This week, a research breakthrough at the University of Washington brings us one step closer to living as cyborgs. Chao Zhong and his colleagues have built a biocompatible solid state device made from the shells of crustaceans tha's able to monitor and control the flow of protons. Unlike electronic machines that transfer information via electrons, our bodies and brains do it via ions and protons. And that difference between machines and bodies — we're incompatible technology — has been one challenge to advancing cybernetics.
That's not the only challenge. Several technologies allow people to control machines with their minds. Take the video embedded in this blog, where a man is controlling his prosthetic hand with his mind. But it involves extensive electrode implants to monitor electrical activity in the brain. Other methods may use brain caps studded with electrodes that analyze brainwaves and convert them into some kind of action controlled by a computer.
Instead of complex electrode array or brainwave monitoring rigs, Zhong and his team's solution involves a very small transistor roughly one twentith the width of a human hair. The decrease in size will allow for direct implantation, as well as the construction of more complex pieces of equipment as the technology continues to advance.
According to their paper in Nature Communications, the material used is an, "ideal means for interfacing with biological systems," and can "control and monitor both ionic (electron) and protonic (proton) currents."
It's too early to implement the device directly, but the ideas for future use are extensive. From implanting in the brain to monitor Parkinson's, to rerouting functions through healthy tissue when the brain is damaged by Alzheimer's or concussions.
According to KurzweilAI, the UW students used a modified form of a molecule called chitosan, which is created from chitin, the structural element in the exoskeleton of crustaceans (such as crabs and shrimp). Plus, the "is easily manufactured, and can be recycled from crab shells and squid pen discarded by the food industry," says KurzweilAI.
With the rate of technological advancement we may someday use this type of technology to download — or upload — information from the brain. With implants that interface directly with our tissues and bodies the possibilities are limited (literally) only by the power of our imagination.
If you're considering changing your name to Seven of Nine, don't worry, we're not part of the collective yet.