Looking back to the use of fire and sticks, humans have long since enhanced their abilities through external measures. We witness this now aeroplanes for flying, telephones for communication and computers for just about everything else. Even if we wish to enhance our looks this can be done through makeup and clothing. More drastically this can be achieved through medical intervention, referred to as cosmetic surgery. Sometimes this might be in order to restore an individual to their original appearance after an accident but in many cases it is simply because that person wishes to look different (arguably better) in some way.
We also have a plethora of medical interventions which act as therapeutic aids. Everything from life-saving surgical technology to cochlea implants overcoming hearing difficulties, pacemakers that assist heart malfunctions to deep brain stimulation treating the effects of Parkinson’s Disease and Clinical Depression. Twenty years ago, the idea of blasting lasers into someone’s eyes was science fiction. Now those with poor eyesight are queuing up for the treatment and brag about the results obtained.
But for a while now we have also sought to enhance human abilities more invasively and often beyond what we consider to be the norm. Sometimes these enhancements are artistic, such as the work of Tim Cannon investigating implants under the skin that light up in the presence of magnets. Some are more functional, like the recently commercialised north star, which gives the recipient their own compass bearing merely through a piercing. However Ian Harrison has gone the furthest in his attempts to give humans extra senses. His magnetic implants allow humans to experience ultra sonics, which can give a feeling of distance, and infrared to obtain a remote sense of heat.
What is arguably most important, and which will have the most dramatic effect on society as a whole, are experiments involving modification of the brain and human nervous system. Of course the effects of different chemicals on the brain have been investigated by many people over the years. We use them to remove headaches and improve cognitive abilities – even coffee does this. But it’s when we consider implants that things get interesting. The Braingate implant, which consists of 100 fitted spikes with electrodes, has been fired into the brain of a number of paralysed individuals in order to effectively rewire their nervous system. With this we can reroute motor neural signals in the brain directly to move a robot hand or even the person’s own limbs. As the individual thinks about moving, their brain signals are transmitted via the implant and a computer to the robot arm.
"Would you want extra mental abilities or would you prefer to be left behind in some form of sub-culture?"
Exactly the same implant has been fired into the nervous system of a healthy human in order to connect that person with the internet. Once in place it is possible to have a direct ultrasonic sense, and as objects come closer the person’s brain receives more pulses of electric current. The internet can also be used to send signals from the individual’s nervous system to a robot hand on a different continent – between New York and the UK. In effect the person’s nervous system was extended over the internet. But most important of all was the transmission of neural signals directly between that individual’s nervous system and that of another individual via electrodes. In this latter case a new form of communication was realised which, when signals are transmitted directly between human brains, will form the basis of thought communication.
Not only will thought communication be possible but by linking the human brain with a computer network we could potentially outsource memories, think in more than 3-Dimensions and upgrade the human speed of mental processing. Who wouldn’t want such abilities when they have been proven to work reliably, shown to be safe and suitably commercialised? Will society rail against it in a way that we have not done with cosmetic surgery?
Of prime concern though is that it will split society into those who have the technology and those who do not. At present society is stretched rather like an elastic band between those who interact regularly with technology and those who don’t have access to it at all. But we are talking now about upgrading human intelligence through implant technology. For those with the implanted technology, with the ability to communicate by thought, will they really still want to communicate with ordinary humans who do not have the same abilities? Or will they merely ignore them and get on with their technologically enhanced lives? For you as an individual, would you want extra mental abilities or would you prefer to be left behind in some form of sub-culture?