It’s been a while since I did a video game comic, and while I finished it a while ago, I just couldn’t figure out how to make a comic of it. But then science came along and threw all all sorts of related journal articles and interesting developments my way. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a great candidate for this blog given how close we are to seeing the technology featured in the game.
For the gaming challenged, Deus Ex is a series of games set in the near future where bionic augmentation is commonplace. The games are first-person shooters that play a bit like an RPG, wherein each time you level up, you get a chance to unlock new augmentations—which can be as benign as being able to jump higher, to becoming invisible in order to make silent kills.
The first Deus Ex utilized nanotech augmentations, while Human Revolution, a prequel, features advanced mechanical prostheses. Because you go through the game transforming yourself little by little into a mechanized killing machine (or not, the choice is yours) naturally, the games are pretty heavy in mind/body/human/machine type personal quandries. But instead of focusing on the nagging philosophical issues*, lets take a look at how close we are to achieving seamless replacements for lost or damaged tissue.
Starting with the brain: Traditional prostheses relied on mechanical motion (cables operated by moving the shoulders, for example) or had no motion at all—a la the pirate hook or peg leg. We’re learning more and more about the nervous system every day, and scientists are slowly making progress in interpreting brain and nerve signals into instructions that a computer can follow. In an ideal situation—if you can call it that—the amputee would have some remaining nerve and muscle tissue to send commands that the software can directly translate into a mechanical action. For example, even if you’ve lost a limb, you can still tell your “arm” to clench your fist. In fact, many will even still feel their missing limb complete the action. Dr. Todd Kuiken explains how his team has utilized this phenomenon, as well as some clever nerve rewiring, to create some of the most easy to use and advanced prostheses yet.
But what if you’re paralyzed? The lack of nerve signals presents a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. In the past, scientists such as John Donoghue have been able to train patients to control machines using just their thoughts, using a map of implanted electrodes on their brain. Previously, this has been used to control a motorized wheelchair or navigate a cursor on a computer screen, but just recently, researchers announced that they had trained a monkey to control a robotic arm with its thoughts. If a monkey can do it, so can a man who has been paralyzed for seven years:
Pretty amazing stuff. But it’s still a robot arm, and if you watched the TED talk linked above, you can see they are not without their attention-grabbing oddities. Never fear though, rippling, bionic musculature is not far away. Scientists at the University of Texas, in collaboration with teams as far away as Australia and Korea, have developed carbon nanotubes that can twist and constrict like muscle tissue. The nanotube muscles themselves are not new. What the researchers discovered was that the tubes can be spun into yarn, which then reacts like similar to the muscles in an elephant trunk or squid tentacle (I give it less than a decade before we get Doc Ock type robotic limbs). The 2009 post by Larry Greenemeier suggests that the muscle is impractical for human use, but I can’t imaging somebody won’t devise a way to make it happen.
Arms are great and all, but what about legs? Ah for that, I’d like to introduce you to Hugh Herr and Aimee Mullins. Both lost their legs below the knee, and both seem to be having way too much fun with it. Apparently there are advantages to being a cyborg. Aimee, for first got the attention of the world through her athletic feats, has walked down the fashion runway, and even appeared in one of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films (which is something in and of itself). She and Hugh both have inarguably changed how we perceive a “disability” by taking the cards they were dealt and mixing some aces into it.
I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of biotechnology. Already in use today are a plethora internal devices, including artificial organs, implants that return senses to those who lost them, and other devices that have greatly improved the quality of life to those who fall victim to accidents of medical conditions. In the future, I’ll see if I can get another comic out of this and cover these internal augmentations.
While we’re looking ahead, some fun news on the home front (or what I like to call “Stuff Maki is Up To”):
The Singularity Summit was in NYC last weekend, featuring transhumanist greats such as Ray Kurzweil, Stephen Wolfram, David Ferrucci, and science fiction author David Brin. While I could not go to the conference itself, I was able to catch up with David Brin at a meetup he held on Monday night. David has been kind enough to feature Sci-ence several times on his blog, so I was excited to finally get to meet him, and thank him personally. I didn’t plan to stay long due to some work that needed to get done, but I ended up thoroughly enthralled by the impromptu talk he gave on topics ranging from transhumanism, the war on science, and science fiction as a genre. A passionate speaker, he rekindled my ire towards Return of the Jedi in a way that didn’t even touch upon the Ewoks! Kudos!
Thanks again, David, and it was a pleasure talking to you and Cheryl.
This post was brought to you by Platinum(Pt).
*Give me the bionic arms!!
Before I go get some sleep (by that I mean “leave for work”), I have to say that the comic above was half drawn before I had seen Tood Kuiken’s TED talk, hence the clunky robot arm from the Youtube clip. I decided to keep it anyway for the laughs.
Oh yeah, apparently the Rapture is today. Again. Not going to try and pull the same trick twice, but know that I’m thinking of all of you… and plotting.