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Human Machine Symbioses

MIT is launching a new research initiative to meld humans and machines. Image credit: Neoscope

MIT has just announced the establishment of a new research centre, the Lisa Yang Centre for Bionics,  focussing on the fusion of  human body and advanced technology aiming at overcoming disabilities. This includes use of exoskeletons and brain computer interfaces.

The centre start with an initial funding of 24 M$ donated by the philanthropist Lisa Yang, and it will be led by Hugh Herr, named by Time Magazine “Leader of the Bionic Age”. Hugh lost both his lower legs following a mountaineering excursion turned into a nightmare. That was a turning point in his life leading him to focus on ways to use prosthetics to overcome disabilities and making him one of the leader in this field.  I had the opportunity of meeting him several times and have always been impressed by his energy and by the sophistication of his prosthetics to the point that you will never guess he is an amputee.

24M$ is a lot, but it is at the same time very little money for the goal of overcoming the broad spectrum of existing disabilities. The hope is that the establishment of such a centre will be able to catalyse more and more resources as more and more results will be shown.

According to the first press releases the research will leverage on existing technologies and work on their integration. At the same time will be pushing the envelope for new researches that are needed to evolve technologies to make integration possible.

The focus is clearly on overcoming disabilities not on human augmentation. However, the ideal result in overcoming a disability is a seamless integration of human body and technology to the point that the “artificial” component becomes invisible AND (even more crucial) it is not perceived as an external body by the human body (and mind).

Once this is achieved you have created a symbioses of human and machine and it is just a small step to go further into the augmentation space. Suppose you are working in a factory and you get very tired by the end of the day lifting heavy weights. Your fellow coworkers seem to be bearing the load much better, they are stronger than you. Using an exoskeleton will level the field, providing additional strength with less fatigue. You are not suffering from any disability, you just happen to have lower level of strength and endurance, with respect to your coworkers. The exoskeleton would augment you. Could you imagine an exoskeleton that goes beyond and makes you stronger and more resilient than your coworkers? Sure, why not?

I am raising this point to show that the dividing line separating disability from augmentation is a thin one. In spite of the new Lab focus I am sure that its results will become stepping stones for human augmentation as well leading to human machine symbioses.

Interestingly, Elon Musk in his talk at the Tech Week in Turing at the end of September explicitly mentioned as the real goal of Neuralink the enabling of a symbioses among humans and machines as the only way to manage the growing capabilities of AI: we, humans, need to live in symbioses with machines so that their “intelligence” is “our” intelligence. Without a seamless connection between humans and machines we run the risk of seeing machines taking the upper hand. An interesting perspective.

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 New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. 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.