03. Part Human, Part Machine: Enhancements

Author: Tio

In the first installment of this series, we discussed what mechanical replacements exist for the human body.  Here, we will look beyond the idea of ‘fixing’ humans with technology, by looking at extending their capabilities.

Cell phones, clothes, the internet, air conditioning, cars, buildings, shoes, knifes, refrigerators, telescopes, microscopes, various uses of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and all other fields of science provide enhancements for us humans, as we become better able to see farther and deeper, to analyze the world’s structures and forces that we are not able to detect or measure with our senses, to protect ourselves from harmful external and internal factors, and more.

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We highlighted many technologies in our AA WORLD series, showing how we could make far better use of them than we do today, but now we will focus on technologies that allow us to improve our biological abilities, exceeding what our DNA coded for us.  This article’s focus is specifically on ‘machines’ that enhance our existing biology, while the next issue’s installment will focus extensively on physically ‘manipulating’ our biology.

Of course it’s hard to define exactly what I mean by ‘enhancing biology’, as pretty much all of the technologies that we have presented so far manage this in one way or another.  So let’s look at two major technologies/ideas that will enhance human beings’ biology: nanobots and new senses.  These approaches are not only about allowing us to be healthier and to sense the world in new ways but, as you will see, also how they may significantly change the way we communicate and understand the world.

Nanobots:

You have probably heard of ‘nanobots’, but what are they and do they really exist?

The idea of tiny ‘robots’ may project a serious misunderstanding of what these ‘things’ are, so I’ll try to clarify it here.  The human body, as we have discussed in recent articles, is made up of tiny structures that we call molecules and relies heavily on combinations of these ‘shapes’ (molecules) to perform different kinds of functions.  As described in our Earth special edition, drugs are nothing more than specifically shaped molecules that have been found to be able to bind with specific molecules within our body to ‘fix’ it.  They are like keys that unlock specific ‘doors’.  But the way that medicine is currently used is more like trying to unlock a real door by throwing millions or billions of keys at your apartment, hoping that one will hit the door’s lock and open it.  It works, to a degree, only because of the massive number of keys you throw at the issue, but these keys can also damage other ‘things’.  As an example, if you have a specific key that can unlock the self-destruction mechanism in a cancerous cell, then it is very risky to dump billions of those keys into a human body, as they may very well kill many of the healthy ones as well.

Now, here comes the nanobot.  A nanobot is nothing more than a bunch of molecules, much like drug molecules or the molecules that form your DNA, that are smartly assembled by humans into specific shapes, similar to how you might create a 3D model, and their roles are a ‘mechanical’ one.

Here are the basics of how one is built:

Typical DNA is composed of two strands bound to each other within a special shape (double helix), where the connectors on one side (strand) match with those of the other side, somewhat similar to a zipper.  If you start with just one side of a zipper, and then create and add smaller parts of other half-zippers that only match some positions/parts of the first half-zipper, you can make the entire first long piece of half DNA change it’s shape any way you want to.

Here’s an animation with the process – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yH5LTXxFzk

These are real images of real structures made entirely out of DNA and using the method I just described above.

We also recommend that you watch this TEDtalk video to better understand how this works, as it is a very interesting process.

http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_rothemund_casts_a_spell_with_dna

Today, they are able to make many different tiny molecular shapes that, because of their form, can perform many functions.  To keep to the same example with the cancerous cells, if you are able to place “cell killer” keys inside of a ‘cage’, and then design this ‘cage’ to open only when it comes in direct contact with a cancerous cell, then you can deliver the cargo (the drug/key) only to cancerous cells throughout a body, without causing any harm to healthy cells.  That cage is a nanobot.  So, instead of throwing billions of keys at an apartment to get one to unlock the door while the others cause damage the apartment, imagine all of those keys wrapped inside soft tiny boxes that cannot damage the apartment, and these boxes only open and release the key when they make direct contact with the door lock.  This way, you will not damage the apartment while benefitting from a much more exact delivery system.

This is not a theory.  This is now happening ‘in the lab’ with animal testing, where they are already able to ‘build bridges’ for tissue growth (for example, for spinal cord injuries), detect various types of viruses/bacterium, delivering many kinds of drugs, or actually target cancerous cells with success (they can identify 12 types of tumors).  Real ‘photos’ of these nanobots – https://qwertyuiop12cddsugidbciuqsg.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/e3bf5-screenshot-www-youtube-com2b2014-12-272b19-12-24.png

They can even be made to ‘cooperate’ with each other to behave more like a swarm.  It’s made possible by their lego-like behavior, so that when one combines with another, then one or both of them may ‘open up’ or otherwise change their combined shape toward a specific outcome.  It can also be compared to a computer program, as they can be built to load an ensemble of related drugs inside many of these boxes for programmed release, all based on specific situations that may be found in the body.  So, if they find a particular situation/disease that requires 5 different drugs to be administered in a specific order and over specific time intervals, then, by the way the containers assemble after being triggered by the encountered situation, they can open their ‘cages’ in a particular way to release the 5 required drugs, as needed, rather than all at once.

Watch this video to better understand this – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aA-H0L3eEo0

If the human body can be mapped by the unique molecules that are found in each individual area of the human body, then these nanobots can use that map to better target specific zones.  It is also now possible to activate or deactivate these nanobots using remote control, which significantly adds to their capabilities.  Watch this TED talk for additional information about all of this.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5KLTonB3Pg

The same researchers recently announced that a human trial is due to begin very soon for treating leukemia (a form of blood cell cancer).(source)

While these ‘nanorobots’ are essentially various molecular shapes that bind and lock-unlock when in contact with certain targeted molecules inside the human body, and their reactions are continuously being made made more sophisticated, they still represent a ‘shoot in all directions’ solution, as they must be injected into the body, perhaps by the billions.  They are ‘able’ to bind where they are intended to bind, in large part due to the presence of their large numbers moving through the body and increasing their chances of locating all of the existing targets that require their ‘treatment’.

The research and promises of these tiny structures is fantastic, but there is still much more to ‘nanobots’.  Another approach is to develop nanobots that are more than simple molecular shapes; more complex and better controlled from ‘outside’ so they can perform more like the ‘real’, full size robots that we are used to.  There are already a few examples, but keep in mind that, although they may seem simple while still performing relatively primitive tasks, this research is much more about continually expanding the future capabilities of these nanorobots and how humans can already manipulate and control such extraordinarily tiny devices.

This tiny rocket-shaped ‘thing’ is 60 times larger than the molecular bots above, but this is actually a motor-based nanobot – perhaps the tiniest motor in the world.  It can spin extremely fast while being controlled by soundwaves and magnetism for rotational speed and overall movement.  It can also be coated with certain biochemicals that are then delivered according to the motor’s rotational speed, thus these bots can be controlled for how much medicine they ‘deliver’, and through magnetism they can control where these tiny nanobots go to deliver it.  They can also be made to target, for instance, cancerous cells, and then puncture/destroy them from outside, or also from inside the cell, where these nanobots can insert themselves and, by spinning at very high speed, they can literally ‘shred’ the cell’s interior.  These nanobots can also move autonomously and, perhaps in the near future, be able to find and automatically cure all kinds of cell-related diseases.  Even more interestingly, they plan to focus on making these tiny rocket-shaped robots assemble themselves into bigger structures for performing more complex tasks.(source) – video

Here is some real footage of these nanobots in action: PLAYLIST

Other mobile nanobots currently exist, but these are only being tested for their movement within the human body, but without any specific application for them.(source)

Some fascinating research is also going toward decrypting the ‘natural’ healing properties of the human body and now some of these functions are known to be connected with the nervous system.  By introducing tiny nanorobots in key locations, they can now tweak some parts of the nervous system to ‘cure’ some diseases.  So, instead of relying on ingested drugs that, due to their huge number spreading throughout the body, eventually find themselves at the right spot, and instead of nanobots that can deliver drugs to more targeted spots, this new approach tweaks the body to create and deliver the proper ‘drugs’ (molecules) itself to proper locations.  This is a very new approach, but it has already been tested in several patients and seems to already be working for a handful of symptoms/diseases.(source)

Explanation video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhXtSy-Ccvg

A hundred or so years ago, human beings started building up a better understanding of cancer, deciding that the best way to remove cancer would be through surgery.  What they quickly realized is that, in almost all cases, the cancer reappeared after the surgery.  As a result, they concluded that they would have to cut out even more bits of the ‘infected’ human parts to better ensure removal of all of the cancer.  With breast cancer, for example, they often ended up removing huge chunks of the pectoral and arm muscles, leaving the women with parts of their bodies completely non-functional.  The procedure was gruesome and inefficient.(source)

Today, we use similar methods for dealing with cancer, except that the scalpel is more and more replaced with ‘toxins’ (chemotherapy) or ‘radiation’.  Chemotherapy is a method of injecting substances that kill cancerous cells into the body, but the problem is that it cannot always differentiate between them and normal cells and, therefore, destroys healthy cells as well.(video explanation)  Radiation treatments shoot atoms or particles that are smaller than atoms at the cancer cells from an external device.  While it boasts much higher precision than chemo, it cannot target cancerous cells that are widely spread throughout the body (metastasis).(video explanation)  These approaches are merely more precise versions of ‘old-fashioned surgery’, since they also affect other organs or are still quite imprecise at removing all cancerous cells.

But nanobots change all of this, as they are the perfect ‘surgeons’; targeting only what you want them to target, and managing that goal throughout the entire body.  Imagine having these small robots inside you, responding to and curing the earliest stages of various diseases without you even aware of it.  This ‘continual state of near-optimum health’ highlights the power of these tiny bots: it will enhance our biology, making us more resistant to diseases (and perhaps immune to most).

New Senses:

Humans have 5 senses, right?  Well, no.  Humans can sense the world in many different ways, through many various inputs.  Skin, tongue and nose, ears, hair follicles, eyes, pain receptors, pulmonary stretch receptors, stretch receptors in the gastrointestinal tract and many other receptors allow us to ‘feel’ different ‘things’: temperature, balance, lightwaves, soundwaves, certain chemical reactions, vibrations, the need to pee, eat, sneeze; we can feel dizzy because of certain chemicals or visual/auditory cues, sick, cold, hot, and so on.

There’s no proper way of defining and categorizing a ‘sense’, since sometimes many of them function together as one, or one cannot be fully isolated and/or understood.

When I first tried seafood and a friend asked me what it tasted like, I said “chicken”.  How else could I describe the taste?  If I had used chemistry and biology to describe the taste to him, it would have been extremely complicated (perhaps completely unrealistic), but since we both have the same kind of taste receptors and we had both tasted chicken before, we could relate it to that experience.  The way we ‘sense’ the world, while certainly subjective, seems to be the most powerful communication device and the best tool for us humans to understand the world in and around us.

I can use a compass to guide myself around on the planet, or I can study the physics of the magnetic field of the Earth, but it would become far easier for me to have a belt around my waist that allows me to basically ‘sense’ Earth’s magnetic field through tiny electrical impulses or vibrations to my skin that indicate, for example, the direction and distance to the North Pole.  That would help me make sense of it far more completely than with the aid of a simple compass and/or strong academic understanding of the physics behind it.  I watched a documentary many years ago showing how they had tested such a belt, and it proved to be very efficient in allowing a person to better understand his/her position in space, while the subjects’ overall orientation improved significantly.  Similarly, tiny electronics are now being developed that can act as a sensor of magnetic fields (source).

As we’ve shown earlier in this series, the brain is the ‘task’ organ while the rest: ears, eyes, skin, etc., are the ‘sensing’ organs.  Therefore, adding a new sense, or a set of senses, should not be a difficult task for the brain to adopt.  If you think about it, so many creatures have similar brains with ours and many of them have very different kinds of senses.  Some are very sensitive to heat, some are able to see in low light, sense smell thousands of times better than us, detect lightwaves well outside of our natural range, sense the magnetic field of the Earth, enjoy 360 degree vision, and so on.  All of these tasks, although sensed by different kinds of organs, are managed by their ‘neurons’ (brain).

So, can we add new ‘senses’ to our own neurons?  Sure we can.  We’ve already highlighted some expansions of our existing senses in the previous issue (hearing light, seeing sound, etc.).  Those were intended to replace some biological errors (blindness, for instance), so let’s take a closer look at some that can enhance our ability to sense.

Here is a girl who can sense earthquakes and, with precision, the speed of moving objects around her.  A sensor was implanted within her elbow that is connected to a network that monitors earthquakes around the world.  Whenever an earthquake occurs, she feels a vibration in her elbow, where the vibrational intensity relates to the quake’s intensity.  After some time, she was able to acclimate the new sense, ‘feeling’ the Earth’s quakes and their intensities as ‘naturally’ as we understand how chicken tastes.  That same girl also has sensors that have been added to the back of her head (and also in her earrings) that detect the speed of objects and, again, transfer that to her via vibrational patterns, allowing her to ‘feel’ the speed of objects.  For instance, instead of saying that a car is moving at 100 km/h (62 miles/hour) and a human at 5 km/h (3 miles/hour), this girl can ‘feel’ these speeds and understand the difference between them.  Of course, this is not suggesting that she can tell us exact measurements of speed, but it does provide a new way of understanding the world around us.  See, we mainly rely on just 2 senses: vision and sound.  We can look at the Moon and we might be aware that it is 384,400 km (238.60653782 miles) away, but we really have no idea how far away that distance really is.  We often try to relate incomprehensible things with other things that we are much more familiar with, such as: it would take 20 weeks to arrive at the Moon if you could drive there at an average highway speed.  We can relate to this because we drive cars on highways and we ‘experience’ days.  This comparative approach relies on a kind of ‘relational soup’ between experience (senses) and knowledge.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEffj-itNNM

So, imagine if we were able to just look at the Moon and ‘feel’ how far away it is.  Wouldn’t that provide a more accurate understanding for us, humans?  Imagine the same principle when we are traveling, feeling how close we are to the destination, not relying on written numbers and sounds that we may or may not be able to understand.  Such senses that can ‘feel’ distances and speeds would allow us to much better understand parts of the world we live in, without knowing the physics of them.  I know how it ‘feels’ to balance in a swing, but I would find it impossible to properly describe that to another human in ‘scientific’ terms, or for him to understand my attempts at describing it without both of us being able to feel that sensation.

Our entire life experience relies on our senses to function: we associate colors with different situations (hot or cold water, traffic lights, warnings & notifications, and so on).  We still rely mainly on bodily symptoms for detecting something wrong with it (nausea, fever, etc.); if we were all to live in a world without sound (as most deaf people do), we would find it much more difficult to function (no ‘music’, no auditory warnings for approaching cars, impending explosions, etc., no voice recognition or vocal inflections to help you determine the other person’s state of mind or excitement level during communications with them, and much, much more).

I went to eat something earlier today because I ‘felt’ hungry.  I took some pasta from the fridge and put it in a pot with cold water (I knew it was cold, as I could check it – I felt it).  I then put the pot on the stove to bring the water to a boil.  I ‘heard’ my phone ring, so I answered it.  I talked for 10 minutes with the person who called.  I closed the phone.  I went to the bathroom (I felt the need to pee 🙂 ).  I left the bathroom and felt steam (heat), which reminded me about the pasta.  I went to the kitchen and turned off the stove, since the water was boiling.  Once it cooled down, I ate the pasta.  I open doors in the house based on how I am used to opening doors, and not based on principles of physics (to apply a certain force); I eat because I feel the need to, not because of a formula that calculates my nutrients and recommends that I eat at specific times or in specific quantities; I close my eyes when there is too much sun, rather than because of any biological understanding of pupils, sun rays, etc., since that’s simply how my body reacts to what it feels; and I don’t go to pee because some smartphone app alerts me that my bladder is full and needs to be emptied so it can take on more ‘liquid’.  The way we dress, what we eat and when, what we pay attention to, the way we interpret the world, and many other aspects of life are all extremely connected to how we ‘sense’ all of it (cold, hungry, etc.).

Expanding our sensing abilities can dramatically improve our understanding of the world and make it easier for us to, basically, live.

Video – Hack Your Body To Have Superpowers

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFtYgj5Lt6Q

However, adding various kinds of devices to detect movement, earthquakes, magnetic fields, temperature, and so on is not the entire story.  There now exists a more complex type of sensor apparatus, in the form of a vest, that works on the same principle of vibrations to the skin, but this time, the vest is designed to produce complex vibration sets in a way that its wearer can recognize spoken language and can ‘communicate’.  Because the vest has multiple vibration modules, it can create a huge variety of distinct patterns of vibrations, allowing a deaf person to associate these vibrations with distinct spoken words and, basically, understand ‘language’.  This is a huge advancement, because if a deaf guy can learn how to understand words (vibrations in the air) through this vest, as showcased in the video below, then a huge variety of more advanced scenarios can be imagined.  Watch the video here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4c1lqFXHvqI

The variety of inputs that our brains can interpret and make sense of can be greatly improved and extended beyond our existing biological senses, and once you do that, you can connect them with other sensors and big data.  Imagine ‘feeling’ when a virus outbreak is near you, so you can take appropriate measures; to be able to detect when toxic chemicals, undetectable by your biological sensors, are around you; to feel when you have entered a dangerous area — for instance, a construction area where, instead of a visual sign that many may miss or are unable to translate from another language, you more simply ‘feel’ the need for heightened awareness; or imagine ‘feeling’ big data, such as the overall health status of a population, instead of having to gain such awareness through statistics; we can even imagine ways of feeling other’s pain, discomfort and level of happiness by decrypting and wirelessly transmitting their state through similar sensors, which may also provide a new way of explaining to a doctor or to a loved one how you ‘feel’.  The list is endless and, from navigation to sensing various ‘events’/forces/waves, to compressing complicated big data or more accurately recognizing distances, heights, etc. into easier to understand patterns of ‘senses’, we can become far superior than we are today at understanding the world we live in, and ourselves.

We already use lots of devices (smartphones, supercomputers, light detectors, the internet, and so on) to extend what we are, but perhaps these tools are extremely primitive, as they represent a limited conversion of the complex world of which we can only experience a tiny fraction, and designed for just a handful of limited senses that we use to interpret it (sight, hearing, smell, and a few others).

Coupling these new senses with nanobots may very well allow us to become vastly different from what we are today: diseases and other difficult problems may auto-‘fix’ inside our bodies without us even realizing it, and we will be able to experience the world in completely new ways.

In the near future, we’ll be able to look up at the Andromeda galaxy, the nearest one to our own, and see it in great detail via contact lenses that can stream live captures of powerful telescopes across many different lightwaves.  We could even share the feeling it gives us with others, and we will all ‘feel’ how far away it is, without knowing the distance in km or miles.  At the same time, tiny robots inside our body may be eliminating cancerous cells or any kind of disease before it can form, and without any need for our assistance or awareness.  Various sensors will allow us to feel more connected with the Earth and better guide ourselves while exploring it, while others may make us feel closer to each others and understand better how others feel, including how other animals may ‘feel’ the world.

We must not forget that no matter what new senses can be successfully added to our biological bodies, they are just as subjective in their details as the biological ones.  Just as it is today, we may sense the same ‘expanded’ lightwaves in the future, but still interpret them differently.  We may have similar tasting sensors, but the foods we eat will taste differently due to cultural influences.  So, yes, these new senses will still be subjective, but more alike and easier to understand and relate to than mere words can manage today.  Also, consider that while we may be able to feel things like heat and pressure in many different ways today (damn useful in our day-to-day lives, but we need science to describe them), however acute and complex our senses become, our brains simply do not have the capacity for making total sense of all of the available information in an ‘objective’ and categorized way as clearly as we can through science.  But with advancements in ‘big data connectivity’, for example, maybe that won’t matter.

Who knows what we will become…

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