The Tender Mash-up

Since I chose to write about things made of metal skins and electrical guts in November, and then about warm-blooded carbon-based life in December, I couldn’t resist a combination. I call it the tender mash-up because the fusion of man and machine might result in an emotional being with a huge leap forward in physical capacity. The popular television and movie characters Robocop and The Six Million Dollar Man may be coming close to reality.

Here are some of the ways we’re mashing up minds and machines now:

Artificial limbs are getting much better. A robotic hand recently made the cover of National Geographic. One of the most well-known people in the field is Yoky Matsuoka, who works at the Neurobotics Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. A MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, Yoki has been working on creating robotic arms with more natural movement, perhaps someday so natural that we won’t be able to tell if a person’s hand is real, or prosthetic.

I came across this video about Yoky at NOVA Science Now, which should be an inspiration to any girls who are interested in math and science. As an aside, until I started researching this story, I didn’t know such a field as Neurobotics existed. So let’s hear it for new words! What it appears to mean in layman’s English is designing complex robotics (like prosthetic hands) that can be hooked up to the human nervous system and take direction from the brain.

Prosthetics are also getting more affordable at the low end (which is what happens with almost all complex technology). Take a look at the $20.00 artificial knee.

Does a mash-up need to be physical? Human brains are getting better at manipulating objects without touching them. No, this isn’t telekinesis in the old-fashioned sense of the word. In fact, some of it is a game. There was an excellent CNN article on the future of brain-controlled devices recently. It talks about the game called Mindflex, which claims to use electrodes in a hat-like device to determine when the player is in the right state of relaxation to move a ball.

Toyota Motors and a number of partners have been using EEG technology to develop a brain-controlled wheelchair. There is a good YouTube video that shows this chair and also shows a Honda system that controls robot arms with the brain.

My prediction?

We’ll see lots of progress in these fields in the next few decades. Some of this will be through science labs like Yoky’s, and some will be through the military both for enhancement of soldiers and for fixing soldiers up when they come back missing parts. We’ll also see it for the baby boomers – many of us have artificial knees now, or artificial hips. As more of this large and well-off generation ages, they’ll want better replacements for the parts that are wearing out from old age.

It’s a pretty common science fiction trope that there will be prejudice issues here (I played with that myself in my flash story “A Hand, and Honor,” that came out in Nature a few years ago and can now be heard online at StarShip Sofa). Yet it hasn’t really happened – we seem to be plugging forward to acceptance of man/machine melds. I suspect this is primarily because the mainstream entry point of these connections is largely through the disabled community. But today’s replacement hands and feet are not yet as capable as the originals, and certainly they are not better. But someday they will be, and that will provoke some interesting reactions.

Further out – maybe fifty years? Since we’re approaching this from two directions – from making machines more like men and from making men more like machines, I suspect some interesting legal bits may come around. Robotic suffrage; the risk of being burned at the stake for selling your humanity for your robotic nervous system; movements to stay “original” instead of being the bionic man or woman… maybe some of us will even be labeled “organic humans” some day.

Science Fiction and Man/Machine Mash-ups

Well, Avatar, is of course a mind-machine mash-up of rather incredible dimensions. I loved it (but not for plot originality – I found it beautiful in spite of the lack of new ideas in the plot). The whole theater broke out clapping at the end and I heard twitter reports from people I follow who had the same experience. And if you think about it, Avatar was mind to organic body to a meld between the two.

Further back, there’s the works I mentioned at the beginning: the bionic man, the bionic woman, and Robocop. I asked my friends for a few favorites via Twitter and FaceBook and a number of people offered up William Gibson’s Neuromancer; there were also votes for Man Plus by Frederick Pohl. I have read Neuromancer (and I rather hope we all have); I haven’t read the Pohl, but the recommendations came from people I trust. It was also pointed out that I had forgotten the brilliant movie TRON, which is getting a sequel this year.

What’s your favorite man/machine mash-up? I have a bad Achilles tendon I’d gladly upgrade for a better model – what part would you most like replaced with a better on?

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