In principle, anyone whose body has a permanent, non-human part – such as a pacemaker or prosthetic arm – is already a cyborg. And in the rehabilitation of those injured in an accident or wounded in combat, there is no more than one connection between prosthetics and robotics. People around the world are currently working on refining what are called brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), which convert brain activity into signals for controlling things like computers, robots, or prostheses. The electrical brain signals are recorded using electroencephalography (EEG) or implanted sensors, analyzed by a computer and then translated into specific instructions. And each time life is made easier, it is not only those who are sick or handicapped who look at the interconnecting of man and machine with more and more positivity. And the rate of the relevant development possibly less vexing. For example, the founder of Tesla, Elon Musk, started the medical research company Neuralink in 2016 to work on the development of what is called “neural lace” technology. The goal is to fuse biological and digital intelligence. How far along research has come on BCI in particular became apparent in 2016 at the first “Cybathlon” in Kloten, Switzerland: People with only the power of their thoughts left used their brain waves to control an avatar in a virtual world.
Yet to do this, computers need access. Personal progress, including with regard to health, is increasingly depending on how much we give up what is originally ours. This is already beginning in healthcare.
Turning back the clock to the present, companies like Alacris Theranostics GmbH are pursuing the goal of developing functioning, personalized healthcare and disease prevention based on “virtual patient” strategies (see article “A crash test dummy for medicine”). Specifically, the spin-off of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, soon to be part of the multidisciplinary EU project “DigiTwins,” is optimizing treatment and prevention strategies using computers. In this approach, a “virtual twin” is used that can be treated at next to no cost and does not have to suffer any negative effects of treatments. According to Dr. Bodo Lange, the heart of this is the vision of “a truly personalized health and disease prevention system. A vision that will trigger a paradigm shift in healthcare by using the most advanced omnics, sensor, computer and communications technologies to make possible truly personalized and preventive medicine.”
What did I eat and drink today, how much did I smoke? How far did I go on my bicycle, in my car or on foot? When did I even move and in what environment? How far we are willing to pay the price for subjective benefits and objective gains in quality of life with information has been apparent for years in how we interact with Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Anyone who claims these companies have a laissez-faire attitude about data protection that is similar to a large portion of their users would in no way run the risk of sounding unrealistic. The “Big Five” - so called in the US because, as an industry, they are so large they can exert political pressure on society - represent 40 percent of the shareholder value of all companies listed in the NASDAQ 100, at $3.3 trillion. At the same time, the top five global tech giants invested $76 billion last year in research, such as in the areas of big data analytics, AI, and cloud technologies.
Research on linking the neural nets of humans as much as possible with artificial neural nets is proceeding not just in the US. For scientists such as Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, it could (only) be another 300 years before humans have the chance to fully live in a parallel digital world. An artificial neural net will keep a copy of their brains up to date regardless of whether their physical bodies are still alive. Scientists call this world the Metaverse. And they call themselves transhumanists.
The most important question of all to be answered is: Do we want this? For whatever it is to which we pimp any type of our current nets: The fabric of relations between AI, IoT, BCI, digital twins and algorithms on the one hand, and prosperity and objective progress on the other, remains symbiotic. But for that result, for what we make of it, man is uniquely and solely responsible. Still.