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Transhumanism: Evolving the Human Body I

A cochlear implant based on optogenetics. Neurones in the cochlea are genetically modified to become sensitive to light. Using optical fibres a microchip converts sounds in light pulses that in turns stimulate the aural nerves with a very high precision. Image credit: Gottingen University

We have started to augment our body long long time ago, probably the first augmentation go back 170,000 years ago when our ancestors started to wear clothes to protect themselves from cold weather. You might not consider that an “augmentation” but it actually made possible to extend significantly the human habitat. It is also worth noticing the long time it took to the human race to achieve this first augmentation considering thatwe lost thermal insulation from hair (that our siblings, the chimpanzees still have) some 1 million years ago (based on genomic analyses). That is a quite long span of time to live completely naked!

Fast forward. At the end of the XIII century the first visual aid (sort of glasses) were invented (Northern Italy) providing another earlier case of human body augmentation.

In these last decades the variety of augmentation to our body made possible by technology has started to grow and we can expect a real explosion in the coming decades. These body augmentations can be classified in three areas:

  1. external wearables for sensing and movement enhancement
  2. internal implants in the body with special case for brain implants
  3. biological augmentation based on genomics, genetics and reproductive

The three categories represent just a broad classification and there are a number of examples of augmentation based on technologies falling into more than one category. As an example, the implant developed by the University of Gottingen (see image) requires the genetic modification of cochlear nerves so that they can become sensitive to light. At this point a microchip can convert sounds (picked up through a micro microphone inserted in the ear duct of a deaf person) into light pulses. These are carried to the inner ear, where the cochlear nerve terminations are, by optical fibres. The light pulses stimulate the nerve terminations in a very precise way, not achievable with current technologies, and send the signals to the brain for processing. This device, so far tried on gerbils but soon to be tried on humans, can be seen as a way to restore hearing. At the same time it can provide augmentation both in hearing sounds that would be too weak to be detected by a normal ear and to detect sounds that are outside the frequency response of our hearing sense. As an example the microchip could be designed to provide hearing in the ultrasound range (like bats), which could be used to see in complete darkness like having a radar.

The microchip might also be designed to capture radio signals and convert them into sound patterns…

These are examples of augmentation that involve both biological modifications, wearable and implantable devices.

For an extensive discussion on the current status of augmentation implants you can look at the first Symbiotic Autonomous Systems White Paper. Updated information will be provided in the second White Paper due for publication in November 2018.

Discussion on human augmentation will also take place at the Workshop in conjunction with the Technology Time Machine conference in San Diego, October 30th through November 1st, 2018.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.