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Therapy, Enhancement and the Augmented Society

Global warming isn't the only topic being discussed at this week's AAAS meeting. University of Pittsburgh researchers at the conference announced a significant step forward in the development of functional-replacement artificial limbs. They created a simple artificial arm which can be controlled by neural impulses directly from the brain, via a series of extremely thin implanted probes. A test monkey (its healthy real arms restrained) was able to learn to move the prosthetic arm with sufficient precision to be able to feed itself. Or, rather, the monkey and the arm co-learned: the monkey learned how to control the arm, and the arm's software learned what the various brain signals meant. The next step will be to create more complex hands and fingers for the artificial arm, and ultimately to make neurally-controlled prosthetics available to humans with missing or paralyzed limbs.

This is certainly encouraging news for the millions of people around the world who have lost the use of hands, arms or legs due to disease, accident or conflict. Sophisticated cybernetic limbs will undoubtedly be initially very expensive, but advances in microprocessor, software and material sciences will over time drive down the costs of everything but the surgery; those who receive these artificial limbs later will also benefit from the years of "beta testing" by the early recipients. It may be a decade or two before who have lost limbs due to land mines could gain the benefit of this technology, but the University of Pittsburgh research suggests that such a day will come.

This is also another step forward in the ongoing process of figuring out how to use digital technology to augment human abilities. This is not the only research on how to make machines "listen" to nerve signals. And while the point of the research is (quite appropriately) figuring out ways to assist the disabled, the history of adaptive technology shows that augmentation for therapy usually leads to augmentation for enhancement.

For now, most complex augmentations remain external. Internal augmentations have largely been limited to therapeutic fixes for serious problems: pacemakers, pins in the hip, cochlear implants, etc.. Internal augmentations for enhancement are usually for social reasons (cosmetic surgeries) or art, and these nearly always have a visible external manifestation. The advent of successful neural-digital technologies suggests the day is near when internal augmentations for enhancement may not be visible on the outside. There's a reason why much of this research is funded by DARPA; this technology could be useful to people seeking not just to repair what they've lost, but to enhance what they already have.

Augmentation for enhancement is not new, even if this particular form has so far only appeared in science fiction. We use enhancement technology all the time: PDAs and mobile phone address books to enhance our memories, letting us remember thousands of names and numbers; bicycles and automobiles to enhance our mobility, letting us travel far faster than anyone on foot; the Internet to enhance what we know, letting us access in an instant abundant knowledge and myriad discoveries; television to enhance the distance at which we can see, letting us witness changes half a planet away; and on and on. We usually don't think of these as augmentation technologies, but that's what they are. They make it possible for people to do things which would otherwise not be possible for an individual not so augmented. We don't think of them as augmentations because "everyone" has them, and we're on more or less even footing.

MIT Architecture and Media professor William Mitchell, in Me++, even argues that the city, as a human construct, is itself a kind of cybernetic enhancement:

So I am not Vitruvian man, enclosed within a single perfect circle, looking out at the world from my personal perspective coordinates and, simultaneously, providing the measure of all things. Nor am I, as architectural phenomenologists would have it, an autonomous, self-sufficient, biologically embodied subject encountering, objectifying, and responding to my immediate environment. I construct, and I am constructed, in a mutually recursive process that continually engages my fluid, permeable boundaries and my endlessly ramifying networks. I am a spatially extended cyborg. (p. 39)

I'd take this even further. The city is an augmentation not just of individuals, but of society: it is a construct which allows groups of people to do things which simply not be possible as gatherer-hunter nomads. Cities allowed more people to work together, to differentiate labor and amass never before seen levels of power (and knowledge, and wealth, and religion, and social dislocation, and stratification, and centralization...). Urbanization was humankind's first Singularity.

Augmentation and enhancements of our abilities, then, is in reality a fundamental part of who we are, and as old as urban society itself. As we develop new technological augmentations for therapeutic use, then, we should be clear that they will be used, to whatever degree possible, as augmentations for enhancement, as well. We will soon live in a world which will include the possibility of digital augmentations of the body (and, eventually, of the brain). What might such a world look like?

Several scenarios come to mind:

  • Gentle Touch of Metal: Technology for controlling artificial limbs progresses faster than technology for interacting with computers. Few people actively seek out digital-neural augmentations, and they spread slowly into the non-disabled populace, mostly via military recipients. Being able to control vehicles and equipment as if they were extensions of the body proves useful, but not revolutionary. Nobody wants to go through brain surgery any more than they have to, so actual physical augmentations tend to be for interfaces rather than computing hardware itself, which is still changing quickly. As the jobs which can take advantage of the interfaces tend to be "physical" (albeit well-paid), there isn't strong competitive pressure to undergo augmentation.

    One result of this world is that the physically disabled come to be well-represented in professions (such as dock workers or construction) where the machine-control augmentation is most advantageous.

  • Behind the Curve: Technology for interacting with computers advances as fast or faster than that for controlling artificial limbs. Augmentation spreads slowly into society at large at first; as the ex-military types with "head jacks" increasingly demonstrate uncanny abilities to manipulate information, more cutting-edge business types look into getting interfaces installed, too. Different societies react to the practice in different ways, and in countries where there is a general taboo against augmentation there is also great anxiety over being competitive internationally with less-restrained nations. The enhancements are initially interfaces, as in Gentle Touch, but as the bandwidth potential of a system implanted directly into the brain could exceed that of an external device on a cable, the more adventurous (or desperate) go under the knife again and again as new generations of computers come out.

    One result of this world is that research into computer viruses leading to cognitive impairment becomes commonplace in the espionage services and the less ethical companies; such viruses escape into the wild all-too-often, leading to periodic clampdowns on the technology.

  • Squishy Bits: Advances in digital-neural augmentation come more slowly than initially hoped for given the early successes. Getting the brain to do more than move a mouse pointer on screen or robotic arm around in a jerky, drunken fashion proves a terrific challenge. As a result, advances in other fields -- biotechnology and nanotechnology, especially -- catch up with and exceed the capabilities of machine augmentation. Meat-jet-printed limbs grown to spec and made of the recipient's own DNA are far more natural than robotic arms, and nanomedicine allows delicate brain surgery to fix neurological disorders, instead of using computer interfaces as clumsy compensation.

    One result of this world is that the augmentation and enhancement question turns to making humans far healthier than normal -- longer-lived, stronger, more fit... this is the world James Hughes expects to see.

  • Of these three, the last feels the most likely. As much as the University of Pittsburgh announcement (as well as the Cyberkinetics work, and others) demonstrates that digital-neural augmentation has promise, the brain is a far too complex organ to make more sophisticated results in any way easy. I would expect research along these lines to move more slowly with each advance. The biotechnological path -- growing healthy or replacement parts -- seems like an outcome more likely to succeed (and be broadly acceptable) in a shorter period of time.

    Human society is augmented society. Commonplace forms of augmentation and enhancement would have seemed just as bizarre to our great-great grandparents as brain-controlled robotic arms do to many of us. The question isn't whether we will use new augmentation technologies for enhancement. The question is whether we will use them ethically, safely and responsibly.

    Comments (1)

    John Norris:

    Given the success of Kevlar in Iraq, there are proportionally way more soldiers surviving rocket attacks. But sadly many are now amputees. Maybe this technology could help them? Better still, let's create "technology" to prevent the war in the first place...



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