Science-fiction can sometimes be a good guide to the future. In the film Upgrade (2018) Grey Trace, the main character, is shot in the neck. His wife is shot dead. Trace wakes up to discover that not only has he lost his wife, but he now faces a future as a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic.
He is implanted with a computer chip called Stem designed by famous tech innovator Eron Keen – any similarity with Elon Musk must be coincidental – which will let him walk again. Stem turns out to be an artificial intelligence (AI) and can “talk” to him in a way no one else can hear. It can even take over control of his body. You can guess the rest of the story.
The reality of being a cyborg in 2019 is much less dramatic – but still incredible. In 2012, as part of a research programme led by Jennifer Collinger, a biomedical engineer at the University of Pittsburgh, and funded by the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), Jan Scheuermann became one of a tiny handful of people to be implanted with a brain-computer interface. The 53-year-old woman, a quadriplegic due to the effects of a degenerative disorder, has two cables attached to box-like sockets in her head, which connect to what looks like a video game console.
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Scheuermann can use this brain-computer interface to control a robotic arm with her thoughts, well enough to feed herself chocolate. Three years later she successfully flew a fighter aircraft in a computer simulator.
Darpa has been funding research into these interfaces since the 1970s, and now wants to go one step closer to the kind of world glimpsed in Upgrade. The goal of the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) programme launched earlier this year is to remove the need for electrodes, cables and brain surgery.