Nov 012010

Development of new neurotechnologies is driven by a paramount goal of restoring neural functions. Presently, no commercial companies or government-funded research laboratories are actively pursuing the technologies aiming at augmenting and enhancing the functions of the brain or spinal cord in able-bodied humans. Yet, such technologies can readily be developed with minimal modifications of the existing neuro-restorative technologies. Let’s consider, for example the retinal implants (e.g. from Second Sight) that use an external video camera mounted on the glasses. The video camera sensor can be easily replaced with the near-infrared sensitive one to enable perception of thermal signatures in complete darkness (heat vision is actually not that unnatural, just think of the snakes). More peculiar sensory enhancement can be achieved by employing terahertz sensors to enable x-ray-like vision, similar to the full-body scanners deployed recently in airports.  Other types of supernatural sensitivity can be soon be possible with some creativity and engineering ingenuity, by adapting other types of sensors (e.g.  narrow-band spectral detection, ultrasound, accelerometers, etc) and by using the sensors with faster response time as compared with the perception delay of our natural five senses. On the other end of the spectrum of the neuro-restorative devices are the one providing rehabilitation, mobility, and muscle reanimation in paralyzed patients. Novel motor control modalities are already being explored, ranging from a forthcoming powerful neurally-controlled robotic arm (Revolutionizing Prosthetics project by DARPA) to a tongue-implanted joystick (by Prof. Ghovanloo at GATech). There is a great potential for developing a range a supernatural skills using the motor-control neurotechnologies. The researchers behind novel sensory and motor technologies are really trying to “play God”, rather they are using the technical resources at their disposal to get to the maximal clinical benefit. Philosophical and ethical concerns will inevitable rise as a result of wider adoption and acceptance of the neuroprosthetic devices.  I foresee a particularly sharp debate in the Christianity-dominated societies, stemming from their strong beliefs in subordinate position of a man relative to God. In parts of Asia, situation is rather different. Buddhist and Hindu religions have a less defined relationship between a man and God, and, as a possible result of that, the Buddhist and Hindu-dominated societies have already become more receptive to novel forms of biotechnology, such as stem cells and genetic engineering. Countries like Singapore and China provided heavy centralized investments to become leading innovation incubators of the 21st century (see “Biotech Without Borders” by Parag and Ayesha Khanna).

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