulate the auditory nerve.
Although they cannot yet replicate natural hearing, cochlear implants can enable a deaf person to understand speech and a range of other sounds – particularly if they receive the implants when they are a child, as the brain adapts to processing electrical sounds with greater ease before adolescence.
Prosthetic limb technology is progressing at astonishing speed, with the latest bionic hands capable of very precise movements. The i-Limb Pulse, one of the most advanced prosthetics available, uses a special pulse technology to supply controllable grip strength to each digit, enabling the user to perform fiddly actions such as tying shoelaces.
The aluminium chassis means it’s super strong too: it can carry up to 90kg of weight. Thousands of patients have now been fitted with the i-Limb, which can be programmed wirelessly to suit individual requirements. Such cutting-edge technology doesn’t come cheap, however: an i-Limb fitting costs around £25,000.
Burns, sun damage, infections and other traumas can all do disastrous things to our skin. Traditionally, the treatment in such cases has been a skin graft. But recent scientific advances mean that artificial skin may soon be able to do the job just as well, if not better, than natural skin. Robots and prosthetic limbs may even get their own touch-sensitive ‘skins’ in future, thanks to work being carried out by Stanford researchers.
They’ve created a transparent sensor which can stretch to twice its normal length – repeatedly – and snap back to its original size without wrinkling. It can also register pressure ranging from a pinch to the equivalent of an elephant standing on one foot.
Nicknamed ‘The Blade Runner’ and ‘The fastest man on no legs’, South African athlete Oscar Pistorius could soon be running in the Olympics despite having had both his legs amputated at a young age. Thanks to the Cheetah carbonfibre foot, he’s able to move just as fast as any able-bodied runner – some people even claim his blades give him an advantage over other athletes.
The J-shaped design of the Cheetah replicates the running characteristics of its big cat namesake – the animal’s foot reaches out to paw the ground while its thigh muscles pull the body forward. It is available in different configurations to suit all kinds of running styles – including Pistorius’s super-fast sprinting.
The Matrix is coming. Seriously, we’re not kidding – the latest brain-computer interfaces enable people to move objects on a screen using only their thoughts. It’s a small step from there to goop-filled tanks, evil robots, trench coats and 1990s mobile phones. And nobody wants that.
However, despite the warning from Hollywood, researchers are pushing ahead with technologies that will link our minds to machines. Electroencephalography (EEG) brain-scanning devices such as the one pictured make it possible for people to control computers using thought alone. But electrocorticography (ECoG) implants are currently the most promising technology for recording brainwaves. Electrodes are embedded in a thin plastic pad, which is placed beneath the skull on the cortex. This allows the subject to, for example, play video games purely by thought.
Fleas can jump over 80 times their own height – equivalent to a human leaping over a 480-foot building. Fans of PowerBocking (named after the inventor of the technology, Alexander Böck) can’t quite get that high. But once they strap on a pair of nifty spring-loaded stilts (often called Bocks or Powerisers) they are able to propel themselves up to seven feet into the air, cover 10 feet of ground in a single bound, and run at 20mph.
The technology was originally developed by the aerospace industry, but has since been adopted by extreme sports enthusiasts. They are able to perform all the incredible feats mentioned above using only their weight and body movement.
If you’ve seen the film Innerspace you’ll have some inkling of how nanobots might work. These microscopic robots don’t need shrink rays or Dennis Quaid though; they operate entirely independently. As they’re so tiny nanobots would need to work together in swarms to keep us healthy; by keeping us in tip-top shape at the cellular level they may even be able to extend our lifespans.
Currently, the technology is only in its early stages: nanobots only a few micrometers long have been created in the lab, but researchers are a long way from developing a miniature machine that can, for example, zap cancer cells from inside our bodies.
This amazing piece of technology allows above-knee amputees to walk with an ease that was impossible only a decade ago. It is designed to mimic muscle activity, and learns and responds to people’s natural gait in order to keep them moving efficiently and as naturally as possible.
The casing houses a motor and a microchip, and enables users to tackle obstacles and inclines without fear of falling. It anticipates what a person’s next step will be, and adjusts itself accordingly. The device can even help people rise from a chair, and power them upstairs too.
Fujitsu Hybrid Power Generation Device
Recently shown off during the CEATEC 2011 electronics trade show, this clever gadget from Fujitsu runs off our own bodies. At the moment this wearable cell can only generate a tiny amount of energy from someone when placed upon their skin; power is generated by body heat as well as the sun, and collected by organic semi-conductor materials.
The output of the 5×5 cm device is a mere 700 microWatts, so you won’t be charging your smartphone off it anytime soon. It does, however, point the way to a future where you’ll never be stuck with a dead battery again.