and so the march towards cyborgs continues

Cyborg technology is making huge strides, but it won't make us superhuman. At least not yet...

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Recently, an Italian man who lost his arm was able to do a lot more than just manipulate a robotic prosthesis by thought alone. Thanks to new advancements in medical technology, he was able to feel his mechanical arm being poked, bumped and prodded. It seems that in the near future, a traumatic event like losing a limb may not be quite as debilitating as it once was. Appendages could simply be replaced with thought controlled machines which feel like real arms and legs, complete with the full range of sensation we’d expect to get from our organic body parts. And if you’re a science fiction fan or a transhumanist, you may be wondering when you might be able to swap your flesh and blood appendages for high powered prosthetics and whether the age of man merging with machine is finally on the horizon. The answer to that isn’t straightforward as it may seem…

One of our favorite ways to think about cyborgs in the movies and on TV, is that of humans who became a bit more advanced than the rest of us. Sure their transformation was rough, but in the end, they’ve become what we’d call superhuman. While bones can break and muscles can tear, their mechanical enhancements allow them to run faster, punch harder, and lift weights that would ordinarily crush a human’s spine during a foolish lift attempt. How much science fiction has been written about military cyborgs and victims of horrific accidents who’s trauma is healed by the amazing powers they acquire in the process? The slight problem with all these stories is that the cyborgs of today and tomorrow won’t be much stronger than those of us without implants or mechanical limbs for the simple reason that their prosthetics are designed only to replace what they lost.

Give someone who lost both arms the most advanced mechanical substitutes and she’ll be able to control all her motions with the same ease as she controlled her natural body parts. But she’s not going to go enroll in a heavy lifting competition against a bulldozer because the rest of her body couldn’t handle the stress. To boost human strength to the levels we routinely see in movies, we need to either replace or drastically reinforce the entire musculoskeletal system. Otherwise, feats of superhuman agility and strength would do nearly as much damage to our hypothetical cyborgs as they would to us. And even if we do that, there will be major hurdles to overcome. Mechanical bones and muscle would have to be specially engineered to self-repair, just like their organic counterparts. Without being able to mend the accumulated wear and tear, they’d quickly start falling to pieces and having a maintenance program for your insides seems like a problematic proposition.

It’s far more likely that cyborg technology we’ll all use might be the currently theoretical nanobots which would help our immune system fight diseases like cancer, HIV and Alzheimer’s, concepts that don’t require us to get new limbs or drastic bodily modifications and would do far more to help our lives than mechanical body parts. Of course, those types of technology are still a very long way off and will require many more years of testing to be ready for prime time, but when they’re good to go, they would be the real cyborg revolution.

# tech // cyborg / futurism / health / medical research


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