The Artificial Body
Almost a million people in the United States have certain joints replaced every year. This is a relatively new science, with the first hip joint surgery being as recent as 1948. This type of surgery has of course much older and cruder antecedents with varying levels of effectiveness. Glass eyes are still in use and peg-legs seemed to work pretty well for pirates, but one wonders how useful a set of wooden teeth would be. It is actually apocryphal that George Washington had wooden teeth; in fact, he sported a rather fancy pair made from metal, ivory, and actual human teeth. Happily, the science of body part replacement has accelerated dramatically in recent decades.
Now, of course, we are progressing rapidly into two exciting areas: very advanced robotic prosthetics, and 3D printed body parts. These technologies seem destined to be immensely important to humanity as we struggle to repair the damage that we inflict upon ourselves through the simple act of living.
Great leaps forward in robot hands and prosthetic limbs are beginning to redefine the experience and definition of disablement. As Paralympic athletes are beginning to demonstrate, technology (allied to iron will) can eradicate the difference between someone with their body intact and those with parts missing or broken. What the technology is making possible is not just to repair or replace the body but to improve it. We will explore this in the third part of this chapter.
There is amazing progress being made in the field of artificial eyes and ears. Hearing aids are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and when combined with a Google Glass-like technology, the possibility of totally neutralizing the effects of deafness is almost upon us. Sensory augmentation provided by object-sensing canes for the blind and bionic eyes sending electronic images straight into the optical cortex might eventually eradicate blindness.
These advances, though, will seem archaic compared to the optimization and repair that will be possible when nanotechnology reaches maturity in the healthcare domain. It is easiest to imagine the technologies being applied here because in a sense they already are, particularly with the early exploration of gene therapy we have been seeing for the past 20 years. Gazing out a little way into the future, we can see treatments and products emerging that are not only tuned to our own individual genomes but specifically to the genome of the bacteria or DNA of the virus that is the causing the problem. When nanotech and genetic technologies merge, interventions would be performed in a much less invasive way, and we could change the way we cure diseases utterly.
Futurists gazing at healthcare describe a “medicine factory,” a pill-sized capsule containing a miniaturized camera and other sensing apparatus designed to analyze gut flora for imbalances that could lead to diseases. Imagine that you swallow one of these factories (Figure 8-3), which then sits quietly in your intestine, monitoring the growth of different bacterial colonies. When something harmful is detected, this information is transmitted wirelessly to your doctor, who would instruct the medicine factory to start manufacturing the appropriate genetic treatment delivered through a “deactivated” virus vector. Over time this process could actually be automated and take out the presence of a human being altogether so that the factory goes about its business curing you of disease with little fuss. These sophisticated new treatment protocols would make a modern gastroscopic exam look positively medieval.
Figure 8-3. A pill-sized capsule containing sensing apparatus designed to find imbalances that could lead to diseases