Thirty years ago, the idea of cyborgs -- human beings enhanced by electronic, mechanical, or robotic parts—was something we really only saw in movies like The Terminator or Robocop, or TV shows like The Six Million Dollar Man. Fast forward to 2012 and you’ll see the real thing: men and women doing incredible things with artificial limbs, eyes, and organs. Take Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee athlete who was able to compete in the 2012 Olympic games thanks to his carbon-fiber prosthetic legs. Becoming the first double-leg amputee to participate in the men’s 400-meter race, Pistorius’s name is now widely known. However, there are many real-life cyborgs that have been experimenting with prosthetic technology long before Pistorius was in the news. From video cameras implanted in prosthetic eyes, to a finger doubling as a USB key, check out the amazing stories of these five real-life cyborgs.
In 1998, Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, England, wanted a way to turn lights on and off by simply snapping his fingers. (And no, The Clapper was not the solution.) Warwick surgically implanted a silicon radio-frequency ID chip into his forearm, allowing him to turn on lights, heaters, and computers, and open doors by simply walking by a sensor. The bigger picture of Warwick’s experiment showed just how powerful chip implant technology is and how much potential it has to impact our lives. Using this technology, people could carry a plethora of information, including medical records, blood type, and credit-card details.
Warwick is also known for his 2002 experiment, Project Cyborg 2.0, which literally linked him to his wife’s nervous systems via a computer, marking the first time in world history that two people were able to communicate telegraphically, nervous system to nervous system. Electrodes pushed into his wife’s nervous system were able to communicate with electrodes in Warwick’s nervous system so that when his wife moved her hand, Warwick received a pulse. In an interview with VICE’s Mother Board, Warwick described it as being even more intimate of an experience than sex.
This self-proclaimed “world’s first cyborg,” a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, has been working on and wearing wearable computers since the '70s. If you’re familiar with Project Glass, Google’s augmented-reality, head-mounted display, then you may have an idea of the type of technology Mann’s been working on for more than 30 years. Mann’s current headset, known as EyeTap technology, or simply “glass,” is permanently implanted on his head and is usually connected to his brain. The device acts as both a camera and display, augmenting the image the user sees and actually overlaying computer-generated information on the screen. According to Mann, “Augmented Reality grew out of an earlier effort called Mediated Reality, which uses wearable computing to augment, deliberately diminish, or otherwise modify our perception of reality.”
At age 15, Cameron Clapp was struck by a train, losing both of his legs and one arm. Now 26, triple-amputee Clapp has spent the last 11 years learning how to play sports with his prosthetic limbs and working with other amputees to assure them that it’s still possible to lead an active life. Clapp uses a variety of prosthetics for different activities. For everyday walking, Cameron uses prosthetic legs with the Otto Bock C-Leg computer knee system. Using sensors that monitor the position of the leg, signals are sent to microprocessors in the knees to determine what resistance the leg’s hydraulic cylinders need in order to make the most natural step possible. Clapp’s cutting-edge prosthetics have helped him become a gold medalist in the Endeavor games and act as an inspirational figure for those who have lost a limb.
Rob Spence has been sporting eye patches and prosthetic eyes since age 9, when he severely damaged his eye during an accident with his grandfather’s shotgun. Spence, a documentary filmmaker, decided the most logical thing to do with his bum eye was to replace it with a video camera, or Eyeborg. Commissioned by Deux Ex: Human Revolution video game maker Square Enix in 2011, Spence traveled the world interviewing other cyborgs. Though the Eyeborg is simply a camera fitted in the eye socket and isn’t actually connected to any nerve endings, scientists are working on bionic eyes with retinal chips that connect to the user’s brain.
And now for something completely different. After losing part of a finger during a motorcycle accident, Jerry Jalava decided to alter his prosthetic finger so that it could double as a 2GB USB “thumb drive,” no pun intended. The idea started as a joke with friends, and though it was actually the fourth finger on his left hand and not his thumb, Jalava, a Finnish programmer, inserted the USB drive into his prosthetic silicone finger in 2009. The drive can be accessed by flipping back the nail area of his finger. Since it can be easily detached from the rest of his finger, Jalava can simply pop his USB finger into any computer to instantly have access to his photos, movies, and programs.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author's own.