[Remember: vote early, vote often!
This piece was adapted from an op-ed I wrote earlier today. All quotes are from a promotional video found on the linked MIT site.]
Dr. Hugh Herr, director of MIT’s biomechatronics research group, is at the forefront of research into robotic prosthetics for therapy or for replacing lost limbs. A double-amputee, Dr. Herr brings a unique passion to his work. “Eight million people just in the U.S. alone desperately need technologies that will help them move again,” he says. And Dr. Herr and his team intend to help them. His team has developed a prosthetic leg with a robot-controlled knee joint, called the MR Knee, that can closely mimic the motion of biological knees. Presently, patients who had their knees amputated have to rely on clumsy plastic prosthetics that hardly bend at all; but soon, the MR Knee will hit the market and improve the lives of thousands of people.
Dr. Herr’s group researches more fields than robotics; researchers are chiefly interested in how machines can interface with the human nervous system. And they are not alone. Dr. Gerald E. Loeb of USC, one of the original developers of the cochlear ear implant, is presently working on what he calls BIONs, or bionic neurons. These are inserted within a muscle or nerve, and can then receive signals from other BIONs (which could relay messages from the spinal cord) or from outside the body entirely. They then stimulate the muscle or nerve. Potentially, BIONs can overcome the effects of spinal damage, or even interface between the nervous system and robotic implants.
Advancing technology offers the chance to alleviate suffering for millions of people. But why stop at repairing the human body when you can improve it? “I believe in the next decade we will have artificial legs that are better than human legs for running,” says Dr. Herr. “The best amputee runner in the hundred-yard dash is only a second slower than the world record with biological legs; and that’s just with carbon-composite dumb passive springs.”
Others are much more ambitious. Once scientists can link machines to the nervous system, the sky is the limit. Futurist Ray Kurtzweil imagines a world in the next few decades in which people use artificial hearts that pump artificial blood (with much higher efficiencies than biological blood), breathe with artificial lungs, replace the bulky organs of the endocrine system with much smaller robotic analogues, and eventually replace the human body entirely with designed components.
Looking at all of this, Americans should all be wondering the same thing: what does this mean for major-league baseball?
Imagine a game ten years in the future. The pitcher warms up on the mound, making sure that his robotically enhanced arm is running smoothly. He then looks over at the batter, judges the precise spot where his pitch should end up, and directs his arms accordingly. As his finely tuned torso makes a beautifully fluid rotation, his arm and fingers execute a preprogrammed sequence of movements designed to give the ball the most fiendish combination of spins known to man. The ball twirls its erratic way towards the plate at 200 mph, but not fast enough to evade the eye implants of the batter. He, of course, possesses lightning reflexes thanks to his fiber-optic nerves (which transmit neural impulses much faster than the 140 meters per second that “wet” nerves do); and he calculates the exact spot where the ball will cross the plate.
He swings his bat with the power of a runaway train, sending the ball high overhead. But the right-fielder sees his chance; he makes a tremendous leap twenty feet in the air, and hurls his glove directly into the path of the oncoming ball. The ball neatly smacks into the glove’s well, and the center-fielder bounds over instantly to catch the falling bundle. One out.
Purists grumble that the game just isn’t the same anymore. But in the roar of the crowd, few people listen.