Rutgers University Press
September 30, 2002
Marie, a 63-year-old Belgian woman, has been totally blind since the age of 57. But now, thanks to electrodes implanted around her right optic nerve, she can see lights, shapes and colours again. A motorcycle accident in 1993 left Brian Holgersen, a 30-year-old Dane, paralysed from the neck down. But he can now hold a cup, lift a fork and grasp a pen thanks to advanced electronics embedded in his right arm and hand.
Marie and Brian are two of a handful of people around the world who have had computer chips implanted in their bodies to extend, enhance or repair their senses. This remarkable convergence of biology and technology is being brought about by melding advanced computers with the human nervous system, a merger that holds the promise of devices that can restore sight to the blind and mobility to victims of paralysis. The same technology might also one day provide us with bionic senses, such as the ability to see infrared radiation or feel objects at a distance. By linking neurons in the brain directly to silicon chips, scientists are also exploring the possibility of creating virtual eyes, ears and limbs on the Web and allowing people to control appliances by thought alone. Machines are getting silicon senses, too. Researchers are endowing computers with the ability to see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Once a computer has its own sensorium, it’s conceivable that it could at some point learn to think.
Drawing on fields as diverse as artificial intelligence in biology, The Body Electric provides an exciting synthesis of the people and technology making this convergence possible. Because this merger of man and machine affects more than just our bodies and computers, The Body Electric addresses the psychological, social and philosophical implications of these startling developments. Are you any less ‘you’ after a bionic implant? If all our senses are electronically enhanced, how will we tell the difference between virtual reality and the actual world? Will it matter? How can privacy be ensured when computers are watching and listening to everything we do and say? Will transmitting smells and tastes over the Internet enrich the user’s experience or merely provide another way for corporations to sell us stuff?
This merger of ourselves and our technology is already beginning to change the way we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think about the world, opening up the doors of perception just another crack. The Body Electric explains how the new bionic senses might one day blow those doors completely off their hinges.
James Geary is an editor with Time Magazine. He lives in London with his wife and two sons.