The Real Science of Avatar
Elizabeth Landau of CNN has written an interesting overview on the scientific probability of Avatar, which is now the most popular movie of all time. Its premise: could our minds someday be wired in such a way as to control the actions of other physical entities—be they animals, machines or even eerily attractive blue extraterrestrials?
Turns out the answer is yes, and some of it is happening right now. Landau describes experiments where animals used only their thoughts to operate robotic devices thousands of miles away. These projects are helping to create better prosthetics for wounded soldiers, and enabling paraplegics to operate computers without the need of a keyboard or mouse.
So what else from the movie might be on the horizon? For starters, how about those obnoxious battle suits—only smaller, faster, and a lot meaner?
Turns out the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on it. In his book, Radical Evolution, author Joel Garreau paints a vision of a soldier who controls a battle suit with only her thoughts. She’s also been inoculated against pain; her body can stop bleeding on its own. And oh yeah, she doesn’t really need to eat or sleep for days at a time. All of the above were DARPA projects involving disciplines from nanotechnology to genetics.
Such capabilities are part of an emerging, multi-disciplined field called Human Augmentation (HA). Last year, the global research firm Gartner projected we may see practical application of HA technology by 2019. Like the space program, much of this research has begun with military funding, but it has immense potential for humanity as a whole. Imagine a future in which we age much slower, live much longer, and do so in good health, with sharper minds and stronger bodies. Human Augmentation holds that potential.
But as demonstrated by history, we humans have never been above using our technological advantage to exploit others. If we are able to send our thoughts directly into a machine, it is logical to assume that shortly thereafter, we will also be able to use that same interface to communicate with, or possibly intrude upon, the thoughts of others. This is just one of the ethical issues which should be confronted now before we step into the void. The technology is going to happen; we all need to be informed and ready to participate in guiding it.
Image courtesy 20th Century Fox