Technological implants will allow us to improve our bodily functions

Innovations that enable us to enhance our physiologies are poised to change the way we live

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 November, 2014, 4:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 November, 2014, 4:42pm

Body modifications may be the next evolutionary step. From night-vision contact lenses and prosthetic "digital eyes", to 3D-printed skulls, implanted cameras, and brainwave sensors, we're about to get a full load of innovation.

Some are implants, others mere accessories. Some are fun proofs of concept, DIY playthings for would-be cyborgs, while others are medical breakthroughs that will enhance and even save lives.

Many are already ingrained in modern culture; anyone with a hearing aid, or contact lenses, is already engaged in body modification. But now it's going to the next level.

How about 3D printing for your face? In March, surgeons at the University Medical Centre in Utrecht, the Netherlands, successfully replaced a woman's skull with a new one produced by a 3D printer. The patient, who had a rare condition that meant her skull thickened and gave her headaches and poor vision, made a full recovery.

"Implants used to be made by hand in the operating theatre, using a sort of cement, which was far from ideal," surgeon Dr Bon Verweij told Dutch News. "Using 3D printing we can make one to the exact size. This not only has great cosmetic advantages, but patients' brain function often recovers better than using the old method."

3D printing of bones is also possible; could athletes one day upgrade their arms and legs, or models seek to make improvements to their cheekbones?

A similar aesthetically pleasing new technology could be used to reduce the effects of ageing. This year, it was revealed that researchers at the University of California in San Francisco had proved that transfusing blood from young mice into old mice reversed "age-related impairments in cognitive function".

We know that blood transfusions save lives, but if this technique works in humans, it could prolong lives, too.

Trans-humanism isn't just about appearance. Bulky night-vision goggles have been used for years by the armed forces, but scientists at the University of Michigan recently unveiled technology that could lead to contact lenses that allow the wearer to see in the dark.

An ultra-thin light detector which can sense infrared wavelengths our eyes can't see, it relies on the thermal vision produced by all animals, cars and gadgets.

The difference between the old goggles and this new attempt is heat; the University of Michigan's infrared detectors don't require cooling. "We can make the entire design super-thin," says Zhaohui Zhong, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the university. "It can be stacked on a contact lens, or integrated with a phone."

The wonder material at the heart of this concept is graphene, a one-atom thick layer of carbon that can sense the entire infrared spectrum as well as both visible and ultraviolet light.

"The challenge for the current generation of graphene-based detectors is that their sensitivity is typically very poor," Zhong says. "It's a hundred to a thousand times lower than what a commercial device would require."

[Google Glass] allows surgeons to share their direct view of the surgical field
Dr George Brighton, Torbay Hospital, Devon, England

Zhong's work has pioneered a new way to detect light at room temperature, resulting in a tiny graphene device. "If we integrate it with a contact lens or other wearable electronics, it expands your vision," he says.

Eye implants that record and transmit video already exist, while Second Sight last year launched its Argus II headset that attaches to the optic nerve to give electrical stimulation to the retina in blind people.

Meanwhile, Fripp Design in Britain has managed to 3D print prosthetic eyes (in doing so reducing the cost from around HK$40,000 to just HK$125), and also has plans to 3D print ears and noses.

Commercially available wearable cameras that record video of everything we see threaten to change the way we work, too. In May, orthopaedic surgeon David Isaac at Torbay Hospital in Devon, southwest England, used the voice-activated Google Glass gadget during a live operation.

"The device itself is effectively a smartphone, head-mounted video camera and computer rolled into one, with an eye-level screen," Dr George Brighton, core surgical trainee and app inventor at Torbay Hospital, told the Western Morning News.

"What's exciting for medical education is that it allows surgeons to record and share their direct view of the surgical field. If, for example, you were performing a rare or complex procedure, you could seek the advice of experts anywhere across the globe while operating."

The security forces are also becoming trans-human. London's Metropolitan Police is conducting a proof of concept pilot scheme for what it calls Body Worn Video (BWV). The largest urban pilot of body worn video cameras so far, up to 500 devices are being deployed with specialist firearms teams across nine London boroughs. If it's successful, there could be soon 20,000. The gadget in question is a 500 Taser Axon video camera which, according to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, helps officers with transparency and evidence. "It makes you open, it makes you accountable and then if something is said afterwards, you can check," he says.

That's vision sorted, but what about hearing? Elective auditory implants, for now, are designed to help restore the hearing of deaf or hard of hearing people, but once they become more sensitive than "normal" hearing, we'll all want them.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, has shown hearing aids powered solely by the human body, while ever more discreet "cyborg hearing" is being made possible by companies like Cochlear.

It's recently launched its BAHA (Bone Anchored Hearing Aid) 4 Attract system, which uses magnets to connect a sound processor to a titanium implant hidden under the skin.

An experiment called Bottlenose by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US-based Grindhouse Wetwear sees sonar, UV, Wi-fi and thermal information translated into a magnetic field that allows the wearer of an implant (in a finger) to "feel" in the form of electric currents. Wearers can thus "sense" when a Wi-fi network is nearby.

Impressive, but pointless, perhaps, which isn't an argument that can be levelled against the concept of a mind-controlled electric wheelchair. That's exactly what neuro-technology company Emotiv's EPOC headset is all about, reading and using brain signals to help severely handicapped people get over the limitations of their bodies to operate a wheelchair hands-free.

Not surprisingly the technology is also being used for experiments ranging from virtual reality gaming to digital "brain painting".

Preventing pain is what Professor Ada Poon, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University in the US, is doing by wirelessly transmitting power to micro-implants in our bodies.

It could allow doctors to treat diseases with electronics rather than drugs; using roughly the same power as a cellphone these sensors could be used to monitor and control heart or brain activity - and even deliver drugs and medicines to specific areas of the body.

They've been called human evolution's next step, but body modifications, implants, wearable electronics and other augmentations could soon be pushed to the next level with the addition of artificial intelligence. The machine-led age of the cyborgs has only just started.