L'Atelier: Given the pace of progress in connected objects, the mapping of the human brain and increasingly sophisticated medical devices, what do you think the future holds for us on the bionic technology front?
Ramez Naam: Well, we’re now learning how to transfer information to and from the human brain. For instance people afflicted with deafness can now get back some of their hearing through a cochlear implant, which enables information to be sent directly to the brain when the ear itself can no longer transform sounds into electrical impulses. Similarly, people who are blind or visually impaired can recover something akin to sight through retinal implants such as the Argus II, which sends electrical signals direct to the optic nerve. We also have paralysed people who have an implant into their motor cortex which enables them to control a cursor on a screen so they can communicate, and a robotic arm that helps them to feed themselves. Moreover we’ve gone much further with animals, especially in research into the hippocampus, the brain’s memory and learning centre. Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California has created a ‘memory card’ which can partly replace a damaged hippocampus and also enables memories to be recorded and implanted. So memory transfer looks feasible, at least in theory. [Brazilian scientist] Professor Miguel Angel Nicolelis has even succeeded in creating a genuine telepathic link between rats several thousands of kilometres apart by connecting two implants embedded into the motor cortex. Based on these experiments we can easily conceive of an infinite number of possibilities. We could for instance project an image directly from a person’s brain. The really important aspect today is how we can use such knowledge for medical purposes. The path these technologies are taking is to increase or improve the ability of patients suffering from paralysis or neurological disorders to communicate. Going forward the broader aim will be about augmenting our natural means of communication and – even more broadly – about augmenting our abilities, in terms of both perception and action.
Are we on the way to what science fiction has been predicting for a long time, i.e. human abilities being augmented through technological implants?
I think that in some ways we’re there already. We tend to lose sight of our current situation. How many patients today have a pacemaker? According to estimates, 30,000 Argus II retinal implants will be inserted this year. We’re also working on neuron stimulators for patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and these could also help in treating depression. We even have orthopaedic prostheses made by 3D printers, which should become more widespread as costs come down. There are huge numbers of things happening. However, unlike in traditional science fiction, such implants and technology aids don’t actually work as well as the real thing. A retinal implant affords only incomplete vision compared with a properly functioning eye.
However, in theory our eyes could learn to work with different wavelengths, ultraviolet and infrared for example, or our ears with infrasound and ultrasound, couldn’t they?
Absolutely. There’s no theoretical reason why an implant cannot enhance our senses, and long term it seems likely that this is the way things will go.
But before we get to the ‘augmented human being’ stage, couldn’t this technological progress, the quantified self and the wearable devices, enable people to be better citizens?
Yes indeed. I think these devices and systems should help us gain a better understanding of our relationship with the world, our relationship with the environment for instance. Today, though, it’s basically the healthcare sector that’s most affected. In the United States and Europe, two thirds of all deaths are linked to heart disease, cancers and diabetes. These illnesses are directly linked to people’s lifestyles. In addition to devices such as Fitbit, technological progress should very soon provide us with devices that are able to, for example, analyse blood samples on the spot and help people to really understand their own daily habits. This technology is already augmenting nature – the device you’re using to record this conversation augments your memory, my glasses augment my vision. All this is already profoundly ‘trans-human’ in the most basic sense of the term.
You’ve worked in the environment and energy sectors. Do you think these advances in man-machine interfaces will have a particular impact on these sectors?
I think that the impact of the man-machine interface is first and foremost about improving communication. This is exactly the point that I wanted to delve into deeper in my novel Nexus. The contribution made by computer technology isn’t only that it can make human beings more intelligent, I think it’s more about new forms of communication, more immediate communication. Innovation most often emerges from working together with others. I don’t think that the main impact in the environmental and energy spheres will be about changing people’s individual habits, it will be more about the exponential acceleration of innovation. Not just by for example improving solar panels, but also in the business approach to these issues, in changing the business models in order to make such innovations viable and profitable. It’s these innovations which will perhaps bring the various players – ecologists, scientists and investors – together.