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:
- external wearables for sensing and movement enhancement
- internal implants in the body with special case for brain implants
- 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.