Ever the adaptive species, human beings have long used technology to augment their natural capabilities. Even pre-historic cave dwellers used obsidian rocks to sharpen sticks into fine points, effectively extending their arms and thus the targets they could hit.
Today, humans use electronic and mechanical technology to physically augment their bodies. This is done attaching or implanting some type of device to improve their capability to go beyond the current human experience, e.g., 3D-printing an appendage or interfacing directly with the digital world through a brain-computer interface (BCI). The former is an example of how technology can enhance a person’s physical capabilities while the latter is related to cognitive improvements.
Like our cave dwelling ancestors, many of today’s augmentations offer fairly simple improvements. Consider the example of an extra thumb. That’s exactly what Dani Clode, a grad student at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA), has done with her third thumb project. This augmentation is a 3D-printed prosthetic that simply extends a user’s grip. The extra thumb straps onto the hand, which connects to a bracelet containing wires and servos. The wearer controls the thumb via pressure sensors located under the soles of their feet. Pressing down with one foot will sent a signal via a Bluetooth device that will cause the thumb to grasp.
Be it simple or complex, human augmentation has made the list of Gartner Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2020. The report cites several growing market areas were implanted or hosted physical augmentations improve both workers health and the company’s financial bottom lines. For example, the automotive or mining industries use wearables to improve worker safety. In other industries, such as retail and travel, wearables are used primarily to increase worker productivity.
The report lists four main categories of physical augmentation: Sensory augmentation (hearing, vision, and perception), appendage and biological function augmentation (exoskeletons, prosthetics), brain augmentation (implants to treat seizures) and genetic augmentation (somatic gene and cell therapy). Each of these categories are worthy of a separate discussion. For now, the timeline below will focus on one portion of the second category, namely, prosthetics.
Modern human augmentation sometimes called “Human 2.0,” would not be possible with the advances offer by semiconductor electronics (e.g., processors, memory, sensors and wireless tech) and the related advancement in robotics. Thus, our brief timeline starts with the advent of the transistor.