Consumer technology has seen incredible improvement and innovation in recent decades. From room-sized computers capable of only simple tasks to a smartphone in every pocket, the true scope of technological progress can be difficult to comprehend fully. Throughout its entire history, however, technology has been characterized by a firm separation of user and device. Cameras, computers and cell phones all require that the user focus solely on operating the device and are more tools than extensions of the human mind. Looking at the problem-solving ability and access to information that computers give us, is there not some way that technology already enhances our abilities? Given the speed of technological progress, is it possible that before long, technology could become not only a useful tool but also an essential augmentation of human capabilities?
In September of this year, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago unveiled the world’s first thought-controlled prosthetic leg. This means that rather than using cables or a remote device to control a limb, amputees can simply think what they want their limb to do and the computer system in the prosthetic will respond the way a natural leg would. Groundbreaking thought-control technology is an enormous milestone in the rapidly growing field of bionics. It offers the opportunity for a more natural life to America’s one million leg amputees.
The technology behind this achievement is called “targeted muscle reinnervation,” and it is conceptually fairly simple. Essentially, your brain controls the muscles in your body by sending electrical signals through nerves and into your limbs. If a leg has been amputated, these nerves are cut off and there is no place for the signals to go. However, using a surgical procedure, these cut nerves can be redirected to attach to a healthy muscle. The end result is that when the patient thinks about moving her amputated limb, the new muscle will contract instead of the missing arm. This allows contractions of the muscle to be sensed with electrodes in order to provide control signals to the artificial limb.
The potential applications of this sort of technology do not stop in the medical field. Thought control has also been successful for operating technology in a less natural way. For example, technology has allowed paralyzed people to type messages using their thoughts and to move mouse cursors with nothing but brain power.
Imagine, for example, a world in which you could interact with technology in a truly immersive way. Never again would you need to stop what you were doing and pull yourself away from what is going on around you to interact with technology. It could bring an end to an age where technology distracts from active participation in life. Never again would someone need to walk into walls because they were texting. If we could control the capabilities of our smartphones with our thoughts, then taking photos and videos actually would be in line with capturing moments of your own life experience, sending messages would become telepathy and searching for information would become seamless and natural.
Interacting with technology in such an intimate way opens the door for human beings to see beyond our natural capabilities. When the line between human and technology begins to blur, we will be able to discover the true capabilities of our species and explore new levels of cognitive and mental capacity. We can use this technology to catch a glimpse of the future of consumer technology.
Henry Parrott is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. TECH TALK appears every other Friday inthe guide.