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Jan 2014

The time belonging to cyborgs is approaching fast. Soon intelligent robots will be present in our society and we will have no other option than getting used to it.

It is a scary thought and many people are concerned. Will the machines take over or will we find a way to co-exist?

They are known from science fiction novels and films -- technically modified organisms with extraordinary skills, so-called cyborgs.

This name originates from the English term "cybernetic organism."

Cyborg technology is making rapid progresses. There are a number of reasons why scientists and companies think it can be a good idea to use cyborgs. Medical implants, complex interfaces between brain and machine or remotely controlled insects are just a few examples that give us an idea how to use cyborgs.

We can also add to the list space exploration and ask ourselves if ET machines, cyborgs or humans can explore space best.

Recent developments combining machines and organisms have great potentials, but also give rise to major ethical concerns.

The KIT researchers Professor Christof M. Niemeyer and Dr. Stefan Giselbrecht of the Institute for Biological Interfaces 1 (IBG 1) and Dr. Bastian E. Rapp, Institute of Microstructure Technology (IMT), point out that cyborgs that combine technical systems with living organisms are already reality.
Developing a super-tuning machine that can imitate the human brain has been a scientific goal for a long time.

In recent years, medical implants based on smart materials that automatically react to changing conditions, computer-supported design and fabrication based on magnetic resonance tomography datasets or surface modifications for improved tissue integration allowed major progress to be achieved.

Currently, bioelectronic developments are being combined with robotics systems to design highly complex neuroprostheses. Scientists are working on brain-machine interfaces (BMI) for the direct physical contacting of the brain. BMI are used among others to control prostheses and complex movements, such as gripping.

BMI are often considered data suppliers. However, they can also be used to feed signals into the brain, which is a highly controversial issue from the ethical point of view. "Implanted BMI that feed signals into nerves, muscles or directly into the brain are already used on a routine basis, e.g. in cardiac pacemakers or implants for deep brain stimulation," Professor Christof M. Niemeyer, KIT, explains.

"But these signals are neither planned to be used nor suited to control the entire organism -- brains of most living organisms are far too complex."

Presently, scientists are working on methods to use the patient body's own thermal, kinetic, electric or chemical energy. In their review the KIT researchers sum up that developments combining technical devices with organisms have a fascinating potential. They may considerably improve the quality of life of many people in the medical sector in particular. However, ethical and social aspects always have to be taken into account.

Communication between man and machine is a fascinating area at the interface of chemistry, biomedicine, and engineering, but where do we draw the line for how far we want to go in our attempt to unite humanity with machines?

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