Chapter Eleven: Mechanisms Of Human Evolution In The 21st Century

IV. Bionics

There has been no objection so far (how could there be?) to the use of bionic devices such as contact lenses, hearing aids, artificial hip joints, artificial limbs, artificial hearts, artificial skin or artificial kidneys which make up for accidental damage or age- or disease-related deterioration of the human body, or for birth defects. Every effort is made to repair such individuals unfortunate enough to have such defects to give them a reasonable standard of life. There are even Olympic Games and other competitions for paraplegics.

Until now, the technology for the creation of bionic replacement parts has been electro-mechanical, but we are on the verge of being able to 'grow' replacement parts biologically. A fabricated dog's bladder proved to be viable after successful implantation. Artificial skin has been demonstrated in a technology which blends biological processes with non-biological. The controversy over the use of stem cells will surely be short-lived, and within a very few years an increasing number of human organs and tissues will be produced biologically. Hybrid bio-electronic tissues are also a likely development, initially perhaps for robotic technologies, but later for use in cognitive enhancement.

Sooner or later, the line will be crossed (if it has not happened already and we just haven't heard about it) and people with money to spare will start improving themselves in order to be stronger or cleverer or just to live longer. Sportspeople already try to do this with the use of substances such as steroids, many of which are banned. That is quite a primitive approach to the problem. By mid-century we may expect that people who can afford it will have access to a range of bionic implants. Some possibilities which come to mind would be:

These are physical improvements. Equally or even more important will be bionic cognitive improvements; examples might be:

In future, the boundaries between humans and robotic devices will become blurred, to put it mildly, because of the possibilities (already demonstrated) for mental control of external or artificial devices by the human mind through nerve-like and/or wireless communication.

In 2006, Sony patented an idea for transmitting data directly into the brain, with the goal of enabling a person to see films and play video games in which they smell, taste and perhaps even feel things. Sony's technique would be surgically noninvasive, but would fire pulses of ultrasound at the head to modify the firing patterns of neurons in targeted parts of the brain. The aim, it says, is to create “sensory experiences”, ranging from moving images to tastes and sounds.

A Sony Electronics spokeswoman said that the work was a "prophetic invention" and no experiments at all had been performed on it. "It was based on an inspiration that this may someday be the direction that technology will take us," she told the New Scientist.

Separately, researchers have demonstrated a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses magnetic fields to induce currents in brain tissue, thus stimulating brain cells.

In 2003, Researchers at Duke University Medical Center 2 taught rhesus monkeys to consciously control the movement of a robot arm in real time, using only signals from their brains and visual feedback on a video screen. The scientists said that the animals appeared to operate the robot arm as if it were their own limb. See Appendix Five for a fuller account of this research.

The Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Munich has directly interfaced nerves and electronic devices using a chip designed by Infineon which allows neurons to grow in proximity to electronic sensors. And the implants used in Parkinson's disease sufferers communicate with neurons which accept their signals as if they had originated in the original, now-damaged neurons. Control software for these implants is updated from outside the patient.

Based on such evidence, two-way communication between the human brain and external devices (and, indeed, other human brains) in a way that bypasses existing sensory channels seems a near-certainty within twenty years at the very outside, and probably much sooner. Once a human can communicate directly with the cognitive space of a quasi-human external device, or with other human psyches, immense possibilities open up for enhanced group activity. Humans are already well equipped by evolution to handle collective planning, analysis and behaviour; it will no doubt be a stretch for our current brains to encompass a dramatically wider set of cognitive inputs, enabling and even requiring faster mental processing, but there is no reason to suppose that we cannot learn and improve in this direction, as we have done in the past.

It's possible that some or even many countries will legislate to prevent 'self-improvement' and the use of non-organic implants other than in strictly therapeutic situations, but surely this will be a lost cause. Unless legislation applies to all countries, there will always be alternatives for people to go to. In the end, there is no avoiding global legislation, in this sphere as in so many others.

Therefore eventually there will be global Codes of Conduct to establish ethical guidelines for the use of such devices and technologies in competitive situations, and to protect the interests of those who cannot afford self-improvement. The IOC will create a parallel 'Bio-Olympics' for various categories of improved sportspeople, with strict rules about the specification of implants. FIFA will have a 'Bionic League' alongside the World Cup. And so on.

Many people will continue to want to make a distinction between 'curative' and 'improvement' uses of bionic technologies (and the same arguments apply to gene therapy and genetic engineering, dealt with below). But this is an impossible distinction to sustain. If one person is weaker than another one, is that not, in the language of 'human rights', somehow unfair? (Of God? Of scientists? Of the European Union?) How could you ever deny access by a physically weak billionaire to muscle strengthening drugs and implants, if that is what she wants?

It is not the purpose of this book to explore the ethical fogs that swirl around the use of technology to change humans. It's impossible to know where to start in such discussions. The standpoint here will be that, if something is technically feasible, then within very wide limits it will happen. All that will be attempted here is to try to guess the time-scale of application of such advances. Of course, technologies that would be harmful to humans, such as the mass production of bionic hornets carrying doses of polonium 201 and which could be created by some ex-KGB madman in a James Bond-style Pacific atoll, are and will remain against the law.


2 Nicolelis, M , Carmena, J, and Henriquez, C (2003) Monkeys Consciously Control a Robot Arm Using Only Brain Signals, article published online in the Public Library of Science (PLoS)