Some 50 years after Martin Caiden wrote "Cyborg" and Lee Majors played "The Six Million Dollar Man" on TV, real life is converging on the once-imagined. Several companies are producing workable, commercially viable prototypes that confer on the user powers and abilities “far beyond those of conventional mortal men.” The Bionic Human, or what is known as a cyborg, has now joined the human race.
A cyborg is generally defined as a human-machine interface contrivance. Several cyborgs have been registered to date, and a cyborg foundation, dedicated to recognizing and securing the rights of these human-machine chimeras has been established. While this technology has been on the drawing board for some years, what’s new and different is the rapid developments of brain-controlled devices using BCI (Brain-Computer Interface) technology. Coupling BCI with older human-enhancing devices, we are well on our way to an unexplored universe, legally and ethically speaking. This essay will review the current state of the art – a future article will explore the legal and ethical issues.
The Cyborg Situation
Until recently, devices suitable for human implantation or attachment have had four major targets, primarily using externally fitted devices, such as exoskeletons fitted over much of the body. These are suitable for:
- rehabilitation of quadriplegics or amputees
- enhanced weight-lifting capacity, e.g., to help move heavy patients or equipment
- use by armed forces as protective devices
- smaller devices, including precision-guided arms to facilitate micro-surgery.
Still in the experimental stages are a Tongue Drive System to assist individuals with severe paralysis navigate their environment using only tongue movements and Implantable Sensors for Prosthesis Control that use implantable myoelectric sensors to detect and use nerve signals from a remaining limb to move a prosthesis more naturally. Similarly, a Robotic Leg Prostheses senses a person’s next move and provides powered assistance to achieve a more natural gait for those with below-knee amputations.
Also known as powered armor, exoframes, or exosuits, these devices take the concept to the next level – powered by motors or hydraulics; they facilitate or boost limb movement and augment the wearer’s strength and endurance. Some of these are designed to help soldiers carry heavy loads both in and out of combat. Not surprisingly, most of the work on ‘armored’ exoskeletons is done at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, although Sagawa Electronics in Japan has invented a full-body robotic suit.
For civilians, similar exoskeletons are being developed to help firefighters and rescue workers survive dangerous environments. Another device, the body extender invented with Italian technology, is a full-body exoskeleton whose primary purpose is to assist in heavy weight-lifting during construction or manufacturing, reminiscent of Caiden’s later sci-fi novel Manfac.
Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMI)
Newer devices go one step further -- using brain waves to “power” these external devices. The European Commission is developing ‘Mindwalker,’ a mind-controlled exoskeleton for disabled people. Toyota researchers in Japan have built a brain-machine interface (BMI) to control a wheelchair through thought-control. The wheelchair enables a person to make it turn or move forward simply by thinking the commands –- and it has a 125 millisecond response time.
This technology is now producing astonishing results. Devices such as the Wireless Brain-Computer Interface, tap into brain wave function - to power prosthetic devices. They also have the potential for improving communication for individuals unable to speak or “locked in” by neurological disease or injury, e.g., amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), spinal cord injury, or stroke. These brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) or C2B (Computer to Brain) devices may be external, implanted, or both.
On March 30, BrainGate reported on clinical trial participants with quadriplegia who demonstrated the use of an intracortical wireless BCI with an external wireless transmitter to type on a standard tablet computer. Two days earlier, Lancet reported on an implanted computer interface controlling a neuroprosthesis.
"A man paralyzed from the shoulders down has managed to move his arm for the first time in years after scientists created an artificial connection to his brain. Bill Kochevar, 56, who lost the use of almost his entire body when he was hurt in a cycling accident eight years ago, had electrodes fitted to the part of his brain that controls motor skills. These were connected to a brain-computer interface, which can interpret his thoughts and send messages to other electrodes designed to stimulate the muscles in his right arm and hand.”
Ian Johnson The Independent
On April 23, the FDA announced its authorization of the Neurolutions IpsiHand Upper Extremity Rehabilitation Systemfor stroke survivors trying to regain hand, wrist, or arm function as part of their rehabilitation therapy. The technology allows restoration of both reaching and grasping movements to people with chronic quadriplegia due to spinal cord injury – using a non-invasive technology where electrodes record a person's brain activity and then moves an electronic hand brace according to the intended muscle movement.
The BCI technology has even broader uses and is becoming widely accessible. Two start-up companies offering electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets being sold online for recreation – including contests for people to direct drones – with merely their thoughts.
And fresh off this week’s Nature, BMI has been used to allow a paralyzed man’s brain to turn his imagined handwriting into words typed on a screen at a speed of 15 words a minute. The technique, using implanted electrodes, achieved a result comparable to typical smartphone typing speeds of able-bodied folks.
But there are downsides to the technology; privacy issues, hacking concerns and what happens when things go wrong, ethical issues, and other issues, like search and seizure. For medical devices, current laws restrict suing the manufacturer under the FDA preemption doctrine. Based on warnings surfacing from concerns arising in a host of consumer goods, including benign objects such as baby monitors and security systems to control our homes, computerized devices in the human domain present many areas to be more fully considered and explored before widespread dissemination and acceptance should be countenanced.