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.

BRAIN WAVE: Brain-computer interfaces are at the frontier of current assistive technology.

While Steve Austin's bionic implants in "The Six Billion Dollar Man" were clearly very advanced, Graafstra has shown that in real life, humans can be enhanced with relatively simple implants. He has inserted radio frequency identification (RFID) chips under his skin that allow him to unlock his front door, log on to his computer and even start up his motorcycle - just by moving the hand with the chip implants in front of a sensor. RFID chips are more commonly used to track materials and finished goods as they move through the supply chain.

Graafstra is not alone in spotting the potential of RFID implants. Employees at a Swedish company called Epicenter have volunteered to have RFID chips injected into their bodies, enabling them to use photocopiers, open doors and even pay for food in the company cafeteria. Workers at a company in Wisconsin in the U.S. have done the same.

Although the number of people who have agreed to have RFID chip implants is currently tiny, should implants become popular the effect it could have on the RFID market would be significant: together with readers and associated software, the RFID chip market is forecast to be worth about $15 billion by 2022, but if just 10 percent of the global population chooses to have an RFID implant then that forecast might have to be doubled.

The use of implants is not new, but to date most are medical devices, such as pacemakers or heart pumps, designed to treat people who are unwell. Anders Sandberg, a doctor of computational neuroscience and a researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, says that many people have ethical reservations about implants that enhance human capabilities rather than just treat illnesses. A heart pump that could work faster than any human heart, resulting in superhuman athletic performance, would be unlikely to be as acceptable to society as one that simply allowed the implantee to lead a normal life, he believes.

“The medical normalization issue comes up quite a bit,” says Sandberg, referring to the view held by some that medical treatment should only be used to cure the sick and return them to a “normal” state. “Anything beyond that is problematic (to them),” he says. 

But Sandberg believes that this view does not bare closer scrutiny. He points out that vaccination is a type of medical treatment that is given before a person gets sick to enhance that person’s immune system, so the distinction between medical treatment and human enhancement is blurred. He adds that because of the phenomenon of herd immunity, vaccination should also be thought of as a type of collective human enhancement. 

For people who have suffered spinal cord injury there is also a huge potential demand for neural implants to overcome paralysis by allowing communication between the brain and real (or prosthetic) limbs, bridging the damaged area of the spinal cord.

CHIP IN: People with RFID chips inserted under their skin can unlock doors or log on to computers by moving their hand in front of a sensor.

Today the brain impulses picked up by implants can be sent via a computer to real or prosthetic hands, allowing them to be controlled with some dexterity. Professor John Donoghue, founding director of the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, says that communication between brain implants and limbs is becoming a two-way street, allowing prosthetic fingertips to send messages back to brain implants to give people the sensation of touch. "It's not the same as a real touch sensation, but it's certainly a crude version of that," he says.

He believes that the ability to send information to the brain that is interpreted as touch sensations could one day be used to provide enhanced touch sensation - perhaps optimized to enable a blind person to read braille more efficiently. "If you can give someone who is blind a better sense of braille then to me, personally, that would be ethical," Donoghue says. If the sense of touch can be enhanced in this way then it may also be possible to enhance other senses - perhaps enabling humans to smell as well as a tracker dog.

Current brain-computer interfaces rely on a wire from the implants coming out of the head through a hole in the skin, but Donoghue is working on a "brain radio" placed inside the head that would allow implants to communicate wirelessly with a prosthetic limb via a computer. Such communication will have to be encrypted to ensure that it is not possible to "brainjack" someone by sending malicious radio signals that could take control of prosthetic limbs, Donoghue adds.

"If someone has a nervous system problem and a brain-computer interface can restore movement, we want it to be invisible. We want to be able to send impulses from the brain to a small smartphone on their belt, and then on to their arm so they can move or feel, without a wire coming out of their head that could get caught on something. That is the goal," Donoghue says.

Although Donoghue’s aim is to build systems to treat people with medical conditions, the technology he is developing looks to be a very simple version of what will be needed to further Musk’s vision of a merger of human and artificial intelligence.

But if implants are to become more commonly used purely as human enhancements (rather than for any medical purpose), then there is one important question that needs to be answered: who will pay for them? They can be extraordinarily expensive to develop, and it is not clear that there is a huge market of people who want to enhance themselves lining up for them.

In fact a survey carried out by the Pew Research Center found that the majority of U.S. adults (66 percent) would definitely or probably not want to get a brain chip implant (of the type that Elon Musk is considering) to improve their ability to process information.

It is possible that a limited number of extremely rich people might want to enhance their minds with expensive brain implants, which could lead to a wealthy mental elite. But Sandberg points out that it may be “low mental performers,” as he puts it, who benefit most from brain implants, leading to greater mental equality rather than less.

Sandberg believes that the military establishment is the most likely to be interested in human enhancements, and it has the funds to pay for it: the U.S. military alone has a science and technology program with a budget of $12.5 billion. But he says that they are unlikely to be interested in “permanent enhancements” of the Steve Austin or Elon Musk types. “It’s more likely they would be interested in ways to allow people to control hunger, or use energy more efficiently,” he says. 

As for the chances of seeing a human enhanced with robotic parts to make them perform more efficiently anywhere from the battlefield to the workplace, Sandberg sees them as minimal for the foreseeable future. “Making a limb as versatile as an actual limb is very hard, so we are a long way from wanting to replace a real limb with an artificial one,” he concludes. —  Paul Rubens

Published: November 2017

Images: BSIP/UIG/Getty Images; Alexandra Wey/dpa; Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images