This semester, the College of Natural Sciences is checking in with faculty experts about developments related to their fields of study that may well affect how we live, work and interact with one another and the world around us over the next 50 years.
For this installment, we hear from Professor Andy Ellington, Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Regents Chair in Molecular Biology and Wilson M. and Kathryn Fraser Research Professor in Biochemistry, who is a professor of molecular biosciences. When he's not overseeing research into new diagnostics for COVID-19, he considers how humans might someday overcome the physical limitations of our biological inheritance.
Professor Ellington's projection for the next 50 years:
In the past, we talked about cybernetics as though machines were extensions of humans. "Waldoes" – remotely operated devices that act like arms and hands – were extensions of human form and function that would decrease our workload and extend our capabilities in this imagining. Think of the exoskeleton in Aliens 2, or the actual military exoskeletons developed with DARPA funding.
Of course, in reality the machines have won: an assembly line is not full of waldoes; it is full of robots. And so it now goes with the rest of automation: in medicine alone, surgeons will be grudgingly but surely replaced by robots, and diagnostics will be neural nets of unparalleled subtlety and accuracy.
And thus what of humans? It remains to us to up our game – through augmentation. Even leaving aside what we could do as genetically modified organisms, the ability to adapt our own neural net, our remarkable brains and nervous systems, to work with machines is an unparalleled opportunity that the invisible (and increasingly robotic) hand of capitalism will drive forward. Glasses to Google Glasses to ocular implants. Ear horns to hearing aids to cochlear implants that don't just restore sound, but improve the range of our hearing, and similarly provide us with immediate connectivity to online data.
But these are just the starting point. Earlier experiments have shown that monkeys with cortical implants could learn to move cursors – somehow. The amazing adaptive machine that is the brain learned to directly control a computer waldo. And of course, we already see virtual reality devices that range from eye-tracking to direct monitoring of brain activity. All the pieces are in place for a human-machine interface that works both ways, where we not only play with Pokemons, but perhaps they even train us.
In imagining a future where humans are something of a new "life" form, more linked than ever to our computational devices, one key will be better direct interconnectivity between neurons and electronics, so that we're not operating through the kludge of our eyes or ears or spotty neural activity. Ala the dystopian but visionary sci-fi novel Neuromancer, advances in neurobiology, electrochemistry and synthetic biology should soon allow us to just "jack in" to the Net.