Article Title
Article Title

We Can Rebuild Him

by Josh Zeisel

Recently there has been an influx of news about new technologies. Yes, most of it has been about either a new smart phone or tablet that's hitting the market, but these are peanuts compared to the important things that are being created and underreported. These new technologies deal with robotics and have human interfacing included, specifically robotic joints made in our image, artificial limbs, and even some mind reading devices. Coincidentally, one of the movie channels has been showing The Terminator movies quite often. I'm not writing to freak out and tell everyone we should stop designing and developing these things because they are going to end up becoming sentient and eventually killing us, but to put forth that engineering and science are here to benefit humanity and allow us to advance in a moral way.


It's important to understand that these devices and technological breakthroughs come faster and faster every year. Let us be reminded of Moore's Law that states that the number of transistors placed inside an integrated circuit will double every year. Basically, this means that computing power doubles ever year. Gordon E. Moore figured this nerdy stuff out when quantum mechanics was just starting to be understood, let alone being applied. Quantum mechanics is the thing that makes your thumb drive work fast while housed inside the smallest of packages. Smaller and faster means solutions like popping a video camera and transmitter shaped like an eye into your eye socket feasible.

New artificial limbs are getting to the point of doing every task a real limb can do while being seamlessly plugged into the brain. This is where the faster processing power comes in handy. The fastest supercomputers can process signals as fast as the brain, but doing it in a small package is where the brain has the edge. The brain has 1 quadrillion (that's 1 million billion) synaptic connections that never ceases to send and receive information in a 70 cubic inch space.

Luckily for us a signal is not much more than a synapse being turned on and off. You can say it's a one or a zero. Oh, hey, that's binary, the same system computers use now to process digital signals. Researchers are becoming more adept at translating the signals your brain sends out to the rest of the body into these readable bits of information. Scientists know which part of the brain controls which bodily function, be it your heart beat, your bicep muscle, or your bowels. Those are just three examples, but every second your brain is processing signals that control some body function or translating a sense for you to react to. Last week, a scientist at Tel-Aviv University in Israel created a synthetic cerebellum, a brain implant that receives sensory information as an input, processes it, and sends an output signal of the processed information back to other parts of the brain, the brain stem, and subsequently the rest of the body. I'll repeat that: Scientists have created an artificial synapse. And many artificial synapses working together would be an artificial brain.

The artificial synapse is a very significant step forward, but there have been more tangible milestones reached. In 2008, scientists attached electrodes to a monkey that allowed the monkey to control an artificial limb. A scientist placed a piece of food in front of the monkey, and, with just using his mind, controlled the arm, took the food, and put it in its mouth. Just this year, DARPA, the engineers who create some of the most advanced technologies for the military, have put forth to the FDA a prosthetic arm that would be controlled by the brain. The arm attaches at the shoulder joint and features an elbow, a forearm, and a hand with five fingers and all the knuckles. The arm is something out of The Terminator or a long, long time ago when Luke Skywalker had his arm cut off by Darth Vader with a light saber. This is great news for amputee victims or those who were born without a limb as this technology should be able to be translated to work for any limb. Like other new technologies the cost of such innovations at first are high, but as they become more efficient and easily designed and built the price of these devices will decrease.

The progress made in understanding how the brain processes information is actually farther along than just being able to control arms. Last week, scientists at UC Berkley have read and reconstructed brainwaves. They had people watch videos of various objects: people, birds, and movies. They read the brainwaves the test subjects developed and reconstructed the moving images. Most of what the scientists produced were blurry images, but the shapes and the movements of the shapes and even some of the colors were very accurate.

Rob Spence, the filmmaker who replaced his eye with a camera (a camera where he only sees the image after it is transmitted to a recorder) believes that humans will eventually decide they want to replace parts of their body with advanced prosthesis solely to enhance the body. Forgive me for being a bit conservative, but replacing your eye should be something you do because you need to do it, not because you want to do it for the sake of art. To someone who follows sports, these types of decisions equate to that of steroids. You are equally enhancing your body and destroying it at the same time. But then again thousands of people permanently change their bodies everyday by getting tattoos and that's mostly an accepted trend.

These great advancements lead to one underlying issue, that of ethics. One of the most important things I learned while studying at Boston University was that no matter what, maintaining ethics is the most important thing an engineer could do, even if it means losing his job. All of the new technologies are leading us, the human race, closer and closer to science fiction, things like The Terminator or Bicentennial Man. Both movies associated with one theme, that of artificial intelligence. The robots in these two movies could do everything humans can do, sometimes even better.

In Bicentennial Man, Robin Williams portrayed a robot that wanted to learn and better itself, but not shoot the living hell out of you and your family. With regards to The Terminator, Skynet, the main computer program, gained self-awareness and turned against its creators. Ethically speaking, it is important that those who create artificial intelligence absolutely be certain that they can control and properly teach the intelligence. Scientists and researchers owe this to the rest of us because in the end these machines and technologies are being created to help the human race, not hinder it.

(Image courtesy of Ten Pound Hammer)

Josh Zeisel is a professional mechanical engineer and graduate of Boston University. His favorite meal is a chicken parm sub and an orange soda. On clear sunny days you might look up and find him flying something. Strike up a conversation with Josh at josh.zeisel[at]theinclusive.net