Author: Eric Malikyte

Science fiction has long promised a future filled with robotic limbs capable of lifting super heavy objects, cybernetic eyes that scan the environment for hostile lifeforms, and machines that replace our very organs to prolong the human lifespan indefinitely (not to mention artificial intelligences that could nuke all living things on the planet into oblivion). Though many of those ideas are still just the stuff of science fiction, others may be closer to reality than you might think.

For instance, did you know that there are more than three companies racing to be the first to develop brain-machine interface technology? How about a cybernetic eye that can perceive every wavelength of light? Or a prosthetic limb that amputees can control with their brains, and even feel the distinct sensation of holding an object in their hand?

We’re going to dive into a few of the advances that warn of a future filled with cyborgs and artificial intelligence.

Machine Brain Interfaces

A while back, Elon Musk tweeted about an exciting new development for his Neuralink technology, stating that it was “awesome.” And that it might just beat out competitors like Utah Array and Facebook (yeah, you heard that right, Facebook wants access to your brain, and your memories, and your thoughts…isn’t that a great idea?).

Elon Musk at a Neuralink presentation. Credit: Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0

For those that don’t know, Neuralink is a company that Musk founded back in 2017 which focuses on developing technologies that allow computers to interface with the human brain. They aren’t the only one, but if you believe Musk, they’re the closest to achieving the dream of human machine unification.

The tech works by implanting tiny fiberoptic wires directly into the subject’s brain. The wires are implanted into the patient’s brain via a tiny robot that zips around their cranium. This technology could be used to control your phone from a distance, dim the lights and turn on your smart home’s security system, and maybe even drive a car with only the use of your brain.

Musk is also claiming that the technology would allow the blind to see, paraplegics to walk, and that it would cure a host of different neurological illnesses. 

And while Musk has publicly stated that the technology is close to being ready for human testing after an unveiling of what he called the 0.9 version of the implant (showing off a bunch of pigs that had the prototype implant surgically embedded in their skulls), some outlets aren’t so sure Neuralink is viable at all, going so far to call it “neuroscience theater.”

These commentators claim that the show of pigs during last year’s YouTube livestream is nothing new in the field of neuroscience and that such scientists are used to the trademark beeps and boops associated with reading an animals brain waves with electrodes, and further claim that the demonstration showed nothing of value as to what Neuralink was apparently capable of.  

How Neuralink and Elon Musk plan to insert device into human skull. Credit: Neuralink

Now, we all know that Elon can be a bit of a troll, and he’s come under fire for a few of his public meltdowns that, admittedly, did not look good. But Space X has made massive leaps in pushing humans beyond low-Earth orbit (where we’ve been stuck since the Apollo era ended). As eccentric as Elon Musk is, it might not be so wise to count Neuralink out just yet.

Especially since Elon just came out and announced that they’d installed a version of their Neuralink tech in a monkey’s brain that [zoom in] (allowed it to play videogames.)

(That’s it, the planet of the apes is here! Humans are done!)

Elon, via a new social media app called Clubhouse, had this to say about the monkey, “It’s not an unhappy monkey. You can’t even see where the neural implant was put in, except that he’s got a slight like dark mohawk.”

Basically, what Neuralink is attempting to do here is see if they can get a pair of monkeys to play, and I quote, “mind pong” with each other, with Elon going on to say, “that would be pretty cool.”

The understatement of the year, Elon. The understatement of the year. Which says a lot about 2021.

Of course, just twelve days later, Grimes and Lil Uzi had this exchange on twitter, suggesting that they should go get brain chips together by 2022 (which is probably a joke, but who can freaking tell right now? Who knows, maybe Grimes does have some kind of inside intel on Neuralink? Maybe the Singularity really is upon us.)

But on a more serious note, Musk believes that computer brain interface tech is not only important, but something that is necessary for the species to keep up with artificial intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence

In 1997 world champion of chess Garry Kasparov was dethroned by a computer developed by IBM called Deep Blue. Since then, the realm of AI has expanded greatly, but has, thus far, not become sentient (and hasn’t wiped us all out like the Terminator films predicted).

Deep Blue: Credit: James the photographer, CC BY 2.0

But more recently, it was revealed by a company called DeepMind (which sounds like something out of a William Gibson novel) who came out and said that their chess program, known as Maia, not only learned how to play chess by its lonesome, but was beginning to make mistakes…on purpose.

Yeah, the computer is deliberately making mistakes against other players so it can better understand how fallible we are. (Great.)

Maia is actually a clone of another chess AI program called Alpha Zero (what’s with these cyberpunk names…do you want a cyberpunk future because that’s how you get a cyberpunk future!), which differed from its coded brethren in that it learned chess all by itself, instead of being taught by humans. The program works with a simulated network of neurons that all fire to favor winning moves, something the members of the project call “reinforcement learning.”

Alpha Zero can also use this same process to learn how to play other games, like Checkers or Go. (For the love of God and all that his holy, do not let it play Risk!)

In fact, the team members behind Maia suggest that AI may soon outstrip humans in several other domains, like mathematics, literature, and more.

(What a wonderfully sobering thought…)

Elon? Can you get on with those implants please?

Also, I ran a poll earlier this month to discover who among my loyal Science Get viewers were bots and only (insert updated percentage) of you said that you were human (which is only slightly worrying).

But, while artificial intelligence remains a simultaneously exciting and frightening prospect, we’re not stopping at brain implants to combat the inevitable machine uprising, because we’ll need bionic limbs to punch back against our robot overlords!

Advanced Prosthetics and Robotics

We now have prosthetics in development which are installed directly into the bone, muscle, and nerves of a patient’s stump, allowing them to be controlled by the brain. If you ask Rickard Normark, an electrician who lost his left arm in an accident in 2011, and had one of these advanced prosthetic limbs tested on him, you’d learn that the experience is completely incomparable to that of a normal, clunky prosthesis. Normark went on to say this, “The socket prosthesis I previously had is a tool you can use to help in your daily life, but this… this is a part of you.”

The new prosthesis in action. Patient is gripping a grape. CREDIT: JOHAN BODELL/CHALMERS UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY

The four Swedish patients who received these limbs have lived with this new technology for between three and seven years. Normark has seen such a drastic improvement in hand control that he’s now able to race and repair cars. Others reported being able to canoe, ice fish, and even ride a snowmobile.

(All of which is a far cry from being able to crush robots in the coming first battle between man and machine…but, baby steps, right?)

So, how does it work?

The electronics of this advanced prosthetic are contained within the shell of the prosthesis, which—unlike other in development technologies—removes the need for external equipment. No exposed batteries, no electrodes, and no wires. Electrodes are implanted in the muscles of the upper arm, and nerves which control opening and closing the hand are re-routed. There are also force sensors embedded in the thumb of the hand to provide sensory feedback while holding objects. Those signals are then sent through wires connected to the nerves in the upper arm, and then to the brain, where they are interpreted as pressure against the hand.

All of this is very promising, and that’s good because robots have been getting more and more complex, coming in various shapes and sizes. Take Boston Dynamics’ robot dog (which looks remarkably similar to that dog robot from that one Black Mirror episode called Metalhead where these things basically hunted humanity into extinction) which is designed to perform inspections in hazardous places like nuclear powerplants and offshore oilfields, so humans don’t have to risk their lives (it also has some sick dance moves).

Spot (which is the robot dog’s name…probably cause it spots things…ha ha ha…what?) is also now self-charging and features an extended wifi range, which allows it to perform longer inspections. But if you’re worried about these things turning on their owners, they’re completely controlled by human operators from a safe distance (allegedly at least).

Sophia (Robot). Credit: ITU Pictures from Geneva, Switzerland, CC BY 2.0

What may be slightly more disturbing is that the company that developed the robotic personality robot Sophia is hoping to mass-produce humanoid robots just like her this year. Hanson Robotics has gone on record saying that the pandemic has increased the demand for humanlike robots who can interact with human beings.

Sophia gained a lot of attention with news outlets, social media, and YouTube with her witty banter and (threats to destroy the human race!) even appearing on TODAY and several other news programs.

So, what do you think, would you welcome a robot like Sophia into your home? (I certainly wouldn’t, I don’t even want an Alexa).

But even though robots are getting increasingly more advanced, our prosthetics are starting to catch up, take this cybernetic eye that may make it easier to spot the robot hoards coming from hundreds of miles away! (okay, I made that part up, but it is a very impressive robotic eye). Cue the title card!

The cybernetic eye that may make yours obsolete

Engineers have wanted to create artificial robotic eyes for nearly a decade, and before that we’ve dreamed of being able to use computers to fix or enhance our vision in a myriad of both inspiring and hilariously cheesy ways.

The new artificial eye: Credit: https://hkust.edu.hk/

But throughout the last decade, scientists have had a difficult time unlocking the secrets of what makes our eyes so good in the first place.

At least, until now.

This new artificial eye mimics the human eye’s structure, is just about as sensitive to light and has a faster reaction time. It won’t be able to x-ray through walls or give you night vision, but this device is shaping up to be able to have much sharper vision than its organic counterpart.

Zhiyong Fan of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says that prosthetic eyes could soon be used for better vision in prosthetics and humanoid robotics.

Fan and his colleagues used a curved aluminum oxide membrane, studded with nanosized sensors to external circuitry for processing. This circuitry sends relay signals from the device to the patient’s brain just an eyeball made of flesh and blood would.

And on top of the eye’s faster reaction time, it’s also a lot more sensitive to changes in light. To put things in perspective, the eye adjusts to new light levels in about 30 to 40 milliseconds rather than 40 to 150 milliseconds (which might not seem like much to the untrained eye…hah…get it? Okay…I’ll stop…)

But the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology thinks that this prosthetic eye might be able to image an environment at a much higher resolution than human eyes do thanks to the fact that it contains 450 million light sensors per square centimeter (which is huge cause the human eye only has about 10 million light-detecting cells per square centimeter).

How the the eye works. Credit: https://hkust.edu.hk/

However, the current setup for the eye’s installation only allows for about 100 pixels of resolution because the wires used to connect the device to the synthetic retina are too thick to allow for greater resolutions.

But don’t count Fan’s team out yet, as they used a magnetic field to show that much smaller wires could be connected to the synthetic retina, measuring 20 to 100 microns thick.

Though, Hongrui Jiang, an electrical engineer at the University of Wisconsin says that Fan and Co’s current methods are impractical, stating that instead of aiming for a few hundred nanowires, they should be aiming for millions.

So, it may be some time before cyborgs are a mainstay of human society (or until the machines revolt and turn us into human batteries!) But I think the advances in machine-human interfaces, whether they be prosthetics or microchip implants, show that there is potential for this science fiction to become science fact.

Artificial intelligence may be closer than we think too, with so many companies and research labs devoting vast resources to their study (we could probably produce a whole episode around the history of AI even).

But as always, you can bet that we’ll be there when those new technologies break the internet (unless Skynet has its way).

Sources:

https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/08/musk-says-that-neuralink-implants-are-close-to-ready-for-human-testing/

https://in.mashable.com/science/4908/elon-musks-robot-surgeon-will-now-sew-electrodes-into-human-brains

https://in.mashable.com/tech/11121/elon-musk-reveals-neuralink-chips-might-soon-be-implanted-in-humans

https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/08/30/1007786/elon-musks-neuralink-demo-update-neuroscience-theater/

https://www.wired.com/story/new-artificial-intelligence-mistakes-purpose-chess/

https://www.nextgov.com/emerging-tech/2021/02/jaic-seeks-test-and-evaluation-services-artificial-intelligence/172018/

https://www.c4isrnet.com/artificial-intelligence/2021/02/12/for-us-and-allies-prepping-for-ai-warfare-starts-with-the-data/

https://www.zdnet.com/article/artificial-intelligence-can-influence-human-decision-making-new-data61-study-reveals/

https://techxplore.com/news/2021-02-framework-robotics-applications-merges-reservoir.html

https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/industrial-robots/hyundai-boston-dynamics-new-robots

https://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/company-aims-to-produce-thousands-of-humanoid-robots-in-2021/5752308.html

https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/02/tech/boston-dynamics-spot-robot-dog/index.html

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1917537?query=featured_home