If you had mentioned human enhancements 40 years ago, people would have thought about Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man from the 1970s TV series who had superhuman strength thanks to bionic implants in the muscles of his arms and legs.
But fast-forward to today and the potential for human enhancement also includes mental abilities: perhaps the possibility of connecting an individual's brain to a computer system to harness the power of artificial intelligence.
Far-fetched? Not according to Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX. "Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence," he told a crowd in Dubai recently. To this end Musk has launched a company called Neuralink, which is working to develop a type of brain-computer interface. Neuralink's ultimate aim is to develop brain implants that can communicate directly with software running in computers.
It is early days for this type of technology, but the market potential is huge: Mordor Intelligence predicts that the global artificial organs and bionic implants market will grow to $70.7 billion by the end of 2021, increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 11.4 percent.
In the nearer term, humans will have to be satisfied with interfacing their brains with computers using technology such as augmented reality glasses or headsets. These can display relevant information in a user's field of vision so that, for example, an aircraft engineer can see a schematic of an engine part or even a repair instruction video as he examines a broken engine. The augmented reality market was valued at $2.39 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $61.39 billion by 2023, growing at a CAGR of 55.71 percent during the forecast period, according to research carried out by MarketsandMarkets.
While brain-computer interfaces are at the frontier of current technology, human augmentation in simpler forms has arguably been going on for thousands of years says Amal Graafstra, a technologist and amateur biohacker from Seattle. "Since the first humans picked up sticks and rocks and started using tools, we've been augmenting ourselves," Graafstra pointed out in a BBC interview.