Homo Augmentus: Looking Ahead to Further Technological Enhancement to the Human Body

For the last several thousand years, humanity has utilised many forms of technology to enhance the body or to fill the gaps of lost senses

I came across the idea for this topic while aimlessly flitting across YouTube and trying desperately to avoid doing work. I began watching a TED talk from 2012 conducted by Neil Harbisson -an artist born with total colour-blindness. Harbisson’s technological aid is a deeply interesting one. An artificial, ‘eye’ sits above his face on an arm, reaching from a chip implanted behind his head. This colour sensor converts the electromagnetic waves reflected by an object into different notes which he hears through bone conduction.

In effect, Harbisson hears colour and since 2004 he had been learning the notes attributed to each colour. At the time of the TED talk, Harbisson could identify over 360 colours from their unique sound.

Origins of Technological Enhancement

This got me thinking about other examples of technological enhancement and it seems this area is both well-established and wide-ranging. Evidence for humanity’s use of technology to assist our bodies can be found as far back as ancient Egypt. One example from 600BC is the use of a prosthetic wooden toe to take the place of a lost one and assist walking. A more recent but incredibly impactful invention that displays the use of technology to enhance and assist the human body is the pacemaker. Developed in the early 20th Century, this small device issues electrical impulses to regulate heartbeat. It demonstrates how technology has been able to assist, enhance and, importantly, prolong human life.

Today, technologies exist to assist our bodies in many forms. From hearing aids to glucose sensors, running shoes to reading glasses: the utility of assistive tech is considerably varied but can be split into three major categories. These categories are physical, mental & reproductive.

The Future?

Looking back through all of this makes me wonder: how will technology change us in the future? In the TED talk which began my ideas on this, Harbisson details how he feels himself to be a cyborg due to how the technology has “integrated” with his brain, fundamentally changing it. He says he first felt this to be the case after he began to dream in colour. As his brain produced its own electronic notes, it is difficult to contest how the technology had not altered him. After a while, he could also reverse the process and turn sounds into colours -apparently, a telephone ringing sounds green.

This may be food for thought now but what might we be dealing with in the future? What technological aids might exist? Some have suggested the widespread emergence of ‘smart skins. Developed by engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this physical aid is a type of stretchable, wearable circuit and can be applied to the skin like a temporary tattoo. One of the biggest uses of this technology is thought to be in hospitals to increase efficiency by allowing doctors and nurses to remotely monitor a patient’s condition. Other technologies to provide physical assistance include exoskeletons or bionics but also sensory aids to replace speech or qualia. This has led to the rising idea of cyborgs and transspecies.

Although mental aids include technologies that seek to improve memory or brain activity, one considerably interesting example we may see in the years to come could be a certain billionaire’s wackiest pet project. Elon Musk’s Neuralink is a proposed chip to connect our brains with AI to expand and increase our intelligence. Musk has suggested this could drastically affect communication. This is because of how he says around 10bits of information per second are transferred through current methods of communication but computers can accurately communicate of over 1 trillion bits per second -a kind of telepathy. I only wonder if this is more or less sci-fi than a personal space race by billionaires bored with the problems of Earth and more attracted to the commercial opportunities of venturing into space?

The possible dangers created by technological enhancement are clouded in mystery. However, might it be the case that unless we grab the opportunities of technological enhancement with both hands, we are condemned to dream in merely black and white?