An arm and a leg for the future

20 January 2019 - 00:03 By HARRY DE QUETTEVILLE


It's the internet's equivalent of a note in a newsagent's window. The website has a single page. No fancy videos or graphics. No colours, even. Just black-and-white text offering jobs to "exceptional engineers and scientists". The task at hand: "Developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers."
This is Neuralink — a company that wants to blend man and machine to make cyborgs. Its founder? Elon Musk.
Why does Musk want to make cyborgs? To save mankind. He believes that artificial intelligence (AI) will soon outstrip us and that, as a result, AI will treat humanity, at best, like a pet. So, thinking big as usual, he decided that we mortals should develop "brain-machine interfaces" (BMIs) to meld seamlessly with AI, and so become superintelligent, too. If you can't beat 'em ...
Naturally, it sounds mad. But Musk makes mad work, revolutionising both the car and space industries in a single decade. And BMIs are already improving human capabilities.
Professor Jose Millan, chairman in Brain-Machine Interface at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, leads research that allows tetraplegics to control wheelchairs with their thoughts.
He says that, for healthy people, BMIs can be "a second level of cognition". Last year, with Nissan, he unveiled technology that allows a smart car to read a driver's brain signals to anticipate actions like braking.
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week there was plenty of evidence that the cyborg revolution is indeed under way.
"A few years ago exoskeletons were something from sci-fi," says Millan. "Now they are at the CES. This is moving very, very, very fast."
Today, the global market in "human augmentation" is worth just $600m (R8.2bn). That is predicted to grow to $3bn by 2023, the bleeding edge of a medical market in bionic replacement limbs and organs predicted to be worth $28bn by the same year.
So just what is the cyborg tech available now, and what can it do? Some examples.
At CES, LG demonstrated an updated version of its own tech — the Cloi Bot.
All the biggest tech companies - Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft - are investing considerable time and effort in the augmented hearing sector, not least because in-ear computers ("hearables" in the jargon) will be in a prime spot next to your brain — perfect to deliver information — and advertising.
Augmented Hearing takes the concept of noise-cancelling headphones and runs with it, adjusting the volume of ambient noise and allowing you to focus your hearing forward on an interlocutor, say, while tuning out the jabbering neighbour at your side.
Augmented Vision tech is getting smaller and better looking. Now smart glasses such as Focals, by North ($999), actually look like glasses. They can give you a heads-up display featuring weather info or text messages.
And full Augmented Reality (AR) glasses are coming. One of the hottest sectors in tech right now, AR overlays dynamic information on the world around the user, in products like the Microsoft Hololens and Magic Leap One. The Vuzix Blade (£999) and Nreal Light ($1,000) drew crowds at CES by being lighter and cooler than the opposition.
So far, cyborg tech is limited to what you can strap on. Powered exoskeletons, microchip-enabled hearing buds or glasses augment our capacities but do not replace them. Current prosthetic limbs or cochlear or retinal implants are still pale imitations of the real thing. But that is changing.
True body-part upgrades will require two things — BMIs that allow the brain both to control prosthetics and receive information back from them. BMIs today are good at this first part, bad at the second. The loop needs to be completed.
With improved BMIs, researchers are already talking about bionic eyes that could increase the spectrum of visible light.
British prosthetics company Open Bionics has developed a Hero Arm, a 3-D printed arm that apes comic-book styling, and boasts of great strength and control. – © The Daily Telegraph

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