Invisible augmentation: just a bit more than human

While human augmentation can still feel like the plot of a sci-fi movie, the reality is that it could soon be coming to a workplace near you

Elon Musk’s Neuralink – a design for an implant that aims to create brain-to-machine interfaces – has already opened up a new vista for augmented work in a blaze of publicity. Now, the latest updates on the project propose ‘dramatically simplifying’ the implant to create a completely invisible augmentation.

Where the previous device sat visibly behind the ear, the new in-brain device has been reduced to the size of a large coin – and it sits in your skull. Measuring 23 by 8 millimetres and with 1024 electrode ‘threads’ attached to it, it’s designed to replace a small portion of the skull and sit completely flat It would be inductively charged – in much the same way as a smartwatch or a phone.

The relaunched Neuralink was accompanied by a new surgical robot, designed by US company Woke Studios. The robot has been designed to safely insert the neural threads into the brain in under an hour without general anaesthesia, making this a same day procedure. With successful tests on pigs complete, the Neuralink received a Breakthrough Device designation from the FDA earlier this year – and is now preparing for its first human implementation following final safety testing.

Coming soon to an office near you

While it still feels like science-fiction, the reality is that mass augmentation isn’t that far away – Gartner predicted in 2019 that 30 per cent of IT organisations would need a bring-your-own-enhancement policy by 2023 in order to address the increase in numbers of employees using augmentations. Many would argue that it’s already here in the form of wearable personal devices. The smartphone market saw the first year-on-year decline in sales in 2017, whereas wearables have been on an upward trajectory.

 ‘We are already augmented…In the future, the point is going to be more about how all of these technologies seamlessly integrate with one another…’

Roberto Saracco, co-chair of the IEEE Digital Reality Initiative

The immediate future could be viewed as a (relatively) simple matter of scaling up. At the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show, Sarcos Robotics revealed a full-body exoskeleton that will reportedly allow humans to lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly through a full day of work without injury or fatigue. Meanwhile, NASA and General Motors have developed a grasp-assist device called the ‘Robo-Glove’ that helps users to grip tools for extended periods of time. Overall, according to Wintergreen Research, the market for wearable exoskeleton robots could grow to over US $5billion in the next six years.

Body to mind

Looking beyond the augmentation of our physical capacities, researchers are also investigating the future of augmented intelligence. Mo Gawdat, former head of Google X, predicts that AI will help machine intelligence to surpass human intelligence by 2029. This isn’t a dystopian vision of a real-life Skynet, but one in which computers enhance human brain power.

Professor Kevin Warwick, cybernetics expert and Emeritus Professor at Coventry and Reading Universities, considers the future of humans to be intrinsically tied to AI, with technologies that allow us to link our brains to machines to augment our physical and mental abilities. Infallible memory, brain-to-brain communication and new senses such as echolocation are some of the futures that Warwick envisages – the concept of brain-to-brain communication has already been demonstrated on rats.

Implementing augmentation

The infrastructure behind these new systems of augmentation is likely to drive a move towards edge computing capabilities – particularly where safety issues are concerned, it’s not possible to wait for the time it would take to move analytics to a remote server farm. There are also critical ethical questions to be answered. Data privacy and ownership is an obvious area of concern – if augmentations are provided by an employer, who owns that data, and what will people be comfortable sharing?

Further, if enhancements aren’t provided by an employer, what happens if some workers can afford to buy their own enhancements while others cannot? Will augmentations that give people the edge be limited to a privileged few who can pay for them? The other question to address is that augmented intelligence relies on artificial intelligence that is developed and programmed by humans, potentially taking in all of our biases and prejudices – both good and bad.

However, if we can navigate these tricky currents, then we’ll be able to navigate an environment that melds the physical and digital in a way that still barely seems possible today. The future is full of promise – are you ready to be augmented?

Imogen Privett’s full design round-up can be found in the Innovation Zone.

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