16 March 2018

    Drew Hook

    #FutureYou: Bionic bodies

    Our environment is increasingly wired, sensor-filled, and digitally connected in the 21st century—and so are we.

    In labs around the world, scientists and entrepreneurs are working on enhancements that will make us smarter, stronger and more resilient, and give us abilities once only deemed possible in science fiction. Our environment is increasingly wired, sensor-filled, and digitally connected - and so are we.


    Remember the military suit Tom Cruise wore in The Edge of Tomorrow that let him run faster, jump higher and fight better than the average soldier? Well, it won’t be too long until we start seeing soldiers in the field wearing similar-looking combat suits. Militaries around the world are currently experimenting with exoskeleton builds to enhance soldiers' strength and stamina, allowing them to carry more equipment and boost performance in the field.

    One such suit in development is the Lockheed FORTIS, designed to help soldiers run, manoeuver, carry injured comrades and perform a wide range of combat tasks while preventing hyperextension of the knee. Initial reports claim that the suit reduces the amount of energy required to perform a task by nine percent, using on-board AI to learn the gait of an individual soldier and personalising it to that specific user. But exoskeletons are not solely the domain of the military. 

    Already sufferers from spinal cord injuries are finding exoskeletons, such as the Phoenix suit, invaluable in helping them to walk again. The 12-kilogram Phoenix suit returns movement to wearers’ hips and knees with small motors attached to standard orthotics. Wearers can control the movement of each leg by pushing buttons integrated into a pair of crutches and an app can be used to track the patient’s walking data.

    Exoskeletons may have wider uses too: while office workers may not see much use in them, factory workers and manual labourers could see their productivity increase tenfold with the aid of heavy lifting enhancements. And it won’t be too long before popular sports start adapting exoskeleton usage to enhance performance.

    Advances in neuroscience and robotics over the last few years have seen mind-controlled prosthetic limbs slowly becoming a reality. Prosthetic limbs with more control have been shown to improve the wearer's motor skills and reduce phantom pain, contributing to a greater sense of ownership over the replacement body part. Recently, researchers at John Hopkins University in the US have built a prosthetic arm with the ability to control fingers independently of one another through the use of brainwaves. Taken as a whole, these developments show just how quickly the body-modification field is advancing, and we can only imagine where this development will take us.


    While we all know about the microchips implanted in our cellphones, the idea of planting one within yourself may sound like an Orwellian future best avoided. But microchip implants are becoming more and more popular with a growing number of people.

    By implanting small radio frequency identification chips in the hand or wrist, these modern day ‘cyborgs’ can eliminate the need for carrying everyday items like wallets and keys. The chip can be used to make on-the-go payments in lieu of exchanging cash or scanning cards, and can be programmed to open a home or office door electronically. Future enhancements may see the chips being used as a replacement for transport identification as well, whether you’re traveling by air, land or sea.

    On a larger scale, chipping could be the next step in identification, security and healthcare. Belgian digital marketing firm Newfusion began offering chip implants to all their staff in 2017 as a means of accessing the company's IT systems, and replacing existing ID cards. Microchips could also be used to store personal medical information, allowing doctors and nurses immediate access to your medical records with a simple scan, should the need arise for something like an emergency blood transfusion. 


    The future of body modification may be bright, but you won’t need to shield your eyes, thanks to advances being made in biotic vision. There's already a race to develop technology for the contact lenses of the future — ones that will give you super-human vision and will offer heads-up displays, video cameras, medical sensors and much more. In fact, both Samsung and Sony are already developing these products for the mass market.

    While the initial thought may be a little off-putting, it does seem that the eyeball is the perfect place to put technology. Smart contact lenses are like implants that don’t require surgery and can usually be inserted and removed by the user. The placement on the eye means they can be used to enhance vision, and their exposure to light means they can harvest and store energy.

    The last few years have also seen major developments in biotic eyes, specifically in the treatment of hereditary and age-related vision degeneration. This 'biotic eye' consists of a camera, attached to a pair of glasses, which transmits high-frequency radio signals to a microchip implanted in the eye, which translates them into images. Also in development is a biotic lens which aims to restore clear vision at all distances, without glasses or contact lenses and resulting in three times better than 20/20 vision.

    But why stop there? Telescopic lenses could be the next breakthrough, allowing the user to zoom in and out with a single wink, and surely perfect night-vision technology can’t be too far behind? This may seem a little far-fetched for now, but it won’t be too long until the need for laser surgery and glasses fittings are only a reminder of a dim and distant past.

    The future is exciting. Ready? 

    Future phone

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    Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash

    Drew Hook