Cyborgs – Science Fiction to Scientific Reality
By William Sutherland
The year is 2021. It is two decades after the 9/11 attacks. A group of terrorists are seated at an outdoor café discussing their plans. A cat observes from about 5 meters away. Images are transmitted from its brain providing real-time information. At the same time, a tiny beetle goes unnoticed as it takes position underneath the table. It is outfitted with a nano-listening device that transmits the content of the terrorists’ discussion also in real-time. A few minutes later, a couple of pigeons land nearby and begin pecking for crumbs. As they do so, they inch closer to the table. A few minutes later, each pigeon lifts a wing dispensing a poisoned dart. Before the terrorists can react, each is dead. Elsewhere in the world, a soldier who lost his arms and legs in combat, through sheer perseverance and utilization of bionic limbs wins a triathlon. In the process, he outperforms mere mortals with natural limbs. Sound far-fetched? Not anymore! Cyborgs – part machine, part biological organism that can be used for scientific, medical, military/intelligence/law enforcement purposes, have become a reality thanks to scientific and technological advances presenting both promise (e.g. the possibility of significant medical breakthroughs to restore and enhance quality of life and to extend life itself) and trepidation (e.g. as machine and organism merge, the delineating boundary of life becomes blurred impacting associated rights while the possibility of controlling human thought and action becomes frighteningly real).
The term “cyborg” was coined by NASA scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960 when discussing the hypothetical advantages of human-machines in space. Although such cybernetic organisms became the realm of science fiction, efforts to create real-life cyborgs began even before the term was conceived and continue to this day.
· In 1950 José Delgado of Yale University inserted electrodes onto a bull’s brain to gain crude control over its movements. He successfully demonstrated this control in Córdoba, Spain in 1963 when he stood in the path of a charging cyborg bull and steered it away at the last moment.
· The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) attempted to create its own cyborg in 1961 in Operation Acoustic Kitty, in which a cat was cut open and fitted with an array of wires (one to override feelings such as hunger) and a listening device that utilized its tail as an antenna. The project was disbanded as a failure in 1967 when the cat on its first mission (to eavesdrop on the Soviet compound in Washington, D.C.) was killed by a moving taxi sending more than five years of intensive training and $15 million down the drain.
Afterwards, cyborg research remained dormant until the late 1980s, picking up steam a decade later. By this time, science and technology had advanced significantly, especially with the miniaturization of devices and components.
As cybernetic technology is further developed and refined, the seamless synthesis of organic and artificial parts is likely to become widespread requiring modification of basic definitions of life and its associated rights, creation of applicable international protocols and an adjustment in thought perceptions. Cybernetic technology is likely to have three major applications:
Early efforts involving animal experiments were primarily aimed towards military/intelligence/law enforcement applications. A few of the notable experiments are listed below:
· Per an article by Bill Christensen of Technovelgy.com (Jack Into A Cat’s Brain) scientists successfully produced a video of a recognizable moving scene as observed through a cat’s eyes in 1999. This was accomplished through the use of electrodes that simultaneously recorded and catalogued responses in the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) and 177 selected brain cells of a sharp-eyed cat. Though the images were not as sharp as those seen by human eyes and recorded by camcorders, technology continues to improve. In the near future adjustments will likely enhance clarity and quality of feline vision and cats selected for surveillance operations may even have their natural eyes replaced with cybernetic devices equipped with miniature cameras (a moral concern).
· In 2002, a team led by John Chapin at the State University of New York (SUNY) created cyborg rats by implanting electrodes on their brains. They were then trained to move in accordance to impulses delivered via the electrodes and to seek specific scents (e.g. human, explosives, exploding dye, etc.). When tested, each cyborg rat was fitted with a tiny camera to provide indication of mission success. The rats were then successfully guided to a specific location via radio-controlled impulses. Afterwards, the implants were powered down and as soon as the rats realized they were free of their control, they went into a sniffing mode and successfully identified the source of a target odor. The process took only a few minutes and was successfully duplicated in additional tests.
· In 2005, a team of scientists led by Su Xuecheng at the Shandong University of Science and Technology in Qingdao, China, successfully controlled pigeon flight (direction and ascent/descent) via wireless signal transmitted to electrodes implanted onto their brains from a laptop computer. Similarly, in 2006, Jelle Atema of Boston University controlled directional movement of a spring dogfish (a small type of shark) via a neural implant that stimulated the left or right olfactory area of its brain.
In light of such success, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and U.S. Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA), the latter which has been disbanded, have also made significant progress. The latest phase of the DoD’s efforts – the development of Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) – is focused on “small” (to create inconspicuous cyborgs) and reliance on insect flight, which is unmatched with regard to agility. Experiments have been conducted on beetles, flies and moths.
Since 2008 several milestones have been accomplished:
· Tobacco hornworms fitted with miniature electronic implants survived and grew into adult Manduca moths with no complications. X-rays unveiled at the 2008 Micro-Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) conference held in Tucson, Arizona showed good tissue growth around probes that had been implanted where abdominal segments would have grown during the larval stage after a portion of their thorax was removed to make room for the implants. Hookworms fitted with cybernetic devices showed no signs of complications, adverse impairments or rejection during metamorphosis.
· A video, created at the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York documenting successful control of moth flight was also shown during the 2008 MEMS conference. Moth movement was controlled by a series of 5-volt shocks that stimulated their wing muscles delivered via tethered wires. Uniform stimuli determined wing-speed resulting in ascent/descent while stimuli applied to wing muscles on one side or the other determined direction.
· A similar process used by a team of researchers led by Michel Maharbiz of the University of California (UNC) Berkeley succeeded with Green June Beetles. Negative impulses from neural implants (transmitted via tethered wires) activated the beetles’ wings resulting in ascent; positive impulses halted their wing movement resulting in descent. Lift and descent were controlled by rapid switching between the two types of impulses. At the same time, directional control of beetle flight was achieved in two ways – via a mounted LED in front of their eyes and by impulses to either its left or right basilar muscle.
· The same UNC Berkeley team unveiled a wireless system that successfully controlled Rhinoceros Beetle flight during the 2009 MEMS conference held in Sorrento, Italy.
The present objective of the DoD funded research is to create insect cyborgs that can be remotely controlled from at least 100 meters away, directed to land within a maximum of 5 meters from a target subject, and remain there until directed to leave. When this is successfully mastered (overcoming barriers such as high winds), miniature cameras can be implanted for surveillance, sensors to detect biological, chemical, or radiological agents, and tiny weapons (utilizing potent poisons and hallucinogenic drugs) to attack potential targets.
The second major application of cybernetic research is to develop technology to medically restore or enhance human capabilities (e.g. vision – limited with regard to distance, viewing and small objects, etc.; communication – limited to speech and writing).
In 2002, Kevin Warwick, a leading expert on cybernetic technology became the world’s first human cyborg (documented in I, Cyborg, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, IL, 2004) in an effort to facilitate research aimed at these objectives. A 3-millimeter-wide silicon square with 100 electrodes was implanted into his wrist to enable scientists to interpret nerve signals arising from movement and sensation with the hope of providing breakthroughs for the paralyzed.
Cybernetic technology is, at a minimum, from a medical standpoint, being directed at several areas. A summary of progress and future aspirations for these areas is listed below:
· In February 2007 Gingersnap, a 4-year-old Abyssinian cat suffering from a condition similar to retinitis pigmentosa (an incurable genetic disease that attacks the eye’s photoreceptor cells leading to blindness) was implanted with 2-millimeter-wide artificial silicon retina (ASR) chips (each covered by 5,000 microphotodiodes that react to light. When these microphotodiodes react, electric signals are sent through the eye’s optic nerve to the brain allowing it to detect light impulses) manufactured by Optobionics to preserve her vision. As technology improves, additional data will likely be able to be transmitted enabling the brain to decipher complete images.
· Retinal implants are currently in use to combat macular degeneration (a disorder that results in loss of vision in the macula located at the center of the eye, which makes it difficult to see fine details).
· Contact lenses called “I, Contact” that interface with a computer mouse, in which eyeball movement controls cursor movement, have been developed to assist the disabled.
· Researchers at the University of Washington, having developed contact lenses with electronic circuits and red-LEDs, are working on lenses (ultimately to be powered by human neural electrical activity) that could one day provide tele/microscopic vision, enable people to view the infrared portion of the light spectrum, take pictures, make videos, and even superimpose images accessed from the Internet via WiFi.
· More than 100,000 profoundly deaf people currently use a bionic ear (cochlear implants that rely on a direct neural connection) that stimulates hearing nerves in the inner ear to understand speech and other sounds. Research is currently focused on enabling cochlear implant users to differentiate between speech and other background sounds.
· Although research to provide mobility to and the ability for quadriplegics (that make up about 1.25 million of the world’s population) to operate major appliances such as a television and computer is still in its infancy, significant progress is being made.
o In 2008 a monkey successfully moved a robotic arm via neural implants. In another instance, a rhesus monkey (Idoya) located in North Carolina operated a robot in Japan through thought alone as part of the Computational Brain Project led by neuroscientist Miguel A.L. Nicolelis with researchers at Duke University Medical Center and Japan Science and Technology Agency.
o Researchers at Osaka University in Japan are currently working with four human test subjects, each of whom has had an electrode sheet placed directly on their brain so that they can determine the brain wave activity associated with arm, elbow, and finger movement to discern intended activity to allow mind-controlled movement of future prosthetics. Currently the researchers can determine intended activity with greater than 80% activity.
o At the same time, European scientists have created a non-intrusive brain-computer interface (BCI) (though still in the research and development stage), that utilizes human brain activity and imbedded artificial intelligence to operate devices (e.g. computers, wheelchairs, artificial limbs). BCIs will eventually afford quadriplegics mobility and skills once unimaginable.
· Synthetic parts are routinely used for hip and knee replacements. With regard to the latter, a newly developed knee (presently under limited release in the United States and the Netherlands) that synchronizes motion with a user’s natural leg is so effective that its recipients can easily get up, climb stairs and even engage in extreme sports.
· An arm, dubbed the “Luke Arm” after Luke Skywalker’s character in Star Wars, was developed in which movement can be controlled by nerves, muscles, and Bluetooth®-activated shoe pads enabling armless users to eat, pick up tiny objects and utilize their prosthetic arms and hands in the same way people use natural arms and hands.
· An Australian woman was fitted in 2009 with the world’s first fully functioning artificial finger that can curl and grip like a natural finger through utilization of nerve endings.
· Research is ongoing to find a way to graft metal to bone so that skin can be grown around it creating combination synthetic/biological parts.
· Efforts are also being made to give prosthetic devices artificial intelligence in which micro-implants into muscles and nerves will enable users to move their new limbs solely by thought (consistent with human control of natural limbs).
· Ventricular Assist Devices (VAD) are currently in use by patients who although they have some heart function, require artificial assistance to sustain their lives.
· Artificial hearts have been developed with the CardioWest temporary Total Artificial Heart (TAH-t) and AbioCor Replacement Heart having been approved for human use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, research and development is ongoing for a permanent device. Presently artificial hearts have been generally used on a temporary basis (until a donor heart could be found) with a few exceptions. In one such exception, a patient survived 512 days with an AbioCor device.
Alzheimer’s/Parkinson’s Disease and Epilepsy:
· Per the BBC (13 August 2008) researchers (in 2008) at the University of Reading, in Reading, UK created a multi-electrode array consisting of about 300,000 neurons extracted from a rat fetus to control robotic movement. The cells, kept separate from the robot in a temperature-controlled container (filled with a pink broth solution) fitted with electrodes communicated via Bluetooth® short-wave radio. The objective is to gain a better understanding of neurons with the hope of discovering effective treatments for Alzheimers’s, Parkinson’s Disease (both debilitating neurological disorders; Alzheimer’s adversely impacts memory while Parkinson’s disease is characterized by muscle rigidity, tremors, slowed physical movement, and impaired speech and involuntary functions), and epilepsy (a common neurological disorder characterized by repeated, spontaneous seizures).
Future robots and computers are likely to utilize living and non-living components alike. Potentially, this could be extremely problematic if such technology is applied in a malevolent or unethical way since it could lead to a new generation of slaves. Accordingly, international protocols (including those pertaining to the ethical treatment of animals) and other safeguards will be required to address these issues as cybernetic technology evolves.
In the meantime, a team of scientists led by Charles Higgins of the University of Arizona Tucson is seeking to transform insects into “high-level sensory robotic controllers [since] artificial vision (which is costly) [currently] can’t beat living systems, which are honed to recognize objects or detect motion”
At the same time, scientists at IBM’s Almaden Research Center and the California Institute of Technology are in the process of developing a new generation of microprocessors that utilize living DNA with the objective of creating smaller, faster, and cheaper devices.
Cyborgs, once relegated to science fiction have become scientific reality providing vast military/intelligence/law enforcement, medical, and technological prospects. If cybernetic technology is used benevolently and ethically where human thought remains the primary driver in lieu of imposed mind-control, it will open new windows of opportunity – providing greater freedom and improved standards of life, to quadriplegics trapped in their own bodies, to the blind imprisoned in a world of darkness, to the deaf confined in a prison of silence, and to people who with age or injury, will need seamless synthetic replacement parts for those worn down or destroyed. It will also expand human capabilities with regard to speed, sight, communication, and endurance. Finally, when such technology gains widespread acceptance and use, it is likely that the majority of the human race will be cyborg, though not in the way envisioned by science fiction.