9 Cyborg Enhancements Available Right Now
Medicine has made many recent advancements in repairing the human body and treating such disorders as blindness, deafness and missing limbs. Evolving technologies, many of them available right now, involve implants or wearable devices. They give their users a bionic appearance — an indicator of cyborg technology still to come. Here are some of the new developments, one of them strictly for art’s sake:
Two California research groups have each created artificial skin, using different approaches. Researchers at Stanford University based their skin on organic electronics (electronics made from conductive carbon-based polymers, plastics, or small molecules) and have created a device 1,000 times more sensitive than human skin.
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley used integrated arrays of nanowire transistors to develop their skin.
The goal of both research groups was to create something that mimics human skin while capable of being spread over large, flexible surfaces.
These highly sensitive artificial skins will give prosthetics a sense of touch, give surgeons finer control over tools, and give robots the ability to pick up delicate objects without breaking them.
In addition, researchers from the Cincinnati Shriners Hospital for Children are working on developing an artificial skin that has bacteria-resistant skin cells, which would reduce the risk of infection.
8. Third eye
Everyone at some point could use an eye in the back of the head, but visual artist Wafaa Bilal has taken that to a whole new level. Bilal has had a 2-inch-wide, 1-inch thick digital camera (5 by 2.5 centimeters) implanted in the back of his head as part of his newest art project, for a new museum in Doha, Qatar.
The process involved planting a titanium plate into Bilal’s head. The camera can be magnetically attached to the plate and is connected to a computer by a wire, which he carries around with him in a custom-made shoulder bag.
The plan was for the titanium plate to stay in place for a year and to record what goes on behind Bilal as he goes about his daily activities.
Recently, Bilal learned that his body has begun to reject a metal post holding the plate to his head, and will have to undergo surgery to have it removed. Despite this setback, he plans to continue by tying the camera to his head while he recovers.
7. Retinal implant
German doctors in November were able to create a retinal implant that, in conjunction with a camera, enabled patients to see shapes and objects. One was even able to walk around a room by himself, approach people, read a clock face and distinguish between seven shades of gray.
Retinal implants are microchips with around 1,500 light sensors. They are attached underneath the retina at the back of the eye, and are linked by wire to a small external camera. The camera picks up light and sends the image in the form of an electrical signal to the implant via a processor unit.
The implant then feeds the data to the optic nerve, which leads from the eyeball to the brain. What the brain receives through the optic nerve is a tiny image, 38 pixels by 40 pixels, each of pixels brighter or dimmer according to the light that falls on the chip.
Researchers had worked on the project for seven years and say that it shows how visual functions can be restored to help blind people in everyday life.
6. Hand replacement
The goal of the SmartHand Project is to create a replacement hand that is as close to the lost one as possible, and researchers are well on their way to achieving it.
The SmartHand is a complex prosthesis with four motors and 40 sensors. Researchers from various European Union countries have designed the hand so that it directly connects to the wearer’s nervous system, allowing the wearer to develop realistic motion and a sense of touch.
The SmartHand works off the sensation of a phantom hand that many with missing limbs experience. This gives wearers the impression that the SmartHand is really part of their body. The device still has a ways to go, but the first recipient of one, Swedish patient Robin af Ekenstam, can pick up objects and feel the fingertips of the prosthesis.
SmartHand scientists eventually plan to cover the prosthesis with artificial skin that will give the brain even more tactile feedback. The researchers said they will study SmartHand recipients to understand how to improve the device over time.
5. Nerve signals via Internet
In a precursor of the SmartHand, Kevin Warwick of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom used cybernetics to control a mechanical hand connected to his nervous system while he was in New York and the hand was in England.
Warwick had an implant wired into his nervous system in 2002, enabling him to remotely control the robotic hand. The signals were sent over the Internet through a radio transmitter. This process is what gave researchers the information to develop Smart Hand Project
4. Prosthetic tentacle
Prosthetics have come a long way in recent years, including hands that enable wearers to feel and legs that make it possible to run long distances. Now we may have prosthetic tentacles that would allow wearers to get a better grip on objects.
Recent University of Washington grad Kaylene Kau designed an arm as part of a design project to develop an alternative to the prosthetic arm most commonly used today.
Kau’s arm is flexible and adjustable, with a grip that can change to best accommodate the shape of the object the wearer wants to grasp. The amount of curl in the arm is controlled by two buttons mounted on the prosthesis; they direct a motor to either increase or decrease curl via two cables running the length of the arm.
3. Cochlear implant
Cochlear implants are the step beyond hearing aids for the hearing-impaired. Unlike a hearing aid, which amplifies sounds so they may be detected by damaged ears, cochlear implants bypass the damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. Signals generated by the implant are sent by way of the auditory nerve to the brain, which recognizes the signals as sound.
Various types of cochlear implants have been developed, but all have a few things in common: a microphone that picks up the sound, a signal processor that converts the sound into electrical signals, and a transmission system that sends the electrical signals to the electrode implanted in the cochlea.
2. Electrode buffer
Researchers are working on a process to integrate medical devices with a patient’s body more seamlessly.
Implants into the brain or other parts of the nervous system are becoming quite common in medical procedures. Devices such as cochlear implants and deep brain simulators use electrodes implanted in the brain to work. But while these devices can vastly help their users, researchers are worried the metal electrodes could damage soft tissue.
Scientists from the University of Michigan are working to develop a conductive polymer coating (molecules that can safely transmit electric currents) that will grow around an electrode in the brain, creating a buffer to better protect surrounding brain tissue.
They hope to do this by peppering the material with small amounts of another polymer; scientists have been able to coax the conductive polymer into forming a hairy texture along the electrode.
1. Tongue-aided vision
While retinal implants are one way to restore vision to the blind, makers of the BrainPort device have taken a different approach to enabling the blind to navigate their world.
The device converts images into electrical pulses that are sent to the tongue, where they cause a tingling sensation, which the user can interpret to mentally visualize his or her surroundings and navigate around objects.
About 2 million optic nerves are required to transmit visual signals from the retina — the portion of the eye where light information is decoded or translated into nerve pulses — to the brain’s primary visual cortex. With BrainPort, visual data is collected through a digital video camera that sits in the center of a pair of sunglasses worn by the user. Bypassing the eyes, the data are transmitted to a hand-held base unit. From the base unit, the signals are sent to the tongue via a “lollipop,” an electrode array that sits directly on the tongue. Each electrode corresponds to a set of pixels.
According to the device’s creators, the BrainPort enables users to find doorways and elevator buttons, read letters and numbers, and pick out cups and forks at the dinner table without having to fumble around.