Science fiction has, for many years, looked to a future in which Robots are intelligent and cyborgs are commonplace. The Terminator, The Matrix, Blade Runner and I, Robot are all good examples of this vision. But until the last decade, consideration of what this might actually mean in the future was unnecessary because it was all science fiction, not scientific reality.
When we typically first think of a robot, we regard it simply as a machine. We tend to think that it might be operated remotely by a human, or that it may be controlled by a simple computer program. But what if the robot has a biological brain made up of brain cells, possibly even human neurons? Neurons grown under laboratory conditions on an array of non-invasive electrodes provide an attractive alternative with which to realize a new form of robot controller.
However, even here it’s possible to consider using such technology in ways that would give people abilities that humans don’t normally possess—in other words, human enhancement. In some cases, those who have undergone amputations or suffered spinal injuries due to accidents may be able to regain control of devices via their still-functioning neural signals.
It’s clear that connecting a human brain with a computer network via an implant could, in the long term, open up the distinct advantages of machine intelligence, communication, and sensing abilities to the individual receiving the implant. Currently, obtaining the go-ahead for each implantation requires ethical approval from the local authority governing the hospital where the procedure is performed. But looking ahead, it’s quite possible that commercial influences, coupled with societal wishes to communicate more effectively and perceive the world in a richer form, will drive market desire. However, the idea of people driving around while wearing skullcap of electrodes, with no need for a steering wheel, doesn’t seem realistic. Completely autonomous vehicles are much more likely.
Such experimental cases indicate how humans—and animals, for that matter—can merge with technology. That, in turn, generates a plethora of social and ethical considerations as well as technical issues. That’s why it’s vital to include a sense of reflection so that the additional experimentation we’ll now witness will be guided by the informed feedback that results.