TCS Daily


The Six Million Dollar Mankind

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Bionic humanity is coming, not with the bang of a huge, secret government program of the Steve Austin variety, but on the little cat-feet of a collection of new developments. A recent survey in the Guardian newspaper of the subject reports on numerous developments in enhanced vision, improved strength, and improved dexterity. The vision part is particularly cool:

Daniel Palanker, a physicist at Stanford University in California, had the idea to bypass the dead rods and cones and to stimulate the cells of the inner retina with electrical signals directly. Previous research had shown this method allowed perception of light, and Dr Palanker built a way to exploit it.

His bionic eye system is made up of a 3mm chip implanted into the retina and a pair of virtual-reality-style goggles containing a video camera. The goggles convert the video pictures into an infrared image. "The image is projected on to the retina and the retinal implant has photosensitive pixels that convert infrared light into pulses of electrical current, stimulating the cells in the retina," said Dr Palanker.

So far, he has only fitted rats and rabbits with the bionic eye. Human trials will begin in a couple of years and, when they do, Dr Palanker reckons the system will give people 20/80 vision - normal is 20/20, you need 20/40 for a driving licence and 20/400 is the legal definition of blindness - allowing people to read large fonts and recognise faces.

It's a long way from that to the superhuman vision of Steve Austin, but if the technology improves as rapidly as digital cameras -- my first, in 2002 was a 2 megapixel, and I just bought a fairly cheap Sony pocket camera that has over 7 megapixels in resolution -- bionic eyes will be seeing better than 20/10, surpassing Chuck Yeager's legendary vision, in not too many years after that.

This is just part of the process of improvement, of course. I've mentioned before the progress in implantable medical devices, from my wife's built-in defibrillator to all sorts of other gadgets, including, as I pointed out in TCS, even a general purpose body computer:

It could measure heart rate, blood chemistry, diet and exercise levels, etc., and export its data to outside devices so that the owner, or a physician, could monitor the owners health. Perhaps it could take preemptive action, releasing clotbusting drugs at the onset of a heart attack or stroke, or steroids in the event of an allergy attack, providing on-the-spot first aid for many serious problems. Still more advanced versions could fine-tune things in a variety of ways, until we gradually reach the stage in which our bodies are pervaded with nanodevices that maintain health and repair damage without our even thinking about them.

But it's not just mechanical devices, as, biotechnology promises a lot of bang for the buck, too. Research on human regeneration is progressing, as a recent report from the New York Times demonstrates:

Stem cell therapy has long captured the limelight as a way to the goal of regenerative medicine, that of repairing the body with its own natural systems. But a few scientists, working in a relatively obscure field, believe another path to regenerative medicine may be as likely to succeed. The less illustrious approach is promising, in their view, because it is the solution that nature itself has developed for repairing damaged limbs or organs in a wide variety of animals. . . .

Mammals, too, can renew damaged parts of their body. All can regenerate the liver. Deer re-grow their antlers, some at the rate of 2 centimeters a day, said to be the fastest rate of organ growth in animals. In many of these cases, regeneration begins when the mature cells at the site of a wound start to revert to an immature state. The clump of immature cells, known as a blastema, then regrows the missing part, perhaps by tapping into the embryogenesis program that first formed the animal.

And if we can regenerate parts, perhaps we'll be able to extend this sort of technology to regenerate our entire bodies, either bit-by-bit or all at once. Starting with repair, it could wind up as rejuvenation. Bring it on, I say: My knees could use it, and some other parts will probably want it one day, too.

Put all of these things together, of course, and we're looking at a medical revolution, in which human bodies are enhanced and rebuilt in ways that were (quite literally) science fiction not long ago. This is just another of the ways in which the Singularity is approaching in almost imperceptible increments, as we get used to progress that would have seemed impossible not long ago.

Environmentalists like to use the boiled-frog metaphor to illustrate how we can gradually acclimate to change in ways that we tolerate the intolerable. But, of course, we become accustomed to progress just as quickly. But whether we're accustomed or not, change is happening. And for the kinds of progress described in these examples, my attitude is definitely "faster, please." The crippled are still crippled; the aging are getting older, and the sick need to get well. The sooner, the better.

Glenn Reynolds is a TCS contributing editor.

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