Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: The cyborgs are here

And they're nothing like the Borg in Star Trek. In fact, Peter would be happy to be one...
Written by silicon.com staff, Contributor

And they're nothing like the Borg in Star Trek. In fact, Peter would be happy to be one...

All sorts of health conditions are prompting ever more sci-fi-like solutions - and Peter Cochrane believes it won't be long before the boundaries between carbon and silicon, between man and machine, are forever blurred... We are on course to becoming a part of our own technology. Millions already carry sophisticated electronics embedded in their bodies: pacemakers, artificial hearts, respiratory stimulators and pain relief modules, now installed in prolific numbers to sustain otherwise threatened lives. At the forefront of experimentation are total paraplegics controlling computers by thinking, the sightless seeing shadowy images for the first time and the spinally damaged able to achieve limited movement in otherwise disconnected limbs. Small chip sensors and radio units implanted in the brain collect and transmit neural pulses to a computer, and the human brain can adapt to move a mouse and select keys. An artificial retina implant has given very poor resolution sight to a few previously unable to see. Robotic limbs have been connected directly to the human nervous system. But there is a long way to go before we create a Steve Austin. The scale of difference between where we are now and fully engineered, patient-adequate performance is on a par with the difference between a crystal set of the early 1900s and a modern PC. But our technological progress is now far faster than in 1900 and we may only have to wait another 20 years or so. So, the half human/half machine is not far away. But it doesn’t have to be like the Borg in Star Trek. It does not have to be ugly and threatening. It can be beautiful and it can repair and restore people. I have a vested interest as I am becoming increasingly deaf and my pancreas is dysfunctional. To date my ears are 25dB and 15dB down and my hearing range limited to frequencies below 9kHz – about half the norm. As a result, conversations in noisy environments are increasingly difficult, and I tend to deafen others with the volume of TV and hi-fi. I suspect my weakening pancreas will soon see me resorting to insulin. This is all a growing and interesting experience, and while I instantly receive sympathy for my diabetes, not so for my deafness. Of course my wish would be to have my physical shortcomings repaired and restored using the same materials of which I am constructed – carbon. And I suspect that genetic engineering will get their sooner than expected. Artificial hearing elements such as cartilage for lobes, skin for drums and linkages to the inner ear are already available. However, an artificial cochlea sub-assembly connected directly to the auditory nerve seems some way off. In the short term I would happily subsume any form of electronic technology into my body to overcome my current limitations. However, my inclination would be also to enhance my hearing well beyond the original specification of our species, and I would also include other facilities such as an implanted radio and mobile phone. I have experimented with highly sensitive hearing augmentation involving microphones, low noise amplifiers and ear inserts. It is interesting to discover what we are all missing! The breathing of someone across a room, birds singing 500m away, the brush of feet on carpet and the rustle of clothing as people walk - these are just a few examples. If I can enhance my hearing, then I immediately want to enhance my sight. To see into the infrared and ultraviolet, to be able to switch colour in or out for the advantage of contrast afforded by pure black and white, would be life and survival enhancing. But it is in the area of visually enhancing hearing that I suspect we would gain most. For me, the worst feature of gradual deafness is a degraded spatial awareness – of which ambient noise plays an important part in our perception processing. I would benefit hugely if this could be presented visually on some form of head-up display, along with text messages and other awareness enhancing features such as noise direction and intensity indicators. Another interesting opportunity I could add to my super-human wish list is a real time speech-to-text display. Subtitles on every conversation, TV broadcast and movie would be a real boon. All the basic technology is available today, only it is far too slow and cumbersome to be worn and carried for real-time use. But in fewer than 20 years it should be possible. Predicting the future has always been risky but the speed up of technology development is making it progressively easier, and especially as most of our past efforts turned out to be so pessimistic. The future just seems to arrive faster every year. So I think we can confidently assume healthcare, remote working, education, trading, news, entertainment and almost everything will take place increasingly online. And if we continue to wear more technology, and accept more implants, then we too will be part of that online world. If we can control our functions and our devices through implants and thinking, then there is also a real chance we will be able to communicate by the same means. By 2025 our computers will be over one million times more powerful than today and our relationship with technology will have been transformed far more than in the previous 100 years. In some respects a Borg-like society is inevitable but it doesn’t have to be dark, ominous and threatening. It can be rich and life enhancing. Footnote: I was prompted to write this after offering a young Swedish lady a chocolate from my in-flight dinner tray with the explanation that I was a type two diabetic and could not eat it. She kindly accepted and explained she was type 1 but had an insulin pump and could eat it. I was sitting next to a blond, blue-eyed cyborg – not at all like the Star Trek version! Compiled on BA10 over-flying Russia from Bangkok to London. Transmitted to silicon.com from my car on the M25 between Heathrow and my home five hours later via my G4 laptop and 2.5G tri-band mobile phone. What do you think? You can contact Peter by emailing pcochrane@silicon.com. Peter Cochrane is a co-founder of ConceptLabs CA, where he acts as a mentor, advisor, consultant and business angel to a wide range of companies. He is the former CTO and Head of Research at BT, as part of a career at the telco spanning 38 years. He holds a number of prominent posts as a technologist, entrepreneur, writer and humanist, and is the UK's first Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. For more about Peter, see: www.cochrane.org.uk. For all Peter's columns for silicon.com, see: www.silicon.com/petercochrane.
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