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Being (More Than) Human

Can we augment ourselves into a better future?
Meera Lee

In June, Rich Lee had two small magnets embedded into his tragi, the fleshy portions of the ears that jut out over the ear canal. Rich’s subdermal implants—which he adapted from an Instructables project—are able to receive input from pretty much anything that he can hook up his amp to. He already listens to music without headphones, but he’s got far bigger plans. A simple directional microphone would allow Rich to eavesdrop on distant conversations, and an ultrasonic rangefinder would let him pick up the movements of nearby objects (giving their owner a capacity akin to echolocation). With the addition of a geiger counter, he could even detect radiation.

Our mission at BeingHuman.org is to examine how and why we came to be the species we are today; but we’ve also got an eye on the species we may become tomorrow. Invisible headphones are just one small part of a fascinating and polarizing movement whose undertakings also include enhancements like magnetic fingers, the possibility of self-created synesthesia, and a DARPA-funded device for keeping fatigue at bay by rapidly cooling muscle cells. Transhumanism is rooted in the idea that science and engineering can fundamentally change the nature of the human condition for the better—physically, mentally, and in any other way our prodigious imaginations can come up with.

It would be a mistake to think of transhumanism as a domain whose practitioners are limited to DIY biohackers, science fiction aficionados, and immortality-chasers who’ve got cryonics chambers reserved for their bodies. Neuroscientist David Eagleman has long been interested in ways his research on human perception can translate into an altered or heightened ability to apprehend the world. A few years ago he created what you might think of as a very crude apparatus for slowing down people’s experience of time so they can complete certain tasks more quickly. (The apparatus was a bungee jumping cord. Free-falling backwards, it turns out, makes it feel as if time is drawn out. While plummeting, people can read a rapid series of numbers that would scroll by too quickly to read under normal circumstances.)

More recently, Eagleman’s lab has been developing a vest designed to transmit data in the form of vibrations. He’s starting with auditory signals to allow deaf people to feel sound, but like Rich Lee’s magnetic ears, such a vest could in theory receive anything from a blog feed to your bank statement. Work like Eagleman’s may one day make the entire universe of “invisible light”—that enormous fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum that humans cannot perceive, including radio waves, x-rays, infrared and ultraviolet rays—as accessible as a pair of glasses.

If this seems futuristic, remember that the umbrella of human augmentation is wide, and many emerging technologies most of us are already fairly comfortable with fall within its scope, such as brain-controlled prosthetics and retinal implants that restore vision.

 

 

 

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