• Dr. Timothy Smith

Blurring the Lines Between Man and Machine

Eye Implant

Photo Source: Pixabay

Human-machine interfaces represent any device that allows a person to run a machine or for a machine to help a person. These interfaces go from the simple such as the steering wheel and pedals used to control an automobile to more complicated and direct interfaces such as the implanted cardiac pacemaker. A surgeon inserts the pacemaker under the skin, and with wires connected to the heart, the pacemaker detects the heart’s rhythm and electrically corrects arrhythmias. Advances in technology continue to produce more sophisticated direct interfaces between humans and machines. The following examples demonstrate the exciting, leading edge of human machine interfaces; however, beware: some of these examples can get a little graphic if you’re squeamish.

Severe spinal cord and neck injuries may cause paralysis of the legs and even quadriplegia. These injuries can result in the loss of mobility, and they have garnered the attention of many scientific researchers for decades. Promises of spinal cord repair using stem cells and neural growth stimulators continue to show promise in experimental settings, and companies such as Asterias Biotherapeutics have shown positive preliminary clinical trial results on humans with severe spinal cord injuries. (asterias.jpg) Restoring function to inured spinal cords with medicine remains experimental, but researchers have approached the problem for another direction—neural implants. Instead of repairing the damaged neurons, researchers in academia and in industry are developing machine-brain interfaces that detect the neural signals from the brain to move, and, with wires, send the signal to the limbs bypassing the spinal chord all together. Famously, Ian Burkhart, paralyzed in a swimming accident at the age of nineteen, regained use of his hand using a chip implanted in his brain that translates his thoughts through a computer and electrodes on his arm into hand movements. “The first person ever to move a paralyzed extremity using his own thoughts, Burkhart has made astounding progress under a team of medical professionals from Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center and scientists and engineers from Battelle.” (osu.edu) Companies such as Synchron and Neurable continue to develop technologies that allow paralyzed users to control mobility assistive devices with their minds via implants or dry electrodes (cbinsights.com)

Blindness due to genetic factors, diabetes, degeneration, and trauma affects many Americans. According to the Center for Disease Control, “More than 3.4 million (3%) Americans aged 40 years and older are either legally blind (having visual acuity [VA] of 20/200 or worse or a visual field of less than 20 degrees) or are visually impaired (having VA of 20/40 or less)” (cdc.gov) As with spinal chord injury, vigorous research continues for medicinal treatments to prevent blindness or restore sight continues around the world. A number of different companies have developed different human machine-interfaces to address blindness. Second Sight Medical Products Inc. makes the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, which “is the world's first approved device intended to restore some functional vision for people suffering from blindness.” (2-sight.com) The Argus II uses a glasses-mounted camera to capture a scene. The captured images get processed by a computer that then stimulates a chip implanted in the patient’s eye. The chip then stimulates the nerves in the eye to produce sight. Although the resolution may not be perfect, patients express improvement in their quality of life. A company in Germany called Retina Implant AG took a different approach to correct blindness with their Alpha-IMS electronic subretinal device. Alpha-IMS was hailed in the news for coming up with a bionic eye. The Alpha-IMS is implanted under the damaged retina of the eye, and the device then attempts to use the intact bipolar cells in the inner retina to make an image (osa-opn.org). The Alpha-IMS produces the best vision quality yet, but progress still needs to be made before we achieve full vision restoration.

Human-machine interfaces represent any machine or that allows a person to run a machine or for a machine to help a person. These interfaces may be simple such as a joystick controller of a video game or can be complex such as a retinal implant. Remarkable progress in neurotechnology has allowed a quadriplegic for the first time to use his hands just by thinking about it. Much more progress restoring motion appears on the horizon with brain implants and computer assisted muscle stimulation. Additionally, implants continue to bring sight to the blind with increasing quality. The future holds more than the restoration of lost functions. The line between human and machine will continue to blur with the function enhancement devices. For example, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame also has a company called Neuralink, which researching the possible development of a direct link between the human brain to computers. According to a white paper published by Musk in bioRxrv titled, “An integrated brain-machine interface platform with thousands of channels,” Musk describes a next generation implant that can read much more information from the brain for finer control of prosthetics and the ability to stimulate the brain to convey, for example, the sense of touch in a person. The future holds more complex human machine interfaces that will not only cure disease states but even enhance human capabilities beyond the ordinary. However, in the process of this innovative growth, we will also have to consider the potential ethical and societal consequences of these new technologies.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.

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