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Bionics: The end of Disability; Architecting Identity

A Q&A with Hugh Herr, head of biomechatronics group, MIT Media Lab, and Aimee Mullins, actress, model, athlete, who will provide insights on human augmentation at the annual SXSW Conference, 9-17 March 2018 in Austin. 

What are your thoughts about positive and/or potential negative impacts of the ability to augment the physical, mental and emotional person?

Aimee Mullins: We are entering an age where the human body can be presented and extended beyond so-called human “normalcy” and I am very excited about it. The only reason athletes today are better than those of decades ago is because of science and technology: We know exactly what and when to feed our bodies for maximum energy, we have lighter shoes and better bikes and new rubberized track surfaces and (legal) supplements and altitude training. We are upping the ante each Olympic year with “smarter” design of an athlete’s tools, both inside and outside the body. It is entirely possible, in an ironic, amazing cultural flip, that you will see runners in the Paralympics going faster than those in the Olympics. Now won’t that be an interesting comment on “dis”ability?

Hugh Herr: In this 21st Century, bionic technology will end disability and fundamentally change innate human capacity — physically, cognitively, and emotionally. Clearly, bionics provides a tremendous opportunity, but not without risk. We can apply bionic technology to dramatically mitigate human suffering, but that same technology might also pose ethical and policy challenges.

Aimee Mullins: We are extending these kinds of discoveries into areas that society once considered disabilities. A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that wearers have the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space, whether it is speed, art, fashion, or something else. I am very excited about the possibilities all of society will have to become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment.

Hugh Herr: Certainly, in a half a century the world will know very sophisticated artificial intelligence, perhaps even machine consciousness. The world of that time will also know technologies to enable high-fidelity input-output to the human nervous system. In that future, society has to contemplate very carefully whether AI agents should be allowed to actuate the human nervous system. Do we want to advance a society in which AI agents can actuate our mood, our bodies, or our sensory experience? There are certainly troubling scenarios but also opportunities. For example, one could imagine our bodies comprising a digital nervous system in which synthetic computation could actuate our limbs, moving them outside our free will. In that future world one in principle could dramatically speed up the learning process of complex motor tasks. If a person wants to learn a very difficult Beethoven piano piece, they could do so at remarkably increased learning rates. The synthetic computation would activate the muscles in order to move the arms and fingers necessary to play the piece, and the nervous system would be receiving all that sensory information, enabling the it to more rapidly learn the very difficult motor task of the Beethoven piece.

One could also imagine future therapies where two humans agree to couple their brains together in a social-emotional sense. if one person says or does something that makes the other person happy, then that person would have their mood ratcheted up through their nervous system porthole. In distinction, if a person does or says something to their partner that makes them unhappy, then in turn their own emotions will be ratcheted down. So, in a sense, one could imagine future technology for coupling two brains so that one person feels what the other person is feeling as a direct consequence of their actions towards that person. Such a brain-to-brain coupling could potentially enhance empathy between two individuals. For example, if a couple were not getting along and lost all empathy for one another, they could choose to enter such a therapy framework; upon their own free will they could choose to connect their social-emotional states to enhance learning and to increase empathy between themselves.

But clearly there are dangers if such a high-fidelity coupling to the nervous system existed. What would a totalitarian society do with such a technology? For example, what would North Korea do with that technology where you could directly control human emotion, where you could directly control the movement of a human’s body? Indeed, there are profound challenges to these future augmentation technologies while simultaneously deeply profound opportunities. Advancing policy at a rate commensurate with this ever-expanding augmentation volume is of paramount importance. As a society, I feel we can both exploit the benefits of augmentation technology, while also mitigating the nefarious and inappropriate uses of such technology.

How will we be able to extend the benefits of biomechatronics, optogenetic interfaces, and other, currently ‘extreme’ advancements for the widest possible benefit to society?

Aimee Mullins: Advancements that are currently extreme, as my ‘cheetah’ racing prosthetics once were, become mainstream if there is a need and a market for them. At some point in every person’s life, you will need an assisted medical device – whether it’s your glasses, your contacts, or as you age, and you have a hip replacement or a knee replacement or a pacemaker. The prosthetic generation is all around us.”

Hugh Herr: Broadly speaking, in this century, society has before it the opportunity to use science and technology to end disability and disease. To move down that pathway as robustly as we are able, of course, will require a great investment, as well as requiring regulatory and reimbursement policies that promote innovation in the space of assistive and therapeutic technologies. To expand innovation in this space, a key challenge is to get the various stakeholders to seamlessly integrate, including the end users, the research community, for-profit entities, as well as regulatory bodies such as the FDA and reimbursement bodies such as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Broad initiatives that integrate these various stakeholders are necessary to minimize the time and the financial challenge to proceed from bench to bedside — from the conception of an idea to the point where a product can be mass-produced and offered to the public.

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