Cybernetics: Science Fiction Made Real
The fusion of technology with human biology has been foretold for decades in classic futurist theories such as those depicted in Ray Kurzweil’s famous book, The Singularity is Near. To follow the futurists’ logic in foretelling this, you have to believe that evolution does not stop at biology. Instead, evolution continues when a species evolves to the point where it can produce technology for the purpose of manipulating the species’ environment to its advantage. The continual improvement of technology then becomes an extension of biological evolution. Past this point, the species eventually realizes its capability of fusing technology with its own biology. This bypasses the limitations of biology while accelerating the species’ own evolution at a speed far greater than biological evolution alone could possibly muster. This is the next great frontier in our evolution - a way to extend our lifespans and enhance our physical, mental, and intellectual capabilities beyond what was previously thought possible.
(Figure 1 is borrowed from The Singularity is Near and displays a more detailed breakdown of this extension of the theory of evolution)
Where are we in this journey to the next phase of evolution?
The remainder of this article will explore applications of cybernetics, the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things. Cybernetics is a key emerging field that shows promise to bring about this next revolutionary era. Technology produced by cyberneticists has initially been used for prosthetics and this technology is increasingly being reimagined due to the realization that cybernetic enhancements can already, in many cases, exceed the capabilities of natural unaided human biology. New applications of cybernetics technology have the potential to vastly improve upon our natural biological strengths (and weaknesses) as human beings in unexpected ways.
Elon Musk’s newest company, Neuralink, seeks to establish a direct link between the brain and everyday technology. The company’s initial goal in applying this technology is to help people with paralysis regain their independence through the control of computers and mobile devices. Neuralink aims to accomplish this feat using a proprietary technology implanted into the brain of the patient, which will grant the person the ability to communicate more easily via text messages or voice synthesis, to explore the web, and to express their creativity through photography, art, or writing applications. Because paralysis patients do not have a high degree of mobility, the medium for completing these complex tasks is none other than the patient’s brain. The implant, once fully developed, will be able to detect and harness the signals the brain naturally produces and translate these signals into executable tasks such as typing a message or drawing a digital image. The company’s current iteration of the Link can be surgically installed into the patient entirely by a robot surgeon, also designed by Neuralink. The robot’s precision far exceeds that of even the most skilled neurosurgeon, as it can insert the Link’s 1,024 almost-microscopic electrodes into the brain without nicking a single vein or artery. The Link itself has already shown considerable promise in animal testing trials, in which the Link has been capable of predicting the positioning of animals’ joints while walking based on brain wave analysis, been safely implanted and removed with no harm done to the animals and no long-term side effects, and been able to recognize when animals’ snouts touch walls, floors, or objects. The device received the FDA Breakthrough Designation in July of 2020, which will fast-track its approval to go to market. Additionally, Elon Musk stated that the Link could be used in the near future to store and replay memories, with the potential for the sharing of memories across Links. Not only does this technology have the potential to vastly improve the lives of paralysis patients, but it has nearly limitless applications outside the medical field. What else could we control with our brains in the near future?
About 40 million people suffer from blindness with another 124+ million affected by low vision. Bionic eyes (not to be confused with prosthetic eyes, which are purely cosmetic) are already being used to restore a degree of vision in blind patients. The only commercially available bionic eye in the United States is called the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System (pictured below). The Argus II consists of a tiny camera mounted on eyeglasses and a transmitter that wirelessly sends signals to an electrode array that is implanted onto the damaged retina of a blind person. This system allows users to discern light, movement, and shapes to the point where many users can read large-print books and cross the street on their own. However, despite the large strides the Argus II model has made for its users, it still has a number of limitations that its team is trying to improve upon in future models. The system only has 60 electrodes while the amount required to see naturally is about 1 million, so the Argus II does not always restore vision to the degree many expect it to. Additionally, the system does not allow users to perceive colors and the costs associated with the system and the procedure to implant it amount to over $150,000 with health insurance often not covering any of the price. Fortunately, the Argus II’s associated company, Second Sight has already received CE Mark Certification and FDA conditional approval for its next model, which will include an improved camera, a more powerful video processing unit, more ergonomic glasses, and an increase in the electrodes on the device.
Other cybernetic eye enhancements veer off the course of medical miracles, closer to the realm of science fiction. One interesting example of such an enhancement was developed by a few scientists at University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) who developed a way to grant night vision to mammals. The scientists accomplished this by first utilizing upconversion nanoparticles (UNCPs), which emit green visible light when excited by near-infrared light. In order to get these nanoparticles to attach directly to the photoreceptors of the mice post-injection, they used a protein called Concanavalin A, which is know to “stick” to photoreceptors. Once injected and “stuck” to the mice’s photoreceptors, tests conducted by the scientists confirmed that the UNCPs granted the mice full-spectrum vision, allowing them to see infrared light without hindering their ability to also see visible light (the range of wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers that humans and most other mammals can see unaided). Because this innovation grants night vision without hindering the organism’s preexisting vision and without the need for external equipment or power sources, its continued development could result in useful night vision applications for humans.
Psychokinesis is the control of objects with the mind. Recently, University of Minnesota researchers have developed a high-tech non-invasive electroencephalograph (EEG) helmet fitted with 64 electrodes that allows the user to fly a drone using their mind. This brain-computer interface system picks up on neural activity without the need for a surgical implant, while still successfully allowing the user to facilitate the relatively complex task of flight. Perhaps the most impactful aspect of this project is actually the way in which the researchers were able to map the brain’s electrical activity while imagining certain movements. The researchers were the first to use both function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and EEG imaging to map where in the brain neurons are activated when imagining a movement. There are nearly limitless potential applications of this method of mapping neural activity and engineering technology that can translate this activity into the manipulation of one’s environment. Additionally, this project, funded by the National Science Foundation, may shed light on new ways to empower those with brain disabilities. The methods used to map where neurons activate when imagining movement could be used to study how neuroplasticity can be used to rewire patients’ brains and thus enable them to recover quicker and to a greater degree than was previously possible. This would bypass the need to use the brain to manipulate objects and instead accelerate recovery.
Unsurprisingly, cybernetics technology also has promising applications in the defense industry. Several companies, including Lockheed Martin, are developing exoskeletons for soldiers. Many military personnel must carry equipment exceeding 100 pounds for miles on end. Once arriving at a dangerous conflict zone, these personnel are already exhausted. Cybernetic exoskeletons allow soldiers to extend their endurance far beyond normal capacities, effectively mitigating the problem of exhaustion for soldiers. The “suits” are designed to bend and contract just as human muscles do while providing boost to each step taken. Like many cybernetics products, this technology was originally designed to help people with disabilities but its use has since expanded into new markets.
Whether cybernetics are used to create super soldiers, grant night vision, or fundamentally alter the lives of people with disabilities, the number of applications for these technologies are undoubtedly growing. As these technologies grant their users unfair advantages in various areas, the technologies’ use cases should slowly expand outside of niches and into the mass market. Soon enough, our biology and technology may become fully integrated, as Ray Kurzweil and other futurists have predicted.