Within the last century, humanity has begun using technology to maintain and enhance our own biology. The first pacemakers – electronic devices that stabilize the heartbeat – were first tested in the mid-20th century and have become accepted medical practice to treat irregular heartbeats. Other implanted medical devices are inert, lacking electronic components. These include artificial joints, inactive prosthetics, and implanted splints to supplement damaged or destroyed bone. Still others, such as insulin pumps, replicate the functions of our organs without being implanted. Finally, medical researchers have been using bleeding-edge robotics to create active prosthetics. These devices are wired to the nervous system to mimic the motion and functions of a missing appendage.

These innovations help to repair damage and maintain a healthy existence, options that did not exist less than a century ago. However, we’ve also turned our attention to enhancing our biology – adding additional senses, or augmenting those we have. This is a nascent field compared to the medical advances discussed above, but we’ve already seen both inert and active devices used to augment our biology, instead of repairing it. Recognized as the world’s first official cyborg, Neil Harbisson of the United Kingdom wears a head-mounted antenna that translates light in the visible and ultraviolet spectra into audio tones, sent to an earpiece. This allows Neil, born colorblind, to perceive colors that most people will never experience. Other devices, such as the externally-mounted North Sense allow the wearer to detect magnetic north, adding a sense of direction to human perception.

This is a new endeavor for us as a species – We’re not used to the idea of our bodies being mutable, upgradeable pieces of matter, and it’s easy to draw a line from “upgradeable” to “replaceable.” Augmentation offers us a host of opportunities to expand our perception. Whether it redefines who we are as a species is a decision we’re still making.

Further reading:

“How a Color-Blind Artist Became the World’s First Cyborg” National Geographic, 4/3/2017

“Meet the First Humans to Sense Where North is” The Guardian, 1/6/2017

 

Written by Jacob Baughn
Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash