Man plus machine | Sunday Observer

Man plus machine

A future cyborg as seen in Alita: Battle Angel
A future cyborg as seen in Alita: Battle Angel

The recent movie, “Alita: Battle Angel”, a joint venture between James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez did not get much traction at the worldwide box office, but its depiction of a dystopian future could be uncannily accurate as things stand. The highlight of the film is on advances in robotics, neural intelligence and the gap between man and machine which keeps getting blurred even as we write.

In Alita, a cataclysmic event has left the Earthbound citizens in a world of ruin and huge heaps of trash. The character Ido, scavenging through the garbage, finds the “core” of a cyborg which has a human brain still showing activity. Ido is a cyborg repairer of some note, and he takes the head and torso home, where he attaches it to a robotic body he had fashioned for his paralyzed late daughter Alita. She then discovers that she has some extra abilities due to the fusion of man (woman?) and machine. (The film is now available on streaming platforms and physical media, do check it out). The famous movie RoboCop had a similar theme.

Alita is set in the 26th century, but we do not have to think that far to guess that Robotics and Artificial Intelligence will have advanced by leaps and bounds by then. It is already a hot topic as scientists are blurring the boundaries of just what it means to be human. Elon Musk of Tesla, Hyperloop and SpaceX fame, who has already stirred controversy through his attempts to popularise driverless cars (that would definitely happen, though), has now entered the debate with an audacious, even frightening plan.

The plan involves a computer chip connected to exceptionally slender wires (the thinner they are, the less damage they will do to the brain) with electrodes on them, all of which is meant to be embedded in a person’s brain by a surgical robot. The implant would connect wirelessly to a small behind-the-ear receiver that could communicate with a computer.

Musk hopes the implant, created by his brain-computer interface startup Neuralink, could help quadriplegics control smartphones, and perhaps even endow users with some sort of telepathy. Like existing brain-machine interfaces, it would collect electrical signals sent out by the brain and interpret them as tangible actions. This is somewhat similar to the Cochlear Implants which are surgically placed to enable hearing impaired people to regain their hearing.

And just when you thought this sounds rather complicated, Neuralink actually has built early prototypes for rats and monkeys which worked as advertised. Musk is now eager to start human trials. Musk says Neuralink aims to make the surgery for the implant “equivalent to a LASIK where you sit down, a machine does the operation and you can walk away within a few hours,” without a hospital stay.

There is no doubt that Neuralink’s promise of a brain-connected device that looks essentially like a hearing aid will be an exciting prospect to scientists and even lay people. This idea is not even all-new. There already are deep-brain stimulation devices meant for controlling tremors in people with Parkinson’s disease and several tech companies including Facebook are working on their own methods for connecting the brain to computers.

Scientists are steadily working on artificial implants for practically every organ. Now the race is on to provide artificial limbs which can feel and ‘touch’ – the brain actually thinks that a real hand is touching an object. Researchers from the University of Utah have developed technology that can deliver a degree of feeling to people with prosthetic limbs. While there have been previous attempts at this, their attempts at delivering sensations have been limited and often imprecise.

The new technology is based on a process called Utah Slanted Electrode Array (USEA). The USEA provides an interface between what a prosthetic hand can detect and the user’s remaining sensory and motor nerves in their arm. It is a combination of these nerves and the patient’s own thoughts which assist in driving the device. This furthers the development of neural interfaces.

The process requires the surgical implantation of hundreds of electrodes directly next to the patient’s nerve fibres. These electrodes are designed to “record from (listen to) or stimulate (talk to) small subsets of nerve fibres very selectively, and reasonably comprehensively,” according to researcher Gregory Clark.

The new innovation brings the sensation of touch via an artificial limb far closer to mimicking how a hand feels and senses the external environment.

The restoration of sight for visually impaired people is another area where rapid advances are being made. The new visual cortical prosthesis systems are designed to bypass diseased or injured eye anatomy and to transmit these electrical pulses wirelessly to an array of electrodes implanted on the surface of the brain’s visual cortex, where it is intended to provide the perception of patterns of light. Patients include not only those with retinal disease—such as retinitis pigmentosa, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma—but also those who have lost vision to eye injury or optic nerve injury/ disease and are ineligible for any other visual prosthetic.

The visual cortical prosthesis system is designed to bypass the eyes and optic nerve, i.e., the diseased or injured tissue. Patients wear a miniature camera mounted on a pair of eyeglasses, an antenna, and a video processing unit (VPU). The camera captures real-time images as processed by the VPU and then converted into stimulation patterns that are transmitted wirelessly to an electrode array implanted on the surface of the primary visual cortex. The system has 60 electrical contacts that deliver the stimulation to the brain. Give another 10-20 years and blindness could be a thing of the past as better neural processors come online.

But these advances also have an ethical aspect. One wonders whether altering the brain in any way is a good idea. There is no guarantee that a fusion of Artificial Intelligence and the human brain will always work well together. Moreover, most of these treatments will be limited to rich countries and perhaps wealthy people in developing countries, at least for many decades to come. This might create an entirely new kind of gap – between those who have been digitally and artificially endowed and those who cannot afford such gadgetry.

This could make the latter second class citizens in their own communities or countries while the privileged few do enjoy new ‘superpowers’.

As time goes on, it will also be possible to create intelligent robots that possibly look like people. It will be an interesting mix, with people also getting a boost from artificial intelligence, artificial organs, ‘intelligent’ implants and prosthetics. There is an element of fear and uncertainty, but this does not mean that advances in robotics and artificial intelligence should be curtailed. Hopefully, they will do more good than bad.