Communication between man and machine – a fascinating area at the interface of chemistry, biomedicine, and engineering
January 11, 2014

The Age Of Cyborgs Is Coming

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

The latest era of science could be considered the Age of Cyborgs, according to scientists at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

Cyborgs, or cybernetic organisms, may seem like a science fiction movie, but scientists writing in the journal Angewandte Chemie Int. Ed say the day of cyborg creations is coming. To be clearer, the scientists aren’t saying to expect Terminators walking around, but instead cyborg research is being focused on medical implants.

Scientists have been researching medical implants based on smart materials that are able to react to changing conditions automatically. The KIT team says that developments combining technical devices with organisms have great potential to considerably improve the quality of life of many people.

Currently, scientists are working on brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) for the direct physical contacting of the brain. This would be used to help control prostheses and complex movements, such as gripping. BMIs would also be an important tool for neuroscientists to provide a good look into the function of the brain.

BMIs can be used to feed signals into the brain, but this idea has been highly controversial when considering the ethics of what is going on.

“Implanted BMI that feed signals into nerves, muscles or directly into the brain are already used on a routine basis, e.g. in cardiac pacemakers or implants for deep brain stimulation,” Professor Christof M. Niemeyer, said in a statement. “But these signals are neither planned to be used nor suited to control the entire organism – brains of most living organisms are far too complex.”

Last year, researchers created a device that essentially hacks a cockroach’s brain, enabling the insect’s movements to be controlled by an iPhone. PETA spoke up against the project a few months later with concerns about the ethics involved in creating these cyborg insects.

Brains of insects are far less complex than humans, making it easier for scientists to use them in order to study this field. Not only have insects provided a great launching point for the study of cyborgs, but the methods created could be used to control insects for monitoring and rescue missions.

Scientists are working beyond insects by developing methods to use the patient’s own thermal, kinetic, electric or chemical energy as a power supply for medical implants. Progress in microelectronics and semiconductor technology has been the basis of electronic implants, so finding a way to power the implants using a natural source of energy in the patient would have huge implications for the future of cyborgs.