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We have the technology! We can rebuild...ourselves!

Human interface technologies like Google Glass, robotic prosthetics, and bionic eyes have the potential to help people recover lost abilities, but also to grant us new abilities. Will you someday be able to turn on your super-human hearing just by thinking about it? Maybe...if you live long enough. The question of whether we /should/ well, we'll leave that to the philosophers. This is SciShow!

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Hank Green: This weekend, I was helping a friend move, and I love helping my friends, I love my friends, it's fine, but, you know, it kinda sucks, right? Getting all sweaty and herniated, and at some point, I was just like, "I want to be Tony Stark! Why can't I have Iron Man power?"

Well, wearable robots are coming your way eventually. It's one of the next generation of human computer interface technologies that scientists, engineers, and computer programmers are already working on. Some of these technologies are already in use, from wearable computers like Google Glass to recently-developed neural implants, nanobots, and even bionic limbs.

Humanity has, for a long time, been about enhancing our lives through technology, but today we're turning that spirit of invention inward, altering not just our bodies and minds but the very nature and future of humanity. We are the new frontier.

So, does that mean that we are all going to be superheroes someday?

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If you ever wanted to have the hearing of a dog or jump over cars without breaking a sweat or just control things with your mind, then, my friend, you might be a transhumanist.

Transhumanism is a modern movement that believes we can and should broaden our human potential through the use of technology. Human enhancement technologies, to be exact. There's no official definition of "human enhancement technology", but most agree the concept involves expanding cognitive and physical abilities beyond what a human is naturally capable of through applied science -- the so-called GRIN technologies weave Genetics, Robotics, Information, and Nanotechnologies into cutting-edge inventions made to enhance and prolong human life.

These technologies may be applied in a therapeutic way, as an attempt to restore a condition -- say, hearing or use of a limb -- or in a purely enhancing way, where the goal is to transcend some normal human capability, like attaining super strength or long-distance vision. And yes, possibly hedging into superhero territory here.

For now, most research (or most public research, anyway) falls within the realm of the therapeutic. You're no doubt familiar with many of them. Maybe you know someone with a pacemaker, that life-saving device that keeps irregular heartbeats in line, and you've probably seen footage of controversial South African runner "the fastest man on no legs" Oscar Pistorius sprinting down the track on his futuristic prosthetics. These are alterations that improve an individual's natural state by restoring something that was lost.

Perhaps one of the fastest-growing of these technologies are cochlear implants. Unlike hearing aids, that help enhance hearing and can be taken out, these are surgically implanted devices that can restore some hearing to the deaf. The technology is pretty new, but as of late 2010 approximately 219,000 deaf people worldwide have received them.

Likewise, there are bionic eye implants that allow blind patients to at least partially see. Companies like Nano Retina and Second Sight are already developing technology that uses image processors implanted in the eye to transmit signals to the brain. Some can even be powered by tiny batteries mounted in a pair of eyeglasses. Nano Retina hopes to upgrade their implants from 576 pixel clarity to 5,000 pixels, though that is still in the trial phase, and the more complicated implant surgeries might cost you more than your house, so it might pay to hold off on any of these technologies until the kinks are worked out and the price comes down. I mean, remember the first digital cameras? They were, like, this big and you put a floppy disk in them and you took pictures that were tiny and ugly and then they were spent, but now they're cheap and beautiful and you don't even need one 'cause it comes with the phone.

Then there are some human enhancements that go on you instead of in you. For example, a few companies are manufacturing wearable robots, including exoskeleton suits, which I want really bad! The US Military is developing robo-suits that enable soldiers to move heavier loads in the field and cover long distances or over uneven terrain without tiring. Likewise, a handful of rehabilitation clinics are working with paraplegic patients, who can be strapped in and, with the help of robotic legs, walk again.

Such rechargeable exoskeleton suits come in various designs and can be activated in a few different ways. Some operate by pressing buttons and manipulating controls; others are equipped with sensors that read the user's muscle twitches and move their corresponding limbs accordingly. The most advanced systems will use sensors to pick up on brain signals and should eventually be directed through the power of thinking, something that I'll get back to in a minute.

So, where can you get one? Well, as with some of these other cutting-edge technologies, while the science behind them them is quickly advancing, the economics of making them affordable will take some more time. Current prototypes are still super expensive, but Russ Angold, the founder of robo-suit maker Ekso Bionics hopes someday that such suits will be widely available, and he calls them "the jeans of the future". Fancy, fancy future jeans.

Looking even further ahead into the future, one of the biggest emerging fields in enhancement technology are neural implants, which are just what they sound like: hardware implanted into the brain. And why would we want to do that? Well, lots of reasons.

The US Military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has its hands in all sorts of Pandora's Boxes in just about every field you can think of, including neural implants. One DARPA collaborator, a company called BrainGate, works on turning thought into action. Literally. Like, I think of coffee and then a robot with coffee would show up.

In their words, their goal is to restore communication, mobility, and independence to people with neurological disease, injury, or limb loss. BrainGate's current technology works by surgically implanting a tiny, 4 millimeter square sensor into the brain, that records the normal signals associated with thinking about limb movement; then a decoder or system of embedded software basically translates those thoughts into clear commands sent to an external device. Those devices could be communication-oriented, like a computer, or movement-oriented, like a prosthetic limb, electric wheelchair, or robotic arm.

Ultimately, their goal is to hook up brainwaves to a functional electrical stimulation device that could directly reanimate paralyzed limbs, but currently their research aims to help people who can't physically communicate at all, particularly those with locked-in syndrome, also known as tetraplegia, a condition in which a person is totally paralyzed though they usually retain full mental capacity. The world's greatest theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, is almost entirely locked in, for example. BrainGate is currently working on a neural implant system that would enable tetraplegics the ability to move an invisible computer mouse or virtual keyboard by simply imagining that they're doing it with their hands.

Other researchers are poking at brains, both externally and internally. Picture, for example, a literal thinking cap that you wear on your head, and you're close to understanding what transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS, is. TDCS devices sit on your skull and stimulate different parts of your brain by administering small electrical currents (of about two milliamps) through your scalp. This stimulation increases neurons' plasticity, or their ability to change, which increases learning, while making them more sensitive, which reduces their reaction time, and therefore faster. DARPA is already using these space-age party hats to train pilots and snipers faster, and is looking at ways to supercharge soldiers.

Defense contracting aside, this technology could help anyone learn faster and retain more, and it could have monumental impact for rehabilitating stroke victims and people suffering from certain neurological damages and diseases.

Then there is deep brain stimulation (DBS), which doesn't so much involve discuss philosophy while wearing a beret as it does implanting tiny electrodes into your cranium, like a brain pacemaker. Another therapeutic technology, DBS is being used to help treat conditions like epilepsy and Parkinson's, and is also being tested for treating bipolar disorder and severe depression. DBS technology has been around in one form or another for over a decade, but researchers at Medtronic are now working on a sort of "smart" system that constantly reads what's going on in the brain and can administer the proper electrical dosage to the right part of the brain as needed.

Finally, if the thought of implants that make your brain smarter and healthier gets you excited and not terrified, I wonder how you'll feel about swarms of tiny, tiny robots whizzing through your body. Through nanotechnology, the field of science that works on the nano scale, or one-billionth of a meter, researchers have begun developing nanobots. Not tiny little metal machines, but actual custom-made particles, by coating them with special proteins or molecules of medicine some nanobots have been found to successfully target things like tumor cells in lab animals.

Prominent futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that in the next 20 years, we'll be flooding our bodies with millions of nanobots designed to augment our immune systems, destroy cancerous tissues, repair damaged or diseased body parts, maybe even clean out clogged arteries without invasive surgeries. This technology could have serious implications for life extension, a major focus of the transhumanist and human enhancement movements.

New technologies are often met with fear and skepticism or high expectations and blind hope, but whether you're terrified or excited by the notion of cyborgian spies, personal Cerebros, or bionic eyeballs in your future, know that these technologies are coming at us fast and they have the potential (if not the promise) to change not just our bodies and minds, but our entire world.

So get ready, and thanks for watching this episode of SciShow. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for us, you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, or down in the comments below, and if you wanna keep getting smarter with us here at SciShow, you can go to youtube.com/scishow and subscribe.

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