If we are going to put an end to permanent physical injuries, we as a society have to make a choice. That choice is do we play with our human biology and perhaps act as a god or do we become in effect, part machine?
If you were born with a physical disability or you suffer an injury either of a temporary or permanent nature, it limits your mobility. Your options are also limited as to the healthcare you can avail yourself of. Up until now, we haven’t had the technology available to us to fully repair the damage which has been done by faulty genetics or very severe injuries.
However, thanks to the massive advances in genome editing and in miniaturized computers and robotics, experts predict that by the mid-2020s, the era of permanent physical infirmities will be a thing of the past.
The Era of Man As Machine
To regain movement after severe physical injuries that may involve the loss of a limb or more, we as humans have a surprising calmness, almost comfort when it comes to using aids and machines to regain a measure of mobility. Prosthetics is the most obvious example that comes to mind. We have used them for centuries. They have been commonly referenced in ancient Greek and Roman writings. As late as the year 2000, archeologists discovered a 3,000-year-old Egyptian noblewoman mummy, whose remains contained a simple prosthetic toe that was made of wood and leather. Our use of modern ingenious technology has been used to restore a certain amount of physical mobility and health. This should come as no surprise to anyone as it has been in use for centuries in one form or another.
The Era of Smart Prosthetics
As we have already seen, the field of prosthetics is extremely ancient. It has also been very slow in its evolution. In the last few decades alone, their wearability, lifelike appearance, cost, functionality, and usability have progressed exponentially as a field. But, but it’s only in the last decade and a half alone is where the ‘real’ progress has been made.
To give you some examples: at one time it used to cost up to $100,000 for a custom prosthetic, now it can cost as little as $1000 since the advent of 3D printers. For wearers of prosthetic legs, it’s usually difficult to do something as simple as walking upstairs. But now, some companies are using the relatively new technology field called biomimicry. This can provide the wearer and more natural running and walking experience. This tech can also cut down on the time it takes to learn how to use prosthetics.
Another major issue with prosthetic legs is that they are extremely uncomfortable to wear because prosthetics forces the skin around the stump to be crushed between the prosthetic and the bone. A recent innovation to counteract this is a universal connector that is installed directly into the amputee’s bone. This means that the prosthetic leg or arm can be directly screwed into the bone thus alleviating the skin pain.
The Era of Brain Powered Bionic Movement
Brain powered bionic movement or BCI for short is already in its infancy as a tech. There are companies that are carrying out trials with amputees testing robotic limbs that are controlled by their minds. Have you ever wondered how someone with seemingly no movement in their arms or legs is maneuvering their motorised wheelchair? I have seen that a few times and wondered just that. They are actually using BCI to steer. Experts predict that by the 2020s, BCI will become the standard in helping people with disabilities and the early 2030s, BCI will be so advanced that it will be possible for people with serious spinal injuries to walk again solely by their brains sending ‘walk commands’ to their legs with the aid of a spinal implant.
Smart prosthetics is simply the beginning. There’s a whole new world of ‘smart implants’ and nanotechnology that we have yet to explore.
The Era of Smart Implants
To replace entire organs, smart implants are now being tested. The long-term goal is to eliminate the waiting time for patients for a donor transplant. The bionic heart is the most anticipated organ replacement device. Out of the many designs that have been showcased, the most promising one is a device that can pump blood around the entire body without a pulse.
While that is impressive enough and something out of science fiction, there’s a new class of implants that have the potential to improve human performance. These new health regulating implants can be likened to pacemakers but they monitor the body and share your biometrics with an app on your phone. But here is the kicker. When it senses the onset of an illness, it releases medications or electric currents, which are designed to bring your body back into a normal state of balance. You might think this is pure sci-fi but consider this! The US military’s advanced research arm called DARPA is hard at work on this technology. They have a project called ELECTRx that stands for ‘electrical prescriptions’. This tech is based on a biological process called neuromodulation. Its a tiny implant and the idea is for it to monitor your peripheral nervous system (these are the nerves that connect the body to the brain and spinal cord). If it detects an imbalance that could lead to a disease down the track or an immediate illness, it releases tiny electrical impulses to rebalance the nervous system that will allow the body to heal itself.
While that is an exciting step to alleviate sickness and disease, the best stuff is yet to come.
The Era of Nanotechnology
The idea behind it is quite simple but the technology involved is very advanced. Billions of nanobots are programmed with the cure for the ailment are injected into a targeted area of the body. These nanobots will then spread throughout your body looking for the damaged tissue. Once they find it, they would release enzymes that will ‘cut’ the damaged tissue away from the healthy tissue. This will allow the healthy tissue not only clear away the damaged tissue but stimulate the regeneration of more healthy tissue around the area. These nanobots could also target the nerve cells around the damaged area and dull or suppress the nerve cells leading to no pain felt by the patient. This alleviates the need for drugs to reduce the pain. Now that’s got to be a technology worth investing in.
Using this technology, these nanobots could be programmed to attack cancer cells all with no pain or discomfort to the patient. The need for dangerous and toxic cancer treating drugs will be a thing of the past. Chemotherapy rendered obsolete and long stays in hospitals no longer needed. However, as exciting as this sounds, this technology is at least still 15 years away from widespread medical adoption. But, the work on this tech has been underway for some time now.
There is yet a whole lot more to explore in this story but so far we have explored the predicted plans to eliminate disease and physical injuries. The conflict between this radical new technology and conventional medicine is ongoing but one thing is clear. This conflict will never go away but by and large, both sides together will positively impact human health care in the decades to come