The suit he’s wearing gives him the strength of a forklift.
His visor lets him zoom in on the tiniest detail, look right through a wall, see at night, and manipulate holograms.
His fitness bracelet counts his steps — and sniffs his breath and tells the microchip embedded in his forearm to dispense needed medicine.
His transplanted liver, made by a 3D printer, replaced his sickly original.
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His brain is plugged into a truly worldwide web, giving him thought-command access to information and the ability to communicate with billions of fellow humans.
Or is he still truly human? Or is he now superhuman?
But the truth is, implants and transplants, wearable devices and bio-engineering exist now in some form. Many futurists say their full development is just a matter of time. Some Kansas City area businesses are even helping develop them.
And in the very near future he sees us having avatars that can sense and think for us, “to size up a room or a situation for danger, or the potential for rewarding connection with another person there.”
Exciting? Scary? You bet, as technology moves beyond repairing us to enhancing our abilities, and even changing what it means to be human.
A tour of the latest advances shows what could be in store.
When Luke Skywalker got a new hand in 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” moviegoers oohed as he flexed each bionic finger. Today, companies such as Touch Bionics of Scotland make similarly lifelike fingers, thumbs, hands and arms.
In the company’s advanced prosthetic hand, a separate motor powers each replacement finger, and electrodes respond to muscular signals, giving greater flexibility and control.
Its prosthetic arm, called the i-limb quantum, was upgraded last year to offer intuitive gesture control and a hand with 30 percent more digit speed and power than previously. Silicon skin mimics the three dermal layers of human skin.
Another team at the University of Washington in Seattle, using 3D printed bones, is trying to replicate full hand functions in natural-looking prosthetics. Scientists in Switzerland and Italy have connected a sensing prosthetic fingertip to nerves in a test subject’s arm, adding the ability to feel surfaces. At the University of Chicago, similar sensors have sent electrical “touch” signals directly to test monkeys’ brains.
Beyond these current models, it’s a short leap to envisioning prosthetics even stronger than natural limbs, and sensors that give natural hands super sensing abilities.
Similarly, a powered “exoskeleton” suit made by an Israeli company, ReWalk Robotics, has Food and Drug Administration approval to help people with spinal cord injuries stand, walk and even climb stairs.
And the Japanese electronic giant Panasonic says it soon will begin selling exoskeletons that weigh just 13 pounds and give a person 33 more pounds of lifting power. Warehouse workers in Japan have tested the suits, and Panasonic and its ActiveLink subsidiary also are testing a bigger suit that enables someone to carry a 220-pound load.
The suit’s sensors can tell when the wearer is trying to lift or carry, and its lightweight motor and attached “skeleton” then amplify the person’s motions.
Another wearable poised to make workers more powerful is augmented reality headgear. Glasses, a visor or helmet contains a voice-activated computer that can project information and holograms, and provide videoconferencing.
The best-known example, Google Glass, got off to a rocky start with test versions mainly pitched to consumers. But the next version of Glass will be aimed at businesses, which see great possibilities for training and guiding workers.
The Microsoft HoloLens promises high-definition sensing and display, and developers can order the headset now for $3,000. A similar second-generation development headset is available for $949 from Meta, a U.S. startup. Intel reportedly is working on a standard for augmented-reality headsets, too.
And then there’s a 5-pound helmet that lets a jet pilot “see” through the cockpit by feeding him a real-time view from cameras on the outside of the plane. You have to be an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilot to get one of the $400,000 helmets.
Black & Veatch, the Kansas City area’s biggest engineering firm, isn’t in the market for half-million-dollar fighter pilot helmets. But it is excited about other augmented reality gear.
“We’re exploring several augmented-reality possibilities with a large software company,” said Brad Hardin, the firm’s global chief technology officer. “The technology has clearly advanced from just a year ago, and we see it enabling significant improvements in safety, productivity and quality control.”
Being able to use voice commands and hand gestures, instead of a mouse and keyboard on a laptop or tablet, “is a game changer on a construction site,” he said.
“You can imagine, for instance, setting a steel beam using surface recognition and geospatial location. And overlaying the beam in one color while it’s being set and another color once it’s exactly in place,” he said. “This kind of application could improve quality control and potentially speed up installation times in place of traditional site layout tools.”
When problems crop up during construction, he said, being able to show the situation to engineers off site could mean saving hours or even days of construction time.
Devices also could enhance safety by being programmed to warn workers of bad weather or nearby dangerous machinery. They also could track changes in pulse and other stress conditions, he said, and tell a worker to take a break to avoid a repetitive-motion injury.
Pounds of prevention
Wearable devices, from Fitbits to the nearly two dozen devices sold by Garmin, the GPS pioneer based in Olathe, have already grown to a $7 billion-plus market. To keep the sector growing, companies are adding prevention features.
One such device, Jolt, was advanced at the Sprint Accelerator, the program in Kansas City’s Crossroads that helps startup companies. Jolt is a sensor that attaches to a helmet, headband or hat and measures any head impact to decrease the risk of serious concussions.
ReliefBand, unveiled in January at the Consumer Electronic Show, can be activated to counter motion sickness, morning sickness and other nausea by sending out pulses that stimulate a nerve on the underside of the wrist. The process, called neuromodulation, blocks the waves of nausea sent out by the stomach.
And at the University of Illinois, researchers developed a chemical “nose” that identifies chemicals by scent, including bacteria associated with specific diseases. That’s faster than previous testing, so serious ailments such as blood poisoning could be detected and treated before lasting damage is done to organs.
Canton said he expected such wearables to eventually be part of “predictive medicine that transforms health care” by heading off many illnesses and diseases.
Another transforming technology is no bigger than a fingernail — a microchip that dispenses drugs and hormones. A person can have it implanted underneath the skin. It holds the promise of years of safe, accurate drug delivery.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Robert Langer got the idea in the late 1990s watching a documentary on microchips.
He had worked for years on drug-dispensing techniques, he said in a recent interview, “and when I saw this program I thought these chips could be a great drug-delivery system.”
Langer teamed up with an MIT microchip specialist, professor Michael Cima, and they eventually founded a company, Microchips Biotech.
Chips were developed with reservoirs that could carry hundreds of individual doses. Programming was worked out so a chip could dispense varying doses, including “pulse” delivery, which replicates an injection. A “tongue and groove” manufacturing technique was perfected, with grooves measured in microns. That allowed layers of the chip to be cold-pressed together, avoiding heat sealing that could damage the drugs.
“The key trial was with an osteoporosis drug that needed to be pulsed” to foster bone retention, Cima said. “If the drug was dispensed slowly and continuously, it would erode bone and have the opposite effect of what was intended.”
The chip passed that test and since has drawn a $35 million investment from Teva Pharmaceutical, which will continue trials to bring the technology to market.
The Gates Foundation also is helping finance development of the chips for birth control, with the expectation that they could provide 15 years of contraception with a single implant. Such chips also could be reprogrammed without removing the chip, say to stop working when a woman wanted to start having children.
Another likelihood, Cima said, is that the chips will be able to send signals that regulate hormones, replacing glands that aren’t functioning properly.
“What you will have, really, is an organ transplant,” he said.
And if an organ to replace is larger than a gland — say a heart, lung or kidney — advances in tissue growth and 3D printing mean replacement organs could be made.
Making body parts
The largest and most easily damaged organ is the skin, and Stanford researchers have developed a promising sensitive, durable and flexible material for replacing damaged skin.
Other researchers have had success growing organ and muscle tissues from stem cells.
In February, scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine said they had developed a 3D “bioprinter” that can make tissue strong enough to withstand transplantation. The scientists showed off its abilities, the Nature Biotechnology journal reported, by printing muscle, cartilage, a jaw bone and the outside of a human ear.
Even restoring eyesight, one of the most complicated organ-brain processes, has made progress. Scientists at Weill Cornell Medical College have successfully tested artificial retinas on mice and monkeys, with chips that convert images into electronic signals that are sent to the brain.
In humans, the visual prosthetics company Second Sight has had some success with its Argus II, a sensing prosthetic that sits on top of a retina. A few people have received the implant and report some vision restoration — being able to recognize doorways and curbs, for instance.
Bold future; big questions
All these parts raise the question: How much of us can be replaced? A project called the Bionic Man put together various prosthetics and transplants to rebuild more than 50 percent of the human body. The “man” didn’t have a brain or functioning nervous system, but its limbs could be operated remotely.
But who will get the transplants that prolong life? The wearables that eventually promise superhuman sight, vision and strength? The smart drugs and brain implants that will make people think faster and instantly access the Internet and other data sources?
At the Institute for Global Futures, Canton foresees widespread adoption of such advances because tech costs tend to plummet, and sharing empowering technologies tends to be good business.
“You have a smartphone in one village and a second smartphone in another village,” he said, “and you don’t just have communication. You’ve created a market, another way to do business.”
But other futurists, well aware that 1 percent of the world’s population has half the wealth, see a likelihood that accelerating technological advances will further concentrate wealth and power, along with longer and better lifespans.
How to spread the technological wealth is the sort of question that the World Future Society has grappled with since its founding in 1966, and that its current leader, Julie Friedman Steele, said societies must start seriously considering.
“There’s no question that there will be change,” Steele said in a recent interview. “But when we talk about a dystopian future or a utopian future, it’s up to us as to what really happens.”
And beyond who gets access to the best wearables, implants, transplants and other medical advances lie questions surrounding how to deal with cloning, gene manipulation, and just what it means to be human.
Canton, the futurist who thinks people already are fundamentally different from their ancestors, also sees that future including a “third kind” of being, not truly human, when advances in biotechnology and artificial intelligence make it possible for people to merge with their thinking and learning machines.
That gives theologians and ethicists pause.
“People are fascinated, drawn to the possibilities of all this technology,” said John Carney, the president and chief executive of the Center for Practical Bioethics, based in Kansas City. “We used to caution against tampering with the heart, when we thought that was the center, what determined being human. Now it’s the brain, when we think of altering personality.”
We need to be careful and thoughtful when it comes to drawing lines, Carney said. “We need institutions to say, ‘Not so fast,’ when it comes to crossing that line.”
And that line might be closer than we think.