Want To Be A Cyborg? Start With Your Eyes!
There’s two possibilities for the future:
1. One day artificial intelligence (AI) will develop so far that robots become superior over humans and take over the world.
2. One day humans will assimilate so much with technology that we will turn into cyborgs: part human, part robot.
Which one do you want to bet on?
And no, these scenarios are not just scripts of sci-fi movies, they are actual warnings (or dreams) from tech experts such as Elon Musk.
As I don’t think any of us want scenario 1 to happen, let’s focus on scenario 2. I can understand that the GIF makes it seem less desirable.. It’s nevertheless the most interesting of them both, because are cyborgs really still a distant future?
Now we all know of mechanical prostheses as well as different types of brain implants which are increasingly used remedies for diseases such as Parkinson’s or clinical depression. While these are impressive mechanical devices implanted or attached to the body to enhance specific skills, it’s not the same as creating a cybernetic human. In order to create a cyborg you need mechanical elements built into a body which will extend the physical or mental capabilities BEYOND normal human limitations. So far, that human is still fictional.
We could add a zoom function, night vision, implement augmented reality!
However, let’s talk about a mechanical device that shows great promise. Albeit it’s still very much in its rudimentary stage, it’s already REALLY FREAKING COOL! BIONIC EYES are being developed with the aim of restoring sight to the 39 million people in the world that are blind. That’s amazing!!
What’s important to know is that sight is an extremely complex process that takes place over elaborate structures in less than a millisecond. A small miracle in my opinion. To put in simple terms, light passes through the eye, where the lens bends it in order to properly hit the retina, the sensory membrane on the back of your eyeballs. There are millions (!) of sensors on the retina that are triggered when light hits them. Subsequently, they then send these light messages through the optic nerve to the back side of your brain which is called the visual cortex. This part of the brain decodes those messages and allows you to create and be aware of the image in front of you.
So far, the only bionic eye on the market is the Argus II from a company called Second Sight. A couple of hundred patients have been treated with the device up till now. I have to point out that it might not look as sci-fi and sleek as you have in mind, but that doesn’t say anything about the technique.
The product works by using a camera integrated into a pair of glasses and a microchip implanted on the surface of the eye which is connected to the optical nerve. The images the camera makes are therefore transferred to the nerve and thus made visible to the person. At the moment however, users are only capable of perceiving black and white shadows and outlines of figures. Yet, how amazing is it that a camera can be connected to our brain!
There are a few main reasons why someone can be blind, which can be ordered in two different groups. First is an affliction to the eye. The leading cause of blindness in the US is actually diabetes. The disease can lead to destruction of the retina. Other causes of blindness include age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. The macula is the area of the retina on which light falls when you focus your sight on something, the place with the most sensors and therefore the sharpest sight. Cataracts is the clouding of the lens in the eye. Other eye conditions such as glaucomas (buildup of fluid) damage the optic nerve that transmits the light messages from the eye to the brain. Your eyes are probably fine, your brain just can’t receive the signal.
Second Sight is also working on a second product called Orion I. This is a wireless neurostimulation system that bypasses the eye and the optic nerve: Electrodes are directly placed on the surface of the visual cortex. As you might have picked up from the description of Argus II, the former product cannot be used with patients whose optic nerve doesn’t properly work, thus excluding a large group. The Orion I doesn’t have that problem. Unfortunately, it is not cyborg worthy yet either, patients will not be able to see much more than a few spots of light.
Now, as explained before, often when we speak about a cyborg we really speak about devices that can enhance human’s natural capabilities. Be smarter, be faster, see better, than a regular human can ever be. The examples I’ve shown you so far might not have triggered the sci-fi nerd in you yet.
But just imagine what those bionic eyes will be able to do with a few years of development and modifications! Not only will we be able to see everything sharper than any normal human eye, we can design it to expand our vision further than the visible light spectrum. Why not see in infrared? Or we could add a zoom function, night vision, connect ourselves to the WiFi and implement augmented reality!
And as futuristic as this might sound, these are simple ideas which will probably be reality in the blink of an eye. See what I did there hehe.
We really are only at the beginning of human potential! Whether that’s ethical or not, I’ll leave up to you to decide.