Health & Medicine

Engineering Extra Senses: Technology and the Human Body

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

Sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. We interact with the world and navigate through it thanks to our senses. But what if we could add to that repertoire? A British scientist and a small group of enthusiasts are exploring ways to do just that. Ari Daniel Shapiro of our partner program NOVA reports.

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Ask Kevin Warwick to look ahead a hundred years and predict where we are headed as a species, and he does not hesitate.

"The only future I can see," says the cybernetics professor at the University of Reading, England, "is one where there are perhaps humans as we know them today, but we also have the cyborg entity — the part human, part machine, with all different varieties."

Warwick has spent his career working on ways to merge humans with machines, and he sees no reason why we should accept the limitations of our bodies as evolution has shaped them.

"Let's move forward," he says. "You know, let's not stay as we are."

Warwick feels particularly trapped by our five senses, because there are so many signals out there — for instance, radio waves and X-rays — that, as humans, we just cannot detect. As he puts it, we are looking at the world through a tunnel.

"We're hardly seeing anything that's there," he says. "So I think we can use technology to give the brain a much, much better perspective of what's going on."

This philosophy has propelled Warwick into the realm of sensory enhancement — adding new senses to the human experience.

And Warwick is not alone in this desire.

Magnetic Implants

"I got the implant about two months ago," says Rebecca Davey, an undergraduate at the University of Manchester. "A small cut was made in the side of my fingertip. It took about ten minutes, tops."

She had a tiny magnet implanted, one about the size of a sesame seed. It is tucked into the tip of her left ring finger.

Davey is part of a small community of people who have had magnets inserted into their bodies. She had hers implanted by a body modification artist in Berlin. It cost about $200.

"Often people are quite shocked by the idea of having — of almost butchering — your body to put things in, but it's not really like that," she says. "If people are willing to get things like piercings or even contact lenses, it doesn't seem to me such a huge step to then go on to things like magnetic implants."

The magnet has not profoundly changed Davey's life, but she can detect things in her environment that she could not before. When she approaches a magnetic field, she can feel the magnet move beneath her skin. She says it is like a gentle tugging or quivering.

She demonstrates by turning on her microwave oven. She probes the air with her finger to sense the appliance's magnetic field.

"It gets very strong as you go to the side of the microwave, and then sort of dies off as you go over the middle, and then very strong at the other side," she explains, tracing an invisible shape.

Putting New Senses to Use

Back in Reading, in the lab of cybernetics researcher Kevin Warwick, graduate student Ian Harrison is studying people who have gotten these magnetic implants. In fact, he is one of them — he has tiny magnets in two fingers on his left hand.

"I ultimately want to prove this is a viable method of input to the body," he says. He believes magnetic implants can be useful, and is looking into using them as a new way of experiencing music.

He has crafted a simple device — a small coil of copper wire that is connected to the audio output cable from his computer. He turns on some music and sticks one of his magnetic fingers into the center of the coil.

Even with the speaker turned off, he says he can feel the music. "Every single time you hear that bass… you can feel the sensation quite strong coming through."

Harrison's professor, Kevin Warwick, wants to do more than just put magnets inside fingers so people can experience music in a different way.

Warwick is especially excited about neuronal implants — small computer chips that interact directly with our nervous systems. He had one connected to the nerves of his left wrist a few years back. Once there is a direct connection to the nerves, it is possible to hook them up to all sorts of contraptions.

Warwick displays one of those contraptions — a baseball cap dolled up with a circuit board, 9-volt battery, a snake of black and red wires, and several ultrasonic sensors. It allowed him to navigate his environment like a bat, with a form of echolocation.

"So the closer an object, measured by the ultrasonic sensor, the more pulses went into my nervous system," he explains. Warwick says he was able to move around his lab — blindfolded — without bumping into anything.

"It didn't feel like heat or touch," he says. "We had, if you like, opened up a new route to the brain."

Upgrading the Human Body

Warwick kept the neuronal implant in his body for only a few months, but he sees no reason why these devices could not become permanent parts of ourselves.

He says the devices could be used for therapeutic purposes, "helping somebody who's blind, for example, so they can detect objects as they move around ultrasonically."

And he sees no reason why people who have all their natural senses should not have access to extrasensory devices too.

"It's using the technology to provide something extra," he says. "It is enhancing. It's upgrading."

Wendell Wallach, a bioethicist at Yale University's Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, doesn't see it that way.

"It's just not clear to me why I would want to put these sensors into my body, and whether it would undermine some of my other capabilities," he says.

Wallach says we humans are not good at multi-tasking with our technology — for instance, talking on the phone while driving. He is concerned that if we are able to gain additional senses, they might distract us from our other, natural senses.

"I think one of the difficulties with all of these new trajectories in terms of how science can alter us is that it tends to aggrandize what these technologies bring into our life. At the same time," he says, "it demeans a little bit how remarkable we are as human beings."

But Kevin Warwick wants to be more remarkable. For him, the sensory enhancement technologies of the future — the ones that he thinks may help facilitate our transition to cyborgs — are as much a personal quest as a professional one.

"I want to experience things for myself. I want to know what it's like, and I want to find out what's possible if we push things a little bit further."

"That's what I'm about," Warwick says. "This is what I live for."

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    Kevin Warwick’s vision for the future is bold. In it, he says, humans and machines will be one. (Photo: Ari Daniel Shapiro)

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    Rebecca Davey crouches behind a series of security scanners at the University of Manchester library. She can detect their magnetic field with her implant. (Photo: Ari Daniel Shapiro)

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    Ian Harrison’s magnetic implants in his two fingers allow him to attract small metal objects in his environment, like these magnetic discs. (Photo: Ari Daniel Shapiro)

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    Two of the devices that Kevin Warwick had implanted into his body: the neuronal implant (above his wrist) and an RFID tag (in his palm). (Photo: Ari Daniel Shapiro)

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    Kevin Warwick shows off an electronic baseball cap that allowed him to navigate his lab like a bat – with a kind of echolocation. (Photo: Ari Daniel Shapiro)

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    Rebecca Davey crouches behind a series of security scanners at the University of Manchester library. She can detect their magnetic field with her implant. (Photo: Ari Daniel Shapiro)

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    The magnet implanted in Rebecca Davey’s ring finger overwhelms the magnetic sensor on her cell phone. (Photo: Ari Daniel Shapiro)