Timeline Superhuman

 

In the 21st century, we get the benefits of medicines that can ward off disease and keep us alive, and we have technologies that can fix us if something goes wrong. And there’s more to come.


Vaccination

Getting your jabs might be a bit sore but they can protect you against some much nastier bugs and diseases. Effectively, vaccines tell your immune system what it needs to look out for in a particular disease-causing virus or bacterium, so when the real thing comes along you can squash it.

In the late 18th century, English doctor Edward Jenner famously introduced the relatively mild cowpox virus into patients, which protected them against the deadly disease smallpox.

Vaccines really took off after the second World War, and US scientist Maurice Hilleman invented more than 40 of them, including those that prevent measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox.

Transplants

We humans are made up of many parts. Sometimes if one of them fails, we have the technology to replace it. That handy facility goes back more than 100 years when, in 1905, a doctor called Eduard Zirm managed to transplant corneal tissue from the eyes of one patient to another. People had been trying this for decades before he cracked it.

Since then transplant technology has come a long way and moved into vital organs. In 1969 doctors transplanted a donor heart into a patient in South Africa. He survived for just 18 days, but this was considered a big success at the time. Today we can transplant many other important organs, including kidneys, lungs and liver. And people have even received transplants of hands and face tissue.

Antibiotics

When scientists take a break, funny things can happen. In 1928, Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming went on a holiday and left behind some bacteria growing in the lab. When he came back, he saw a fungus had started to grow on one of the plates and it seemed to be killing off nearby bacteria.

That observation led to the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin, which not only earned Fleming a Nobel Prize but is considered to have saved the lives of millions of people as it meant that potentially fatal diseases like syphilis and tuberculosis could be controlled. Today some bacteria have developed resistance, but antibiotics are still thought of as one of the major breakthroughs in improving human health in the 20th century.

New artificial limbs

If you are fortunate, you have all your limbs in good working order. But imagine if you lost an arm, a hand, a leg or a foot. How would that affect your life?

Attaching an artificial, or prosthetic, version can help, and people have been doing so for thousands of years, often making them out of wood and attaching them to the body with leather.

Since the mid 20th century, prosthetics have had a radical makeover, and new materials, including plastics, can mean they are lighter and are more functional. Some go way beyond simply looking like a leg and supporting your body. How about those “cheetah legs” that allow athletes to run at speed?

Other attachments are robotic and the user can operate them externally. And some prosthetics are being researched that let the user control the artificial limb with their thoughts. Doctors surgically guide the nerves that normally would move that limb to another muscle in the body. Then when the user thinks about moving their arm, the muscle that now receives the information links in turn with a sensor, which tells the prosthetic limb to move.

Bionic senses

Since the 1950s, people have been developing and improving small devices to implant inside the cochlea in the inner ear to help those with hearing difficulties. The device can pick up sounds and stimulate the auditory nerve, which sends information about that sound to the brain.

Implants that could help people to see after they have lost their sight are much newer. An artificial implant for the retina at the back of the eye has recently been approved for sale in Europe. Trials showed that when blind people used this implant, many of them could recognise large letters and find objects. The technology is aimed at helping people who have lost their sight from damage to the retina.

And what about creating whole new artificial senses, such as being able to detect infra-red or UV light with your fingers? Experimentally, people have been implanting magnets into their fingertips and linking them to sensors. The magnet vibrates when the signal is picked up and you feel a buzz in your fingers. Strange.

In the 21st century, we get the benefits of medicines that can ward off disease and keep us alive, and we have technologies that can fix us if something goes wrong. And there’s more to come.

Brain implants

The thought of having a device implanted deep in your brain might sound a bit like science fiction, but for some people it’s fact – and it’s helping them to manage brain disease.

With Parkinson’s disease, cells in a particular area of the brain die away, and the sufferer loses control over muscle movements. So they start to get tremors and they may have difficulty moving around by themselves.

A small device called a “brain pacemaker” implanted into the brain during surgery can help the person to manage their movement better.

It’s not a trivial operation, but for some patients, the machine in their brain gives them a better quality of life.

Powered

It sounds like the ultimate power suit: an “exoskeleton” that helps your body to move or support heavy weights by using sensors and a power supply. It is sometimes known as a “human augmentation robotic system” and several models have been developed. They can be pretty imaginative too. Some are like suits of armour that you wear, superhero style. One is, basically, a pair of shoes with a seat attached. You put on the shoes, sit on the seat and the exoskeleton does the walking while it supports your body weight.

It sounds like a lot of fun, but there are serious sides too. These inventions could be used by the military or by those who trek long distances with heavy loads. They offer huge potential for those with physical disabilities.

Captain Cyborg and the future of our species

Imagine if you could upload content from your brain directly to the internet. Or if you could communicate your thoughts directly with another human, not by talking or gesturing but through small chips that each of you has implanted in your head.

Those are the kinds of scenarios that excite Kevin Warwick. He’s professor of cybernetics at Reading University, but he has earned the nickname Captain Cyborg because he experiments on himself, implanting devices into his own body to become part-robot.

In one early project back in 1998, he got a radio-frequency ID chip implanted into his arm. Why?

“It was partly to show what intelligent buildings can do,” explains Warwick, who was at the Science Gallery in Dublin last month to give a talk entitled My Life as a Cyborg as part of a series organised by Science Foundation Ireland.

The small chip inside his arm could “talk” to specially rigged out buildings, and doors would open for him and lights would switch on as he approached. A few years later, he had a more complex chip implanted that linked with his nervous system. That allowed him to communicate with devices outside his body, including a robotic arm that he controlled remotely over an internet connection across the Atlantic. “I was moving my hands in New York, and my neural signals went across the internet and moved the robot hand,” he explains.

But for Warwick, the highlight of having that complex chip integrated into his nervous system was that he could link directly with his wife, who also had a chip implanted.

“When she moved her hand, it was like a charge moving up my index finger. And there we were communicating, one nervous system to another nervous system,” he says. “When she closed her hand, my brain received a pulse. It was a wonderful experience to do that and know no one has done that before.”

Humans go plus at the Gallery

If you would like to find out more about how we can augment ourselves with technology, how we interact with robots and what a prosthetic head looks like (and whether it talks back), check out the HUMAN+ exhibition at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin. It contains some pretty challenging exhibitions that will make you stop and think about the future of our species.

See sciencegallery.com/humanplus

Cork lends a bionic hand

Scientists at Tyndall National Institute, Cork, have been working on a “bionic” artificial hand that can feel, grip and hold objects. The project, which involves lots of centres in Europe working together, links the person’s nerve cells with sensors on the Smart Hand. This is to allow two-way communication between the user’s brain and the device. It could eventually improve the lives of people who need a prosthesic hand.

The sports clothes that know what you need

Fancy some intelligent sportswear that can sense your heart and breathing rate when you work out? Or maybe a sports bra that gives you some more support when it figures you need it?

It’s not too far-fetched. Scientists at Clarity, a partnership between University College Dublin, Dublin City University and Tyndall National Institute, are working on smart textiles that have built-in sensors to make garments that bit more interactive and useful. Now, if only the clothes could do the hard work at the gym for you, too.

Grow your own

It’s all very well making an artificial arm or leg out of strong, light materials, but wouldn’t it be great if you could actually grow body parts separately that could then be attached as needed?
Hang on, it has been done. Researchers have been able to construct various versions of body bits in the lab, including ears, skin and even bladders.