The technology and engineering behind artificial limbs – or prosthetics – has advanced with amazing speed and, when combined with 3D printing technology and the advances in what is generally called Human Enhancement Technology, a possible future is in sight, in which one could – if one has the money – voluntarily have one or more limbs removed and replaced with custom-designed, enhanced prosthetics. The implications – as well as the ethical questions – are intriguing. How many would volunteer to go from human to cyborg?
It is hard to attempt to predict the number of people who, given the opportunity, would choose to have a healthy limb replaced with a prosthetic that could perform better than the original; faster, stronger, more dexterous and more precise than it’s organic predecessor. If affordability was no object, it might be more popular than one could imagine. Its popularity might even be driven by the need to compete; if numerous people were to obtain prosthetic legs that significantly enhanced their physical abilities, would it not be in one’s own interest to do the same or be considered inferior?
3D printing technology is certain to make replacement limbs considerably more affordable. The technology also allows for almost limitless customization in the design of artificial limbs. Industrial designer Scott Summit is designing prosthetics which reflect something of the personality of their owners – in shape, color, decorative devices and materials used. These custom-designed prosthetics appear to have a positive affect; their owners are not only more comfortable with the devices, but actually come to view them as an integral part of their own identity.
Whilst even the most advanced prosthetics widely available today are designed to restore physical ability, rather than enhance it, the ability to create artificial limbs that perform better than the originals is certainly a potential reality. Various advances currently being worked on include neural interfacing, which aims to design ways in which the central nervous system can control the operation of an artificial limb and even receive sensory information from it. Use of new materials, such as high-strength, lightweight carbon-fiber, developed by NASA, offers the possibility of greater endurance and enhanced physical ability. German athlete Wojtek Czyz, using a prosthetic leg made of such material, broke world records in sprint and long jump at the 2008 Paralympics.
Human enhancement technology approaches the concept from a different direction – or, at least, it has so far. Drugs designed to enhance cognitive function, retinal implants for enhanced vision and wearable technology, such as exoskeletons or even suits, are ideas that remain either as realistic concepts or in various stages of development. The military is currently working on the development of exoskeletons and “smart” armor designed to enhance soldiers’ protection and physical capability. Defense contractor Raytheon has already developed such a project. The company’s second-generation exoskeleton (XOS 2), though seemingly cumbersome, is, perhaps, a mere glimpse at what may be coming in the not too distant future.
Futurist and author Ray Kurzweil proposes a theory that is based on what he calls “the law of accelerating returns.” According to Kurzweil’s “law” – in simple terms – the rate of technological advancement can and often does become exponential; an evolutionary process, essentially, in which “positive feedback” fuels an increased rate of advancement as the best, most successful technologies developed are, themselves, used to develop new technologies. The advancement in computing technology through the 20th Century is a good demonstration of this theory. One possible – and, perhaps, probable – outcome is the increasing fusion of the engineering technology that enhances speed and strength with micro-technology and human design, producing functional but enhanced limbs designed to the wearer’s personal tastes. This merging of technologies essentially began in the 1990s. Even in the face of incredible advancements in prosthetics technology, perhaps only a minority of people would trade their limbs for enhanced and custom-designed prosthetics, but, for the disabled, it represents an incredible vision of the future.
Transhumanism, which grew up in the 1980s and gathered steam in the 1990s, suggests an optimistic future where the continued merger of the human body and advanced robotics technology extends
mortality, reduces or eliminates disease and infection and generally serves to enhance quality of life. Protecting against the risk of infection remains one of the greatest challenges in the development of prosthetics that directly connect to the human central nervous system.
One of the main arguments against such a vision of the future is that the more human beings modify themselves artificially, the less humanity they will retain. Kurzweil predicts a future milestone know as the “Singularity”; a point that will mark “the union of human and machine.”
Human beings will, in reality, choose to modify their bodies in the name of health, vanity, self-image improvement or all of those things; tattoos, piercings, cosmetic surgery, silicon implants and botox injections are all
methods that humans use, for a variety of reasons, to alter and – in their view – enhance their bodies. A cursory survey of comments posted on various sites, regarding this topic, suggests that the majority of people would only opt for even a “bionic” limb if they lost one of their own limbs in an accident. How widely, though, might such a radical procedure be accepted in the future?
Editorial by Graham J Noble