In movie theaters, we thrill to the exploits of Iron Man, a comic book superhero who wears a special suit, possibly made of a combination of high-tech alloys and carbon carbon-fiber reinforced graphite, which but enables him to fly and perform fantastic feats of strength.
To power all that, he’s got a donut-shaped plasma reactor implanted in his chest to augment his weakened natural heart, and a device that projects holograms and data into his vision field to give him whatever information he needs. The idea of becoming part-person, part-machine sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it? You might even exit the theater wishing that it that it wasn’t just something that happens in the movies.
But actually, it’s already happening. While scientists and engineers have yet to build a real-life version of Iron Man, they’re already making great strides in developing technology that promises to boost the human body’s performance and work around our physical limitations and disabilities. They’re even developing ways to enable our minds to interact directly with and control the equipment that we wear or have implanted in our bodies, and to enhance our senses and wire them to provide us with a constant flow of electronic information. They’re also exploring how to edit our genetic code, which may make it possible to tinker with our own natural equipment and even enhance our intelligence. That work creates the possibility of a future in which many of us become cyborgs, creatures whose bodies are a blend of biology and technology, and the distinction between human and machine may begin to blur.
Here are some of the recent advances that are leading us toward that day.
Powered Exoskeletons: Defense industry researchers have been working to develop various sorts of devices to enhance the strength and endurance of the human body. One project moving in that direction is FORTIS, a 30-pound aluminum and carbon-fiber exoskeleton. It’s designed to enable personnel to do hard physical labor for longer periods with less wear-and-tear on their muscles and joints. But it’s flexible enough that they can still move freely and have enough agility to climb ladders. Another project is the TALOS, a suit that may soon be developed or combat troops, including a powered exoskeleton for even greater strength, plus a helmet that displays electronic information and built-in heating and cooling systems and medical sensors to monitor a soldier’s vital signs.
Machine-brain interfaces: Duke University scientists have worked to develop brain-machine interfaces, which aim to allow paralyzed patients to feel sensation and control the movement of multiple artificial limbs with their thoughts. In a study published in 2013 in the journal Science, utilized such an interface to enable rhesus monkeys use their brain impulses to control a pair of avatar arms on a computer monitor. They achieved an even more spectacular feat at the 2014 World Cup, when he enabled a paralyzed teenager to kick the ceremonial first ball at the competition, by equipping him with a powered exoskeleton and a brain-machine interface that allowed him to use his thoughts to control the movement of his leg. They have also demonstrated a brain-to-brain interface that allows the thoughts of one rat to be transmitted to another, which used the information to make behavioral decisions and receive rewards.
Enhancing the senses and utilizing them in new ways: At Rice University, neuroscientist David Eagleman has developed VEST, a wearable device that enables a person to perceive speech and “hear” sounds, even if he or she is hearing-impaired. The device uses a mobile phone app to collect sounds and then translates them into tactile vibration patterns on the garment, which the user can feel on his or her torso. Those vibration patterns develop into a tactile mode of communication—“they can start understanding the language of the vest,” as Eagleman explains. But eventually, the technology may evolve into a means to communicate almost any sort of information and it may be used even by people with normal hearing.
Making artificial parts work as if they’re natural: At Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet, researchers are trying to understand how the brain decides where our bodies end and where the gadgets that we use begin. One of their goals is to find a way to train the brain to utilize prosthetic limbs as if they were natural parts of the body, so that we can use them more effectively. Additionally, they’ve experimented with using virtual reality goggles to alter our natural method of using our own bodies as a reference point for size and distance, which someday might enable us to sit inside an Iron Man-like suit, or utilize a computer-generated avatar, and perceive the world from a totally different perspective.
Genetic manipulation: Researchers have developed an easy-to-use tool called CRISPR, which can be used to edit the genetic code of just about any organism, including humans. That sort of genetic manipulation could be used to cure diseases, but it also could improve data storage capabilities in 2012, for example, Harvard scientists managed to encode the entire contents of a book into a molecule of DNA. Eventually, this could lead to people being able to carry around massive amounts of information—or even have it implanted into their bodies. "A device the size of your thumb could store as much information as the whole Internet," said Harvard University molecular geneticist George Church, the project's senior researcher, told the Wall Street Journal.
"A device the size of your thumb could store as much information as the whole Internet."
As such modifications of our bodies become more feasible and commonplace, it’s bound to raise all sorts of ethical and philosophical dilemmas. Will the gadgetry that we can add to our bodies merely serve as an extension of our natural abilities and personalities, or will the artificial parts become more important in dictating who or what we are? Or is enhancing the human body merely a higher stage of evolution, one that may be necessary to help the human species survive and thrive amid future challenges? Those are questions that future generations of enhanced humans may be better equipped to answer.