Implantables: Would you go that far?

From cyber limbs to super-human senses, technology is bringing the future to now
Implantables: Would you go that far?

You probably know a cyborg. They look like everybody else. But lurking somewhere within their fleshy tissues lies the inorganic; the mechanical, a digital tock to their human tick. Would you implant a piece of technology within your mortal frame? Well, the truth is that millions of people already have.

The medical world is strewn with biomechanical solutions to a spectrum of traumas and disorders. Take the most obvious, the pacemaker. The artificial cardiac pacemaker, to give it its proper name, is a 3cm metal device that sits in your chest. It has a 20-inch cable that leads to an electrode buried into the right chambers of the heart which emits electrical impulses to regulate the movement of the cardiac muscles. They’ve been around this since 1965. Disappointed? OK, let’s take it up a notch.

Suppose you’re not just in need of a pacemaker but also at high risk of cardiac arrest as well. Well, there are implantable defibrillators too. No need to wait for the paramedics to turn up with the paddles and shout “clear”, this medi-gizmo can detect abnormal rhythms and deliver the required shock before anything gets too serious.

And it’s not just the heart that responds well to electronic implants either. Those with Parkinson’s disease, clinical depression, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and Tourette’s have had their symptoms eased through brain pacemakers surgically positioned deep within the grey matter of those areas affected by these conditions. When it senses the surge of an oncoming seizure, it fires off some pulses and disrupts the otherwise inevitable chain reaction.

Switching to the senses, there’s technology to offer sight and sound to those previously unable to see and hear. Cochlea implants directly stimulate the auditory neural pathways skipping out the damage hair cells of the inner ear. We've all seen the joy on small children's faces when theirs are switched on for the very first time. If you haven't, it's definitely worth a quick Google search. A microphone on the outside of the head picks up environmental sound, processes it into electrical signals which are transmitted to a series of electrodes that directly stimulate the nerves of the brain.

The theory is identical for a method of restoring sight for 1.5 million worldwide people that suffer from an ocular disease known as retinal pigmentosa. The condition causes light receptor cells at the back of the eye to die off leaving the optic nerve with little or no information to pass on to the visual cortex of the brain. As with the cochlear, the trick is to bypass the problem this time with an implant attached to any still operative parts of the retina.

The retinal implant receives information thanks to a video camera attached to a pair of glasses that sends pictures of the world wirelessly in real-time. It’s a crude but effective version of Geordi La Forge’s visor from Star Trek only 350 years ahead of its time. At present, the system, manufactured as Argus II by Second Sight, is far from perfect. Successful patients are still legally blind but, in most cases, have gone from total darkness to be able to get around, see other people and even read large print books.

While it might be hard to appreciate what a profound difference that might make, the American FDA department has recently given the thumbs up to an implant with benefits clear for all to see. The Deka Arm is a prosthetic limb that’s so subtle and well-engineered that its users can brush their hair, use keys and locks, and pick up eggs without danger of destroying them. Affectionately dubbed the ‘Luke arm’ after Skywalker’s Empire Strikes Back surgical implant, it manages 10 different movements at variable levels of strength all controlled by electronic impulses picked up from muscles in the upper arm. The upshot is that 90% of Deka Arm testers found that they could perform many more household tasks than they could with their current prosthetics.

Impressive stuff, and it’s not hard to imagine a fast approaching point where such devices are as good as the real thing. But what happens next? If they can be as good as our far-from-perfect flesh and bones, then surely implants can be built to perform even better; a Deka Arm that could bend metal, fully rotate around the wrist, throw objects further and faster, and never develop an arthritic condition that couldn’t be fixed without a little more lubricant and the odd replaced servo?

One man who’s begun to push the natural human boundaries with implantables is Neil Harbisson. Originally from Northern Ireland but raised in Catalonia, he was born with achromatopsia - in other words, he’s entirely colour blind, meaning his vision is only in grayscale. His solution to the problem comes in the form of an antenna physically attached to the inside of his skull. It protrudes out and over his head to an electronic eye in front of his brow that picks up colour frequencies, sends them to the chip installed in his head and converts them into sounds of different pitches which he hears through bone conduction.

By teaching himself what each colours sound like, he has become able to interpret the shades and hues of the world around him, and not just by having to consciously translate them. Slowly, they became perceptions and eventually feelings of colour.

It’s given him a unique perspective of what looks nice according to how it sounds. His oft told anecdote is that the harmonics of a supermarket aisle are far more attractive and interesting than of a comparatively flat natural landscape scene. Nonetheless, he’s been able to make up for his congenital loss with an implant through which he can even take phone calls, but Harbisson has decided to take things further.

Initially programmed with the 360 different colours that human beings can sense, he’s since expanded his appreciation of the electromagnetic spectrum by adding infrared and ultraviolet frequencies as well. Effectively, he senses more colours than you do.

“I think we should all have this wish to perceive things that we cannot perceive,” he said speaking at his TED Talk in 2012.

“It encourages people to extend their senses by using technology as part of the body. Knowledge comes from our senses, so if we extend our senses we will consequently extend our knowledge. I think life will be much more exciting when we stop creating applications for mobile phones and we start creating applications for our own bodies. I think this is a big, big change we will see this century.”

As big a move as it was to have a chip and antenna osseointegrated into his skull, what links Harbisson and all the other currently available implantables we’ve looked at so far is that they were all borne out of a necessity of sorts. These pacemakers, robotic arms, retinal implants and the like were all attached to restore what once was lost. If your heart wasn’t functioning properly, you’d get something fitted; bereft of sight, you’d do what it took to get your vision back. But would you choose to augment your natural state if there was nothing wrong with it in the first place?

Body modification is something that people have been doing for hundreds of years. Tattoos, piercings and tribal traditions are commonplace throughout hundreds of peoples over all of the continents. More recently a sub-culture movement of ‘Grinders’ has grown up to take these modifications from the tribal to the functional. Their ideology is to improve the human condition and its capabilities by hacking themselves with electronics and DIY science and, ultimately, become post-human.

Along with the use of nootropics - smart drugs to enhance cognitive processes - and genetic modifications to change the likes of eye-colour, one of the most popular modifications is to implant magnetic sensors. Most usually home-surgically placed into the fingertips, the person can then detect metallic objects around them, magnetic fields, the temperature of nearby items, electrical currents and even which way north is. It may not be everyone’s idea of a worthwhile procedure but the results are undeniably extra-sensory.

Something closer to home, something most everyday people might consider, though, is a medical implant that already exists - one not rooted in the need to restore. Contraceptive implants for women can now take the form of a small, flexible, 4cm tube inserted into the upper arm. These devices secrete hormones into the bloodstream to prevent ovulation and impregnation. They last three years and are as effective as any other method of birth control.

Would you choose to implant one of them? Probably? Well, how about the next generation that’s a chip only half as long and placed inside a pill? You can switch it on and off at home and select your fertility as you need over the proposed 16-year life-span of the unit. It’s set for release in 2018. You’ve got three years to make up your mind.

Most future implantables sound outlandish to our contemporary minds but that’s because we haven’t walked the path in between. We’ve already begun the irresistible change from organic animal to part man, part machine.

How dangerous that might be, whether we should embrace it or not, and that it could represent the next stage of human evolution is the subject of another in our implantable series at Wareable. Stay tuned.


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