Our bionic future

Rapid advances in science and technology are bringing us ever closer to a bioconnected, augmented, disease-free life. The ultimate goal: conquering death.

Above: Former climber Hugh Herr has developed several advanced prostheses for amputees.

In July 2015, Sam Rosecrans had an accident that would change his life forever. As he was clearing woodchips from a conveyor belt at the lumber mill where he worked, the 25-year-old Idahoan got his hand caught in the machine.

His entire arm and shoulder blade were ripped off.

Now, two years later, Rosecrans has a whole new way of interacting with the world. A few months ago, he was fitted with an ultra-sophisticated bionic arm (made by Advanced Arm Dynamics, in Portland, Ore.), which uses electrodes placed on the skin where his shoulder had been to convert nerve impulses into movements. The arm is completely electric and runs on a rechargeable lithium ion battery. The bebionic hand, made by Steeper, has individual motors in each finger and can perform tasks as varied as gripping, writing, typing and picking up small objects. All smiles, Rosecrans considers himself lucky. “I’m very appreciative of everything I have now,” he told ktvb.com. “Every day is a good day.”

Thanks to his bionic arm and hand, Sam Rosecrans has been able to get back to the outdoor activities he loves. An Audi employee uses a chairless chair for support in assembly work. Ian Burkhart’s brain implant sends signals to electrodes on his inert forearm, making it move. A scientist at Aspect Biosystems works with its 3-D bioprinting platform

Above left: Thanks to his bionic arm and hand, Sam Rosecrans has been able to get back to the outdoor activities he loves. Above right: An Audi employee uses a chairless chair for support in assembly work. Middle: Ian Burkhart’s brain implant sends signals to electrodes on his inert forearm, making it move. Bottom: A scientist at Aspect Biosystems works with its 3-D bioprinting platform.

Like a raised fist, Rosecrans’ hand can be seen as the symbol of a revolution taking place in what has come to be known as NBIC — a multidisciplinary field at the crossroads of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive sciences. The rapidly evolving field, which spans everything from artificial limbs to DNA sequencing, brain research and machine learning, is aimed at improving human performance and capabilities through science and technology. In so doing, it is paving the way for a new kind of human being — one who is disease-free, augmented and bioconnected, and has organs and DNA that can be replaced on demand.

The potential applications for NBIC are huge. In 2011, the United Nations estimated that a billion people in the world suffer from a disability, ranging from mental health disorders and chronic diseases to paralysis and blindness. In Canada, one out of seven people suffers from a disability.

Of course, those stats don’t take into account the fact that short of becoming cyborgs, we all at some point will have to deal with disease, aging and death. NBIC is doing its best to defy those realities and give us a way to “own” our bodies and brains.

Naturally, transhumanists are overjoyed at the progress in NBIC. These techno progressives, who dream of moving past our current mental and physical limitations to reach immortality, have often been dismissed as pie-in-the-sky eccentrics. But technology giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM (sometimes called GAFAMI) are doing their best to turn the transhumanist vision into reality. These new self-proclaimed well-being gurus — who include many transhumanists themselves — are investing in a huge number of projects. Some will not be marketed for decades (if ever), but some advances are very real. In so doing, they are declaring war on the ultimate foe: death.

THE SUM OF MANY PARTS?

One area where progress has been particularly striking — and visible — is prosthetics. Today, the latest innovations augment the body’s power by making it stronger and faster, says Hugh Herr, head of the Biomechatronics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab. Herr, a former climber who lost both of his legs in a mountaineering accident when he was 17, worked with his team to develop bionic lower legs for amputees that mimic the natural movements of the human body, such as walking, crouching and standing — something he calls “emulating nature.” Using artificial intelligence, the leg gauges the energy required to produce a movement according to the terrain (flat ground, hills, stairs, etc.).

The prosthesis that Herr created is marketed by Össur, an Icelandic industry leader that also manufactures the Touch Bionics i-limb, an intelligent multi-articulating prosthesis that, like the leg, moves in reaction to contractions in the muscles to which it is connected. For example, an automated grip can be accessed by moving the hand in one of four directions. The i-limb can also be controlled by a smartphone, using pre-programmed grips (such as the one required to pick up a fragile object) stored in an application.

David Langlois, director of bionic solutions in the R&D department at Össur, has seen how the whole area has evolved over the past 15 years. “Expectations in terms of performance and functionality are much higher than in the past. People are used to a rapid pace of innovation when it comes to consumer goods. They [now] expect to see the same pace of innovation in the field of medical devices.”

Apart from prosthetics for amputees, advances are also being made in exoskeletons — robotized systems that do not actually replace limbs, but increase their power. While first designed for paraplegics and people with severe disabilities, they are being expanded into a number of different markets.

Stéphane Bédard, CEO of B-Temia in Quebec City, is one entrepreneur who is keenly familiar with developments in the field. He started working with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) seven years ago to develop a motorized system for the lower body that would help soldiers bear the weight of their equipment (up to 45 kilograms in the field), while preventing musculoskeletal injuries. The result was a super-orthotic device called Keeogo that was very well received by the CAF. Now, Quebec City’s firefighters and tactical unit will be testing the equipment.

Keeogo, which looks like a series of mechanical straps around the legs, is suited not only for firefighters or military personnel but anyone who has mobility issues and needs help climbing stairs, standing in line and so on. “Keeogo is for anyone who can initiate the movement of walking but struggles to complete it,” says Bédard. “The market is huge.”

Pixium Vision’s retinal implant system, a bionic hand, Cochlear implants and B-Temia’s Keeogo exoskeleton

Above, top left: Pixium Vision’s retinal implant system. Middle: A bionic hand. Bottom left: Cochlear implants. Above, right: B-Temia’s Keeogo exoskeleton.

Obviously, Bédard will also be targeting seniors but the competition will be fierce. A number of other companies have also developed exoskeletons for different uses. For example, Active-link, a small division of Panasonic, has come out with several robotic systems that help nurses assist patients and allow factory workers to lift heavy items without stressing their backs. The technology is there now; the question is whether — and when — it will be generalized in the workplace. It’s hard to imagine a company that would say no to more productive workers.

For every organ in the body, it seems, developments are coming fast and furious. In 2013, for example, a Canadian-based company called eSight came out with electronic glasses for legally blind people. Equipped with a high-definition camera, the glasses are connected to a control box that allows users to adjust magnification and brightness. But Paris-based Pixium Vision and California-based Second Sight have gone much further. Both companies have developed retinal implants that restore eyesight to the blind. With Second Sight’s Argus II system, users wear glasses that send information to a small wearable computer that processes the data before transmitting it to an implant placed on the eye.

Cochlear implants work in a similar way to help users recover a good part of their hearing. Unlike hearing aids, they don’t use amplification; they bypass the damaged part of the ear and use electrical stimulation to allow the wearer to hear. Companies working in the area include Advanced Bionics, based in Valencia, Calif., and Oticon Medical/Neurelec, based in Vallauris, France.

BIOTECH BREAKTHROUGHS

Many small businesses are also cropping up in biotechnology, where living systems and organisms are used to develop products. “There are tons of startups in this field,” says Céline Lafontaine, professor of sociology at the Université de Montréal. “It’s the Silicon Valley model, but for the living.”

One Canadian company, Vancouver-based Aspect Biosystems, has developed a technology for producing living human tissue on demand. As Lafontaine explains, this involves using 3-D software to develop a tissue model that can be bioprinted using drops of stem cells from cell cultures. The cells act as the ink.

Currently, bioprinting is used mainly by the pharmaceutical industry as a way of avoiding animal testing. But in the long run, developers hope to be able to produce transplant organs to help relieve the global organ shortage. The market is booming. Organovo, a publicly traded company in California, has even started marketing bioprinted liver tissue.

Other techniques for manufacturing organs can be much more invasive. For example, earlier this year, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, Calif., announced that researchers there had injected human cells into a pig embryo, which was then implanted into a sow. As Lafontaine pointed out at the time, this was actually “GMO for humans.” The experiment was interrupted after four weeks; the results weren’t as encouraging as expected. Still, the attempt was seen as a first step in using stem cells to grow replacement human organs.

Like the pig experiment, the discovery of the enzyme CRISPR-Cas9 in 2005 initially generated a lot of interest in the scientific community. This enzyme can be used as genetic scissors to remove a section of defective DNA in a person’s genetic code. While some researchers saw CRISPR-Cas9 as a means of eradicating genetic diseases such as Down syndrome and Huntington’s disease, others saw it as a way to select certain human genes (such as gender, height and eye colour) and to create new species or deadly viruses. The scientific community immediately sounded warning bells. But the US and China embarked on a race to explore the potential of the discovery. In April 2015, a team from the Sun Yatsen University in Canton announced it had used the CRISPR technique to remove genetic mutations from 28 embryos (which it then destroyed after two days).This past March, yet another Chinese research team was able to correct a gene mutation in three viable normal human embryos.

THE BRAIN MACHINE

Huge strides are being made in brain research of all kinds — and for many purposes. Ian Burkhart of Dublin, Ohio, became quadriplegic at age 18 when he broke his neck in a diving accident. But in the past year, he has been able to regain some use of his hand, thanks to neural bypass research at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. Burkhart had electrodes implanted in his brain that decode his brain activity, then send electric signals to electrodes on his inert forearm that make the forearm muscles contract and his arm move. Unlike a prosthesis, which reacts to muscle contractions, the electrodes react to brain activity, connecting the brain directly with the hand. Along the same lines, Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems of Foxborough, Mass., has developed an investigational system called BrainGate that allows a disabled person, after months of training, to control a mechanical device, such as a robotic arm or an electric wheelchair.

Deep brain stimulation, which involves implanting electrodes in the brain to stimulate specific targets, is not new. It is used to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, major depression or obsessive-compulsive disorders, among other things. But the US Army proved it can also be used for other purposes — such as improving the attention span of pilots. Other brain research is now being done to help amnesiacs recover their memory, or to help to control our metabolism so we can go without sleep, food or even oxygen for a limited time. But Johane Patenaude, professor of ethics at the Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec, remains cautious: “There are many, many research projects and funds available, but progress is extremely slow. When progress is made, however, it is an enormous leap forward.”

Among the areas where progress is likely to remain slow — but cause huge waves if it does come — is neurotechnology. For example, a Russian Internet millionaire named Dmitry Itskov is working on mind uploading — transferring human memory to a robot so we can live forever. Braintree founder Bryan Johnson has invested US$100 million of his own money in Kernel, a company he founded to augment human intelligence. Elon Musk has launched Neuralink, a company with a mission to create implantable brain-computer interfaces. In the short term, the idea is to make devices to treat brain diseases. But the ultimate goal is human enhancement.

BIOELECTRONICS AND BEYOND

With the proliferation of Internet-connected devices, we can now measure everything from our heart rate to our sleep patterns and physical activity. All this monitoring generates data — much of which we are not even aware of. But it doesn’t escape the notice of the companies providing the connection. There is actually a movement, called the quantified self (or lifelogging), that promotes constant tracking of the body. Proteus Digital Health, based in Redwood City, Calif., develops digital products that collect and aggregate various bio and behavioural metrics. The company has marketed a smart pill with an ingestible sensor linked to a wearable patch that can record when a pill is taken. It then sends data to the patient’s and the doctor’s receivers.

But even while funds are being invested in tracking big bio-data and treating individual diseases, huge resources are also going into overcoming the main factor in the development of disease: aging. And in this area, Ray Kurzweil is something of a spiritual guide. This serial inventor, MIT graduate and committed transhumanist was hired by Google as director of engineering; he is also an adviser to Calico, a San Mateo, Calif.-based biotechnology subsidiary dedicated to the fight against aging. For Kurzweil, the exponential growth curve of technology will allow humans to change their nature in almost limitless ways and, ultimately, “kill death.” At the moment, Google is working, on a pill that would circulate in the body and detect early-stage tumours or warning signs of a heart attack.

Other transhumanists have been quick to jump on the anti-aging bandwagon. For example, PayPal founder Peter Thiel is the head of Breakout Labs, an investment fund that invests in startups in areas ranging from anti-aging to nanotechnology and cellular biology.

Thiel is also a financial contributor to the Singularity University, a Silicon Valley think-tank founded by Kurzweil, with the sponsorship of NASA and Google. The university, which offers educational programs and a business incubator, is meant to prepare humanity for the changes that will come with exponentially accelerating technology — AI, robotics, 3-D printing, etc.

One of the criteria for giving the go-ahead to any project developed at the university is that it must change the lives of at least a billion people. Eugene Bann and Michiel Rauws, founders of X2AI, a company based in Mountainview, Calif., have no trouble believing this is possible. X2 has come out with Tess, an AI psychologist that delivers personalized psychotherapy and psycho-education through the text messaging service SMS and other channels. Since one person in four will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime, Bann and Rauws think Tess should be able to reach a billion people within a few years. Imagine that — a bot that manages our mental health. What will AI think of next?

PANDORA’S BOX

As NBIC continues to charge ahead, blurring the lines between existing technologies and creating new ones at a dizzying rate, it will become ever more important to stand back and look at the implications for workers and society at large. Will exoskeletons become a necessity in any workplace where heavy items need to be lifted? Will armies be afraid to send their soldiers into battle without augmenting equipment? Then there is the question of integration. What happens when artificial limbs and organs are integrated with natural ones? Herr thinks that soon, we won’t be able to tell the difference between what is natural or augmented — and we won’t want to know the difference. Some people might even prefer a bionic limb over their original limb.

What’s certain is that the gap between rich and poor — in terms of both countries and people — is bound to widen. Everyone wants to live longer, but who can afford to pay $100,000 for an exoskeleton or a bionic hand? Even cochlear implants still cost more than $20,000 per ear. And what about retinal transplants? Close to 90% of visually impaired people live in low-income countries. Even in western countries, it may be difficult to manage expectations. As Langlois says, “amputees don’t want to be unable to participate fully in society anymore. They want prostheses that will support them in what they are doing.”

Nicolas Huchet, a young French industrial mechanic, found a way to do just that. Since a bionic hand would have cost him about $60,000, he decided to make one himself using a 3-D printer. With a team of volunteers at a fab lab (a collaborative manufacturing lab), he created a prosthesis with articulated fingers (using the technique of installing sensors on the skin of the stump). The hand seems less sturdy than those currently on the market, but it costs only $600. And all of the instructions are available in open source mode. He says the idea is to make the technology accessible to people in countries where a commercial hand is unaffordable.

Affordability is a major issue, but what about the spectre of controlled breeding? Will parents who allow a child to be born with Down syndrome or a disability be accused of negligence? Legislation will have to be introduced, but even if one country prohibits a practice, another might not, and a new kind of medical tourism will be born. Also, DNA editing is risky, but will people be against using it to prevent degeneration in utero?

In this all-in quest for perfection, there might not be that much room for those who don’t follow the rules. Are you active enough? Is your diet healthy enough? We already give points to motorists who agree to be monitored by their insurance companies on their driving behaviour. The more NBIC becomes part of our lives, the more profiling we can expect. Currently, 95% of our data is in the hands of four companies: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, a market that should reach $195 billion in 2020, according to International Data Corporation.

The augmented human, more technology driven than ever, is fast upon us. But there are many questions, especially ethical ones, that are being ignored, while an ever-stronger bioeconomy sprouts up around us. Perhaps it’s time to ask, where are we really headed? Are we marching toward a halcyon transhumanist future, where the solution to all our health problems is just one pill or organ transplant away? Or are we bound to be disappointed when all of our inventions fail to cure all of our ills? For the time being, at least, the jury is out.