Cyborgs, the University of Washington and playing God

Feb 14, 2017, 9:46 AM
James Wu and Kaitlyn Casimo are PhD candidates at the University of Washington and deal with science that can one day lead to cyborgs. (Jason Rantz, KIRO Radio)
(Jason Rantz, KIRO Radio)

Ever since science and fiction met, society has awaited the coming of the cyborgs. But so far, we remain in waiting. That might soon change, according to two University of Washington students.

“We think of cyborgs as any sort of integration of humans and technology in some way,” James Wu told KIRO Radio’s Jason and Burns Show. “That can be as fluid as someone with a smartphone having access to all the world’s knowledge … all the way up to the stuff of sci-fi. The brain-controlled arm … the head transplant, or having exoskeletons or implanted devices that make us more than human.”

Related: UW studying video games that treat depression

But science is still a long way from giving us a Robocop, or a Terminator. In that vein, anyone who has used an Alexa device, or a Google home, knows we’re also a bit away from Skynet, too.

Wu and fellow student Kaitlyn Casimo are PhD candidates at the GRID Lab at the University of Washington. They specialize in neuroscience and bioengineering. They are hosting an event at the Pacific Science Center on Feb. 15 called, “It’s 2017. Where’s My Cyborg?” The two will discuss how close humanity is to a reality with cyborgs, the science behind it, and ethical dilemmas. Are cyborgs more fiction than science, or is resistance futile?

One such ethical question, posed by Jason Rantz: Are they playing God?

“Absolutely,” Wu said. ” But only in the sense that all human and technology interactions play God to some extent. If you ever felt the haptic touch on a modern iPhone, there are buttons that are virtual that feel real, that is creating a virtual sensation that has not happened before.”

“In our lab, we do have experiments … injecting virtual sensations by directly stimulating the brain cortex with electricity,” Wu said. “That is something we are able to do, albeit in a very limited way.”

“But I would argue that this is no different than another piece of technology interaction,” he added. “Especially today with virtual reality and augmented reality, this is very similar.”

Cyborgs and you

Much of the research Wu referenced has more to do with treating ailments such as epilepsy — not directly with creating cyborgs. There’s no Ghost in the Shell coming out of UW.

“Our motivations are primarily assistive,” Wu said. “One thing I would have a concern about is if there is a futuristic implant that achieves ubiquity, that people perceive it as normalized to receive an implant, that is where the ethical considerations really make a huge impact.”

To an extent, people have already seen some integration of technology and biology, the two students note. Scientists have been able to move robotic arms with thought, for example. But Wu is quick to point out that the connections are very basic, slow and not very “fluid.”

“The brain is the most complicated system known to science,” Casimo said. “You have 86 billion neurons and each one makes as many as 1,000 connections, which can fire as many as 200 times a second. We have to figure out how to decode all of those trillions of signals happening at any given moment in order to figure out what the brain is trying to do.”

At the GRID Lab, Casimo notes, the ethics of cyborgs and other scientific work is at front of their research.

“We want to make sure things are secure … that a person’s body can’t be taken away from them or their private thoughts cannot be intercepted,” Casimo said.

So what is science closer to?

“Luke Skywalker’s hand in Star Wars,” Casimo pointed to as an example of one goal. And also, spoiler alert in case you haven’t seen “The Empire Strikes Back.”

“He loses his hand to Darth Vader,” she said. “Then he gets this ultrarealistic prosthetic that he treats as a real hand … that’s sort of the main goal. Right now, in neuroengineering research, the goal is to develop a robotic external limb that can be attached to a person’s body or wheelchair and the have the person control it exactly they way they want it to. And also have it be able to feel things.”

Jason Rantz on AM 770 KTTH
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Cyborgs, the University of Washington and playing God