Rise of the cyborgs: Inside the technology transcending humanity’s biological limits
From reality-enhancing implants to brain-controlled exoskeletons, breakthroughs in bio-tech have fuelled a new fusion of machinery and organic matter.
Humans are integrating with technology. Not in the future – now. With the emergence of custom prosthetics that make us stronger and faster, neural implants that change how our brains work, and new senses and abilities that you’ve never dreamed of having, it’s time to start imagining what a better version of you might look like.
Some call it transhumanism. It’s not a philosophy cybernetics expert Kevin Warwick associates himself with, but he can’t deny he’s a cyborg… or was. Warwick had a 2.5cm-long radio frequency identification (RFID) chip implanted in his arm in 1998.
Back then it was considered risky, even reckless. He went ahead anyway, creating a media circus as he demonstrated how the chip made him remotely traceable to a computer and allowed him to open the automated security doors at his University of Sheffield lab without touching them.
Four years later, despite warnings from the surgeon, he had neural interfaces implanted that allowed him to control a robotic arm on another continent and communicate, nervous system to nervous system, with his wife, Irena, via electrodes in her arm.
“That was the most profound thing I did,” he says, recalling how he first felt the pulses of her transmitted signals in his finger. Warwick eventually had his implants removed, but he remains, for some, the original cyborg.
Others look upon such tampering with the human body simply as a progression of what’s been happening for thousands of years.
For Liviu Babitz, co-founder of London-based company, CyborgNest, which makes sensory enhancement devices, we’ve been integrating with technology since we started aiming arrows at bears.
“Isn’t an arrow an extension of your hand?” he muses. According to Babitz, “we’re all cyborgs at this stage,” though he admits the technological enhancements are becoming “more intimate” now.
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Warwick’s later implants were certainly too intimate for most people, but biohackers are now getting similar RFID devices and magnets implanted. Some even get implants in their ears that function like internal headphones for playing music.
Meanwhile, in the medical world, modifications such as hip replacements and prostheses offer benefits that outweigh the risks.
These are intended as treatments rather than extensions of our human selves, but they cross a line when they offer enhanced or entirely new abilities, like James Young’s carbon-fibre, gadget arm (see image below).
If a permanent implant is a step too far for you, then Babitz’s company makes ‘wearables’ such as the NorthSense, a device worn close to the skin that vibrates to tell you where magnetic north is. It’s not just a compass, he says – it’s a whole new sense.
Just like regular biological senses, the NorthSense is permanently ‘on’, allowing you to perceive how you’re oriented in the world.
“Every time you face magnetic north, you know that’s happening,” he says. “So that starts to embed into your life like your smells and colours.” Babitz says it adds new information to memories, for example, about where you were at a particular moment.
While the NorthSense can be worn discreetly under clothes, the sensory enhancement device that Barcelona-based cyborg artist Neil Harbisson uses is more conspicuous. Born with greyscale vision, Harbisson’s antenna (originally an attachment, now an implant) allows him to ‘hear’ in colour.
Colour frequencies are converted to vibrations via a microchip in the back of his head and conducted through his skull. Far from being about fixing anything, he says, the antenna was conceived as an art project.
“When I was studying experimental art they talked to us about pushing the boundaries, so it came as an artistic challenge for me,” he says, adding that it has since become a “life project”.
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Warwick considers Harbisson’s implant in a 2020 paper about superhuman enhancements, published in the journal Philosophies. He regards Harbisson as “on the cusp” of superhuman, particularly following upgrades that allow him to sense beyond the visible spectrum into infrared and ultraviolet.
“Now he’s got an appreciation of the outside world that humans don’t have,” says Warwick.
The implant also has internet connectivity. For his next project, Harbisson is planning to sell ‘access to his head’ via non-fungible tokens, units of data that promise to be the next big thing in digital art.
“You’ll be able to send colours to my head, so anyone that buys me will have permission to alter my perception of reality as well as receive the colours that I’m sensing right now,” he says.
While such projects demonstrate the potential to influence the brain through other bodily modifications, there’s a more direct way to get mind-altering effects: place the implant directly into the grey matter.
That’s the goal of Elon Musk’s venture, Neuralink, which aims to create a “high-bandwidth brain interface”, a wireless implant that could see us accessing the internet with our minds.
Researchers at Neuralink recently announced that they’d succeeded in getting a monkey to play the computer game Pong with its mind by accessing its motor cortex, the region of the brain that controls movement.
Sounds impressive, right? Not to Warwick, who’ll be more excited if they can get two monkey brains, or two human brains, to communicate, like when he and his wife connected their nervous systems.
“That’s the experiment I would like to see,” he says. “[Musk] is using motor neural signals exactly the same that we did, but it would be nice if he got on to other signals.”
In the short-term, Neuralink plans to make devices to treat paralysed people and here Warwick is thinking along the same lines – he reckons that we’ll be able to “patch over breaks” in the spinal cord to treat paralysis within the next decade.
Meanwhile, there is an electrode device called a BrainGate (originally built by US company Cyberkinetics) that has been implanted into the brains of paralysed people, allowing them to type and search the internet with their minds.
Until recently, they had to be ‘wired in’ at all times through a port in their skulls. In 2021, however, US researchers announced they’d upgraded devices previously installed in two tetraplegic men to wireless transmitters, allowing cable-free browsing.
BrainGate has so far benefitted only a handful of patients, but brain-machine and neural interfaces are already available for certain conditions, bringing major life improvements with them. Warwick, for example, works on deep-brain stimulators that quell tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease, while cochlear implants that stimulate the auditory nerve give people with hearing loss the ability to hear.
Being medical implants, they don’t offer superpowers, but they could pave the way towards more widespread enhancements.
Head over heart
According to Dr Timothy Constandinou, head of the Next Generation Neural Interfaces Lab at Imperial College London, there could one day be neural interfaces for everything from asthma to sleep problems.
But as governments race to put safeguards in place, there’s the issue of major brain surgery to consider. One way to reduce the risk is to make the implants smaller and Constandinou is working on a brain interface the size of a pinhead.
“It’s 1,000 times smaller than your typical implant device, so the idea is to make these devices wireless and implantable using minimally invasive surgery,” he says. Implants could be sprinkled around the brain like seeds during keyhole surgery or, eventually, injected.
Without a medical complaint to cure, though, would you risk it? Should you be able to? Even Warwick, among the most daring of self-experimenters, draws the line at brain surgery.
Harbisson, meanwhile, says there should be no limits on how you can change your own body, if you want to. For him, the cyborg revolution is progressing too slowly. “I’m surprised that this is still not mainstream,” he laughs, indicating the antenna on his head.
Asked whether CyborgNest will be expanding into implants, Babitz replies: “when they become as comfortable as taking a paracetamol”.
For now, he thinks there’s plenty of benefit to be had from enhancing the brain via wearable technologies, which can be mind-extending, whether they’re physically embedded or not.
So, when brain implants become pill-poppingly simple, how should we use them? Warwick has thought about this: he is dreaming of a future where we can link our brains to artificial intelligence systems, a fusion he thinks would lead to breakthroughs in areas such as space travel. “Suddenly,” he says, “Star Trek becomes possible.
Main image: ‘Eyeborg’ Rob Spence is a filmmaker who lost an eye
following a gun accident. He created a wireless video camera eye as a replacement, which is hooked up to a remote receiver. He has
several different versions, including this Terminator-style one. © David Vintiner
- This article first appeared in issue 364 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here