Throughout the 80’s and 90’s loads of sci-fi featured bionic and cyborgs. growing up as a kid I thought this seemed amazing the Idea of breaking down the man machine interface and having a fully integrated user/data system. At the time I was probably somewhere in the countryside staring at a line of black and white DOS Script. Even with the release of systems such as SNES, with its “realistic” graphics and ready to go games cartridges the age of cyborgs seemed sci-fi.
Fast forward to modern-day and we are beginning to tackle some of the fundamental barriers to this. The key enabling technology ahs been improved neurological understanding.The Brain has been fascinating to human beings since the beginning of civilisation, the first known writings date around 4,000 years ago on the effects of the brain and until even recently little was understood. Though the effects of electricity on the nervous system was found by Luigi Galvani in the 18th Century, electrophysiology remained a mostly crude and anecdotal science until the turn of the 20th century when the roles of action potential and neural connectivity were discovered ( By Julius Bernstein and Santiago Ramon Cajal respectively) this enabled a cascade of discovery understanding the role of the nervous system and its interaction with the rest of the body.
Since invention of NMR techniques, first conceived int he 1950’s it has revolutionised brain imaging, as Now in real-time small fluctuations in blood flow can be seen, indicating which areas of the brain are involved when different inputs happen. This researched has hinted towards areas of the brain dealing with sight, Hearing, emotional response, speech, in both native and foreign tongues as well as control over many other body functions. we are also enabled to look at interactions between different regions. Though particularly interesting for understanding a variety of disease states it allows us insight into how our brain perceives input.
This crucially allows us to connect into the brain and control these functions. Where people have lost their hearing or a limb it is now possible to have electromechanical systems that directly interface to the brain. New generation prosthetics have been developed, they interface directly with the brain and peripheral nervous system, in a process known as Neuromorphic engineering to allow feedback. Prosthetic hands have been developed that integrate to allow individual digit control and currently groups are working on integrating thermal and pressure sensors to allow feedback more closely mimicing the natural function of limbs anbd reducing the likelihood of damage to prosthetics. This also may have great therapeutic benefits in tackling Phantom limb disorder, a syndrome oftenn encountered by amputees where a lack of input from a lost limb causes the brain to “invent” input ranging from chronic pins & needles in the place where the limb used to be, through to debilitating pain.
Other groups have developed CCD’s ( the “sensing” part of a digital camera) that are able to converse with the brain and primitive digital “eyes” have been created . Also Cochlear im plants that bypass the mechanical sytems of the ear and connect directly to the nerves have been constructed. The age of cybonics is getting closer.
Whilst this is all very cool and space age, and may act as a great leveler in the area of disability care we must always consider the ethical implications, It can be seen, that if we can make a camera to interface with the brain, and the brain can eventually learn to interpret the signal there is virtually no technological jump to creating a silicon chip that can sense at different wavelengths. This might enable Night-vision or Heat vision in”vivo”, well in silico/vivo i suppose. This would clearly have major ramifications for warfare markets and it is something which there is currently limited discussion on. Again Policy makers need to look at wide ranging controls and not focus ethical issues down to such small arguments as the rate of scientific development continues to outstrip that of policy and social change.
This is all very cool and I am completely for enabling technologies I just feel science as a whole has a duty not to allow itself to be exploited towards certain ends. This eventually is a responsibility that lies with individual researchers and engineers but will always be a moral problem when at the lab bench.