Science-Fiction Becomes Reality Through Cybernetics

Cyber Arm
Claudia Mitchell and her mind-controlled bionic arm

While cyborgs are familiar to everyone who’s come in touch with science-fiction, most people imagine Robocop or Ironman, and a surprising number of people still confuse cyborgs with androids, such as the Terminator and Lieutenant Data. But cyborgs are far more than men in robot suits, and they’re about as different from androids as uncle Bob with his pacemaker is from ATLAS.

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a living being whose biological functions are intertwined with artificial ones. The best definition of cyborg comes IMO from understanding what cybernetic actually means, and that is “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine” (according to Norbert Wiener). Cybernetics is the study of how living cells communicate and store information, and how that can be understood, replicated and influenced with the help of machines. A cyborg is the result of that, a living being with an integrated machine somewhere in his body.

Cyberware is technology that attempts to create a working interface between machines and the human nervous system, and it’s made incredibly leaps in evolution over the past decade. The most spectacular pieces of cyberware today are myoelectric prosthetics, mind-controlled robotic arms, computer chips embedded in people’s brains, artificial organs such as eyes, hearts and other organs, and implants that replace lost senses. But of course, there are no limits to the development of increasingly advanced cyberware, other than time, budgets and cultural values.

Cyborgs are already living among us, and the continuous advancement of medicine and technology allow even severely injured or disabled people to enjoy a normal life, as much as possible. The main purpose of cybernetics today is to replace lost functionality, and while some of us dread the moment we’ll have to decide whether to enhance perfectly normal functionality or not, others focus more on the amazing feats of science that have elevated our generation above all others who ever roamed this planet.

Let’s take the awesomeness that is this mind-controlled robotic arm, for example:

Or this one:

 

If you’ve ever been curious about neuropsychology, you will know that the brain can’t distinguish between information that is gathered through our actual senses (commonly known as reality), and information which is created by the brain itself (aka our imagination). The signal in your brain when you want to move your hand, is identical to the signal in your brain when you imagine you’re moving your hand. A computer that can read and understand that signal, and relay it to a mechanical arm to replace a real biological arm is just a natural step in our understanding of organic and mechanical life—in our cybernetic evolution.

Since science-fiction is a lifestyle for us SF writers, the idea of humans controlling machines with their thoughts is almost trivial, it’s one of the things we take for granted in our genre (just as space flight and artificial intelligence). But living in an age where these tropes are starting to become reality and more and more of our beloved futuristic world is being conquered in real life, is truly reason for celebration.

And if you think huge robotic arms and stiff prostheses are cumbersome, how about the other side of cybernetics — the microscopic one. Scientists have developed cyborg tissue, living tissue interwoven with nanowires and silicone sensors that spy on the activity of the cells, and in the future might even be able to control them. So far, they have created cyborg heart tissue that contracts just like normal heart tissue, neuronal tissue that sends electric signals, and blood vessel tissue that grows like normal blood vessel tissue. And the cybernetic wiring embedded in it was able to detect if the tissue was living and growing normally, or developing inflammations, malfunctions and even tumorous cells. They used rat tissue for now, but imagine the possibilities!

Speaking of rats, one of the greatest cybernetic achievements of late is the rat brain robot. A little robot remotely controlled via bluetooth by the neurons of a rat, kept in a bell jar, which receives input from the robot’s sensors alone! Not only is the robot moving and behaving like a rat (even though it so definitely isn’t one), but it’s capable of learning and reorienting itself, and it assumes the personality of its master. Yup, that’s right, using the brain cells of a different rat had the robot behave differently, according to the personality (or if you prefer, natural level of activity and interests) of the rat whose brain controlled it. A cyborg rat—running loose in the lab, hiding under tables, avoiding obstacles and human feet!

Squee!

Now, we’ve seen all kinds of amazing inventions in science-fiction—and even I have embedded nanowire technology replacing personal computers in my novel, for example—but it never ceases to amaze me just how close we are to science-fiction RIGHT NOW.

We’re only years, not centuries, away from creating artificial intelligence via cybernetics, only years away from enabling paralyzed people to become independent, from preventing and curing cancer with cybernetic tissue and organs, and we’re going to witness these things during our lifetimes. 

What kind of fiction can ever come close to the wonder of this reality?

7 Replies to “Science-Fiction Becomes Reality Through Cybernetics”

  1. I will be picking your brains, Vero – basically in terms of smoothing and sharpening what I already have in my WIP presently called Parkland. Stuff like:
    Scientists have developed cyborg tissue, living tissue interwoven with nanowires and silicone sensors that spy on the activity of the cells, and the ‘rat’ stuff. I’m aware of the concepts, but it’s getting the damn gobbledegook right or at least sounding authentic : )

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  2. Fascinating post, Vero. It’s astonishing how far this technology has advanced over the past decade, and both exhilarating and a tiny bit terrifying to think of what might lie ahead.

    And as cool as that cyborg rat is, I bet the owner of the brain in the bell jar didn’t sign a consent form. Just sayin’.

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    1. Although the paralyzed people who will benefit of mind-controlled robots doing their chores will have the luxury of choosing. 🙂

      And I bet the rat doesn’t mind. He’s the coolest guy in the whole lab, making history and landing in the news and all. Maybe he’s the first creature on Earth to experience a new dimension, maybe he’s even found the true meaning of life after disembodiment and is secretly laughing at us poor bipeds. Who knows! 😀

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