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Transhumanism: Evolving the Human Body III

The capabilities of our senses are defining our perception of the world and the way we interact with it. In the image on the left a village scene, in the middle how the same scene would be perceived if we were to have a fly eye and on the right if we were to have a mollusk eye. Image credit: David Trippet

2. Enhanced Sensing

A lot of research is ongoing to meet the needs of impaired people who lost completely or partially some of their sense capabilities, be it hearing, seeing, touching, smelling and tasting (the order reflects both the investment and the results obtained so far). Most of the results have shown that once we engage some artificial sense to replace or supplement an existing sense it becomes possible to extend the natural sense capabilities, this effectively augmenting the sensorial capacity of a person, to the point that an artificial sense might (in the future) become of interest also to people not suffering from any sense disability.

We are not at that point, yet. All artificial senses developed so far come short in terms of performance to replace with the same effectiveness natural senses but it is also clear that progress in technology will fill the gap and will push beyond the capability of natural senses.

One of the point that is emerging from research in this area is the flexibility of our brain, the real processing point of sensation, the one that gives meaning to the data provided by our senses (and often associates emotion to them). This flexibility is such that sometimes the brain can rewire itself to deal with signals conveyed by a sense as if they were conveyed by a different sense. It is the case of Neil Harbinsson, I discussed this in a previous post, that can see colours by hearing sounds…

Enhancing our senses would provide a different view/perception of the world and would likely set up a different set of interactions. This is nicely discussed in an article on Oxford Academic: “Music and the Transhuman ear: ultrasonics, material bodies and the limits of sensation“. It is a long article but if you are interested in these areas it makes for a good reading.

A lot of work is being done in the area of Augmented Reality and this will result in the availability of “interfaces” that will augment human vision and hearing. Notice that today we are talking about wearable based interfaces (like goggles) but in a few decades technology will have moved to the point of providing invisible interfaces, with direct connection to the sensory nerves and eventually to the brain (I don’t see this happening in the next 30 years -apart from some lab demos).

Once Augmented Reality will become seamless it will change forever our perception of the world and it might be one of the first turning point in the path towards transhumanism.

Prosthetic legs are becoming much more sophisticated to the point of providing a competitive advantage in competitions. Image credit: Newsweek

3. Sport optimisation

Somehow related to Enhanced Sensing is the area of Sport optimisation, a way of reshaping the body to better fit the demand of a specific sport. It is related since it is involving sensing. The two single biggest hurdles in having functional prosthetics (for limbs, hands, …) is the powering of the prosthetic so that it can be active and its interface with the body. Providing accurate sensations is crucial to ensure a seamless integration with the body.

Most recent advances have seen the embedding of sensorial capability (touch) in prosthetics. An electronic skin is covering the prosthetics and can transmit sensations like touch, pressure and even pain.

The first Olympic for Cyborgs, people using prosthetics to participate to the context, was held in October 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland and a new edition is planned in 2020.

Paralympic athletes are showing performances that are getting closer to the one of normal athletes and it is expected that they will get an edge over normal bodies. Some discussion has already started on the fairness of using prosthetics in “normal” Olympics, showing the progress in this field.

Don Elgin, a paralympic pentathlete athlete is using different prosthetics depending on the game he is participating.

So far prosthetics have been used to recover from disabilities but it would not be surprising if they will be adopted in normal competition. If you think about it, professional skiers are using boots and skis that are ever moro sophisticate and that a providing a competitive advantage in the race. What about a skeet shooter donning a prosthetics to keep his arm still s she is aiming at the bull’s eye? Or a soccer player donning high tech shoes that will steer the ball in the exact spot at a kick penalty?

Clearly, as technology progress sport competitions will have to rethink their rules…

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.