Human enhancement technologies. What are examples of human enhancement technologies? What are future augment technologies? Incl. definition, benefits & risks

Technology human enhancement

I describe the following methods and applications in this article:

  1. Bioelectronics;
  2. Senses
  3. Brain interventions
  4. Bionic;
  5. Exoskeleton.

I elaborate on the methods below. Here is a separate article on human genetic enhancement.


1. Bioelectronics

Bioelectronics is about adding electronic devices or replacements to the body. This refers to internal devices and to devices that are permanently connected to the body, such as a piercing. That’s different from a temporary electronic application that’s connected to the body, such as an exoskeleton.

There are various types of bioelectronics available, which I will describe in the following paragraphs. Bioelectronic devices aren’t uncommon in the medical sector either; take pacemakers for example, or hearing and seeing aids, which I will discuss a bit later on.

I also have some personal experience with bioelectronics; I had a small NFC chip implanted in my hand [link and video below].


2. Senses

A Canadian named Jens Naumann lost his sight when he was 20, due to two separate accidents [link at the bottom]. In 2002, he signed up as a volunteer for researcher William Dobelle. The prosthesis that was developed by Dobelle works as follows. Jens wore a pair of glasses that had a small camera mounted on the frame. The images captured by the camera were converted into electrical pulses, which connected to his virtual cortex through a hole in his skull. He was the first ever person in the world to have bionic eyes. 

A more recent example is Jeroen Peek, a Dutch man who had completely lost his sight due to a genetic disease. During a medical procedure that took 4 hours, a highly advanced chip was placed on his retina. As the connection between his retina and his visual cortex was still intact, he was eligible for a chip produced by the American manufacturer Second Sight. Now he can see 60 pixels. In an article in Dutch daily De Volkskrant, he stated: “I can suddenly see contours and pretty lights again, it’s amazing.”

The chip is connected to a pair of glasses with a small camera. A computer that he carries with him, as big as an old camera, converts the images to signals that are wirelessly transmitted to the chip. The chip then converts the pulses to the brain, via the intact optic nerve, which results in Peek being able to see pixels.

Ears

Inserting electronic devices to restore people’s hearing isn’t just a modern occurrence. The first operation with cochlear implants took place in 1982. These implants have the ability to take over the function of the sensory cells in the inner ear, and electronically stimulate the auditory nerve [link at the bottom]. A cochlear implant consists of an external part and an internal part that is implanted in the inner ear (the cochlea).

Neil Harbisson’s case [link and video interview at the bottom] presents an interesting mix or blending of sight and hearing. He was born color-blind, but is now able to hear colours using a brain implant. What’s extraordinary about this is that he can’t just hear the spectrum of colors that healthy people can see, but is also able to hear colors such as infrared and ultraviolet.

Speech

The examples of visual aids and hearing devices have to do with how we receive signals. But this type of technology can also be applied to patients that need help with their speech capabilities. One of the best-known examples of this, is the late physicist Stephen Hawking. He could move a cursor around using jaw movements, and by doing so he could create words and sentences on a computer. Speech software then translated this into sound [link at the bottom].

Currently, scientists are doing research into transferring data from electrodes placed in the brain, and then using the data as input for speech software. According to researcher Nima Mesgarani of Columbia University (United States), it’s definitely not easy to map neurological activity and translate this into speech. In an article in Science Magazine she states: ‘The process and the patterns differ per patient. Computer models must be “trained” on each individual. We’re using artificial intelligence for this.’ [link at the bottom].

Qualia

The examples I just discussed, concerning vision, hearing and speech, are about restoring the capabilities we already have as human beings. But what about acquiring new sensory abilities? Is that possible? Neuroscientist David Eagleman wrote an article on Wired about qualia [link at the bottom]. Qualia are qualitative characteristics of perception, such as taste and color.

Eagleman writes that the brain does not distinguish between signals from the ears, eyes or touch. To the brain, they’re all perceived as electrical signals, and it is difficult to distinguish between visual, auditory or kinetic signals. Another characteristic of the brain is that it’s neuroplastic, i.e. it can adapt itself. For example, it turns out that in people who go blind, the part of the brain known as the visual cortex gets taken over by touch and hearing.

How our brain converts electrical signals into sight, sound or touch is determined by the structure of the data. For example, the two-dimensional signals from the retina are different from the one-dimensional signals sent by our inner ear – and, in turn, from the multidimensional signals transmitted by the receptors in our fingertips.

New senses

That also allows us to play around with our senses. For example, Eagleman predicts that it won’t be long before we can introduce new types of data streams into the brain. As an example, he suggests that you could experience the height, movement, balance, speed and balance of a drone in your brain.

This could be done in two ways: either by directly inserting electrodes into the brain, or by using non-invasive methods. For instance, Eagleman’s company ‘NeoSensory’ is working on wristbands and vests to translate data such as image and sound into vibrations [link at the bottom].


3. Brain interventions

The examples about senses already merge with the technologies concerning the brain.

Take for example the work of biomedical engineer Theodore Berger [link at the bottom]. Together with an international team of experts in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, molecular biology, biomedical engineering, computer science and materials science, Berger is working to create replacement parts for the brain. For example, the team is currently working on a neural prosthesis to replace the hippocampus – a small organ in the brain, shaped like a seahorse, which plays an important role in converting our short-term experiences into long-term memories. In 2011, the chip was successfully tested on rats.

Berger: ‘Turn the switch on, the rat has the memory; turn it off and they don’t.’ This is the first time it’s been demonstrated that a chip is capable of restoring, and even improving, the cognitive and mnemonic processes of forming memories. The team of researchers, led by Berger, hopes that the first clinical trials among humans will take place in 2025.

Interpreting brain activity

Most of the methods I just described are considered ‘invasive’, which means that a part of the skull has to be removed to carry them out. These interventions are often difficult, messy, expensive, and usually leave the patient with a severe trauma. Therefore, scientists prefer to do research into non-invasive methods. At the moment, the most commonly used method is EEG, which stands for electroencephalography. EEG employs sensors on the outside of the skull to record the brain activity. This can be used in neurofeedback to train the brain [link at the bottom], to name one example, but it can also be used to mind-control games, to measure the quality of your meditation session, or to help you sleep better.

A next step could be to use this for operating equipment and vehicles. A company called Honeywell Aerospace, for example, is testing whether pilots could fly an aircraft using neurotechnology [link at the bottom]. By 2016, the technology had already been developed to a level where a Beechcraft King Air C90 could be operated using brain signals. The system measures and interprets the electrical signals transmitted by the brain, and translates them into steering commands.

Brain stimulation

EEG technology is used to monitor and interpret brain activity. But it’s also possible to intervene in the brain, both through invasive and non-invasive means. An example of an invasive method is Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). As the name indicates, this method involves electrodes that are permanently placed in certain brain regions. The electrodes are connected to a small device, which sends low electrical currents to the electrodes in a programmed rhythm.

This method was initially developed in France to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease. Nowadays, DBS is successfully used in patients with Parkinson’s as well as other conditions, including severe chronic depression, Tourette’s syndrome and severe obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Non-invasive methods to intervene in the brain are TDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation), TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) and optogenetics. As the names suggest, TDCS works by means of electrical stimulation, TMS by magnetic stimulation and optogenetics by light stimulation.

  • In TCDS, electrodes are placed on the outside of the skull and a weak electrical current is emitted. Initially, this technology was developed to improve cognitive function. I was interviewed about this technique by Quest magazine [link at the bottom]. Scientists aren’t too sure about the efficacy of this method. Research by Professor Maarten Frens (Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam) shows that genetic predisposition, especially the degree to which you produce the protein BDNF, has a major influence on the extent to which TCDS affects your learning abilities.
  • TMS uses small magnetic coils which are placed outside of the skull and target specific brain areas. Programmed magnetic pulses are then transmitted in order to stimulate certain brain regions. In the medical sector, TMS therapy is used in the same types of conditions as DBS is used. In the United States, TMS treatments have been approved by the FDA since 2008.
  • Optogenetics is a brain stimulation method that uses light. The light is used to switch the neurons on or off. This technique uses various light-sensitive proteins that occur in nature, such as ChR2, which can be found in algae. Optogenetics is quite a recent scientific discovery; in 2010, Nature magazine declared it the ‘method of the year’ [link at the bottom].

Memory expansion

Theodore Berger, the biomedical engineer I mentioned before, focuses on creating brain prostheses that can take over memory functions in the brain. His ultimate goal is to be able to replace the long-term memory in a human being with an artificial alternative. In an interview, he does emphasize that these technologies won’t enable you to plant memories in someone’s brain, like in movies like Inception or the episode The Entire History of You of the series Black Mirror [link at the bottom]. He states: “We’re expanding your brain’s capacity to store things.”

We’re expanding your brain’s capacity to store things

Theodore Berger (biomedical engineer)

Together with his team, he has come up with mathematical equations on how the electrical signals from the neurons in the hippocampus are converted from short to long-term memory.

Berger: ‘You don’t have to recreate the entire brain, but can you recreate the essence? The next question is whether we can make a model of this and simulate it in a device. Finally, the last question is whether we can place that device in the brain and connect it to other brain functions.’

Getting smarter

We’ve talked about expanding your memory, but is it also possible to improve your intelligence with a chip? It will be, according to Elon Musk, about whom I’ve written extensively in my article on neurotechnology [link at the bottom]. He regularly argues in interviews that we, as humans, have to connect our brains to artificial intelligence. It’s no surprise then, that he is also one of the investors in neurotechnology start-up Neuralink [link at the bottom].

According to Musk, the biggest challenge lies in bandwidth: how do you set up a fast connection between biological intelligence and artificial intelligence? Will you be able to access the internet directly through your thoughts in the future, e.g. Wikipedia for knowledge, Spotify for music, Netflix for movies and Instagram for your social life?

Entire History of You Netflix

The episode The Entire History of You by Black Mirror on Netflix is about an eye chip that constantly records everything.

Kernel

Musk isn’t the only one who believes in this, by the way. Bryan Johnson is the founder of a company called Kernel [link at the bottom]. In interviews he frequently asserts that the question is not whether we are going to implant electrical chips in the brain, but when. Similarly to Neuralink, Kernel primarily focuses on the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Bryan Johnson: “Intelligence is the most precious and powerful resource for humans. We’ve always built these tools, starting with the rock, thermostat, calculator. Now we have AI. Our tools and digital intelligence are increasing at great velocity. On the flip side, human intelligence is just about the same as it’s always been.”

Our technological tools and digital intelligence are developing at a faster and faster pace. On the other hand, our own biological intelligence has always remained more or less the same

Bryan Johnson (Kernel)

Johnson and his colleagues at Kernel – including Theodore Berger, who worked there as a scientific advisor for a while – also see that there is still a long way to go. “The computations and algorithms carried in the brain are still largely a mystery to us.” Another complication is the fact that the brain is constantly changing. In the book Mindfield, Lone Frank writes that every second, a million connections are formed in the brain.

Connecting the brain

In an interview, Elon Musk stated that linking human intelligence to artificial intelligence could also lead to a new form of communication. “With our current ways of communicating, such as typing, you are limited to 10 bits per second. A computer can communicate at a trillion bits per second.”

If we start using such technologies, humans will also start to communicate with each other differently, perhaps through a kind of telepathy. According to Musk’s utopian vision, this would mean that people could always understand each other, which would lead to more new ideas and fewer conflicts.

Intimate communication

Musk’s idea may seem like a page out of a science-fiction story, but there’s some fascinating research taking place in the realm of brain-to-brain communication. Some leading publications in the past few years:

  • In 2013, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis (Duke University) already demonstrated that he could connect rats to each other via a computer, using an implant in their motor cortex [link at the bottom];
  • In the same year, neuroscientist Seung Schik Yoo (Harvard University) established that people with EEG electrodes on their skull could get rats to wiggle their tails [link at the bottom]; 
  • One year later, professors Rao en Stocco (University of Washington)  demonstrated that they could communicate with each other via EEG electrodes and a TMS headband [link at the bottom]. One simply thought of pressing a button, and the other actually pressed it after he received a magnetic pulse through the headband.
  • In 2019, Cornell University researchers developed a Brain-to-Brain communication program, building on the aforementioned research by Rao and Stocco. The platform is called BrainNet.

Once again, we shouldn’t forget the fact that the brain is ever-changing and evolving. That means that, at least in the short term, downloading knowledge like in the movie The Matrix is not feasible or realistic. Memories aren’t just stored in one specific place in the brain, but are formed through associative connections between different brain regions.

Brain enhancement

Theodore Berger says that his research can help restore normal memory function in people who have lost it, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s [link at the bottom]. In an interview with Dutch daily newspaper NRC, he states: ‘It is an interesting question whether people should be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to use this technique for brain enhancement purposes. And whether they are equipped to make such decisions about this for themselves. That’s up to ethicists and society.’

Science fiction

This concept is also frequently explored in fiction, such as books, movies and TV shows: Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, Transcendence, The Matrix and Nexus are just a few examples [link at the bottom]. In almost none of these works, however, does brain-to-brain connectivity bring out the rosy utopian world described by Musk – although that may also just be typical of science fiction. I can personally relate to this as well: movies, TV shows and books that sketch some kind of gloomy dystopia of the future, do tend to hold my attention and fascination longer.


4. Bionic

Hugh Herr is a professor at MIT and an enthusiastic mountaineer. He has two leg prostheses because his two lower legs had to be amputated from the knees from freezing cold. This does not prevent him from continuing to climb, but was also a start for him to delve into biomechanics.

Now he leads the Center for Extreme Bionics at MIT [link at the bottom]. This center focuses not only on the mechanics of prostheses (limb replacement) and ortheses (limb support), but also on the neurological management thereof.

Oscar Pistorius

The special thing about Hugh Herr is that with his artificial feet, ankles and calves he can do specific climbing routes that climbers with natural limbs are unable to do. The moment that paralympic athletes are better than regular athletes is quickly approaching. Two examples:

South African Oscar Pistorius was the first amputee athlete to participate in the Olympic Games in 2012 in London.

The German long jump Marcus Rehm has both a normal leg and a prosthesis. He won the national championships in 2014 and was nominated for the European championships. The German sports authorities, however, put a stop to this because they felt that there was unfair competition.

Perhaps there will be people who will want to exchange their hands for an artificial variant.

Samantha Payne (Open Bionics)

Samantha Payne of Open Bionics is convinced that artificial body parts will eventually be better than biological ones [link at the bottom]. In an interview she says: ‘It’s quite a task, because the human body is incredibly complex. The strength, skill and feel of a hand are very difficult to replicate. But we will achieve that. And then? Maybe there are people out there who who would want to trade their hands for an artificial variant.”

Bionic drummer

In addition to examples from sport, the Jason Barnes story also caught my eye. It was always his ambition to become a musician until he lost his hand while cleaning a device during his side job in a restaurant. Although he was no longer able to drum as well as before his accident, he could still study at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media in Georgia, United States.

One of his teachers, Eric Sanders, introduced him to Gil Weinberg of the Georgia Institute of Technology. The Sanders research group conceived the plan to make an arm for Jason with which he could play at his old level, or even higher, [link at the bottom].


Hugh Herr is a well-known researcher in the field of bionic limbs.

5. Exoskeleton

An exoskeleton is intended to support or improve the body or specific limbs. Usually the limbs are still there, but the patient is unable to control them because of a nervous system disorder. Exoskeleton are used in the healthcare to restore bodily functions, and in domains such as business or the military to improve or enhance bodily functions.

Spinal cord lesion

When it comes to restoring bodily functions, think for instance of patients who can no longer move their limbs due to paralysis. A well-known example in The Netherlands is Ruben de Sain [link at the bottom]. In 2005, he suffered a spinal cord lesion due to a motorcycle accident. With a crowdfunding campaign he financed an exoskeleton for himself.

Ruben de Sain in an interview: ‘It makes me feel much fitter. I’m not sick as often as I was before and I’ve also had much fewer back pains since I used the suit.’In the Netherlands, the Technical University of Delft is working on further developing the exoskeleton. Marissa de Baar, Project March: ‘We hope that in the future, we’ll be able to give people with a spinal cord lesion their full mobility back. The goal is that people will put on the exoskeleton underneath their clothes when they get ready in the morning, and are able to live a normal life.’

Business sector

The use of exoskeletons in the business sector is about improving and enhancing human functions. At the beginning of 2019, it was announced that Amazon is rolling out the so-called Robotic Tech Vest in warehouses in the United States [link at the bottom]. This is an electronic vest that is equipped with sensors, to prevent accidents with falling objects or with robots in the warehouse.

Car manufacturer Ford uses a different type of exoskeleton, aimed at supporting employees who work in the assembly of cars. This skeleton was designed by Ekso Bionics and provides the employees with a maximum of 7.5 kilos extra lifting capacity.

In the Netherlands, the navy uses a Laevo vest to reduce back strains. The vest distributes the pressure that normally weighs down on the chest and back, to the hips and legs instead [link at the bottom].

The movie Edge of Tomorrow is about soldiers with exoskeletons

The army

When I think about the use of exoskeletons, it’s mainly images from movies like Elysium and Edge of Tomorrow that come to mind. In these science fiction movies, soldiers wear exoskeletons to run faster, move around for a longer time or jump higher. That might actually not be such a futuristic vision.

DARPA is the innovation agency of the U.S. Army. Together with manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, they’re working on exoskeletons that support soldiers in their lifting power [link at the bottom]. They mainly focus on supporting the leg muscles, which relatively speaking are used much more often than the muscles in the upper body.

Combination with BCI

On a personal level, I am very interested in the combination of bioelectronics with prostheses and exoskeletons. DARPA’s N3 programme, which stands for Next Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology, is looking into the possibilities of reading and interpreting brain signals. Now, brain-computer interfaces are being used to help patients to move or communicate. In a military setting, this could be used to control machines, aim for a target and even fire guns.


Medicine as origine

As you may have been able to deduce from the described methods , many human enhancement methods come from medicine. I think plastic surgery is the most striking historical example.

Plastic surgery

Jacques Joseph (1865-1934) was a Jewish orthopedic surgeon from Berlin. He was not interested in conventional orthopedics, according to Theo Mulder’s contribution in the book The Makeable Man [link at the bottom]. Surgeon Joseph was particularly interested in the possibilities of changing the human body through medical means.

Empty vanity

When he carried out an operation on a Jewish child with wide ears, which flattened his ears, he was fired. According to his employer, this was not real surgery, but cosmetic surgery.

According to his employer, this was the same as the use of surgical knowledge for empty vanity. Apparently it didn’t matter that the child was constantly being teased because of his ears.

Don’t stand out

Jacques Joseph then started his own clinic and became the founder of modern cosmetic rhinoplasty (nose change). He was so successful that he was called Nasen-Joseph in Berlin. After noses, he also went on to work with ears and other body parts.

The main purpose for his patients was that they could hide unobtrusively into the masses after the operation. After all, that was what they wanted: to no longer stand out as a Jew, but be part of the anonymous, unsupported urban mass. So at the time it was not about the desire of beauty, but about the wish to not stand out, at least not to be a Jew who was refused or abused.

First World War

For a long time, Jacques Joseph’s professional existence took place in the margins of the surgical establishment. This came to an end during the First World War. Then he was able to use his knowledge of cosmetic operations for the thousands of soldiers who came back from the trenches with damaged faces.

This was the case with all parties from the battlefront. In 1916, after the Battle of Somme, two thousand horribly mutilated soldiers of the English troops in France were brought into the surgical center for face and jaw surgery, where Varaztad Kazanjian was the dentist. The reputation of Kazanjian, Joseph and their other colleagues rose to a great height, as did their field of cosmetic surgery.

Lessons

The example of plastic surgery is often cited because it clearly shows the transition from cure to improvement. Of course, plastic surgery is still used to help patients, but much more often it is used as a form of human enhancement.

The most famous contemporary example is South Korea. There, on average, residents spend the most money on plastic surgery per person [link at the bottom]. A study by the Pew Research Center shows that 14% of women have undergone plastic surgery. This percentage is 30% for women around twenty years old. For comparison: in the United States this is 7%.

Remarkably, inconspicuousness, as in the time of Jacques Joseph, is not the primary motive for clients undergoing treatment. Researcher So Yeon Leen indicates that the goal of most patients is progress, combating the signs of aging and “standing above other Koreans.”


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Reading list

I previously wrote these related articles about human enhancement:

External links:

Technology: bioelectronics

Technology: bionics

Technology: exoskeleton

Section: medicine

What do you think about current and future human enhancement technologies? Leave a comment!