explore the how and why of robotic augmentation

—How scientists are merging muscles, nerves and bones with plastic, metal and silicon — and even bypassing the body entirely to connect robotics directly to the human brain
—Why these innovations will challenge (and eventually overturn) our existing social, cultural and ethical paradigms.

Almost ten percent of Americans already have at least one inorganic body part. The majority of these augmentations (e.g. artificial joints, stents, and dental implants) are passive: A metal or polymer part replaces the worn-out original. Robotic components gather, store, process and act on information. Robotic augmentation symbiotically integrates robotic components (and their functions) with the human body. Nowhere is the promise of robotic augmentation more evident than in the field of prosthetics.

Two million people in the United States are missing one or more limbs. Scientists can already manipulate residual bones, nerves and muscles to give patients control of increasingly advanced artificial limbs. Soon, brain-computer interfaces will bypass damaged (or missing) parts of the body, creating new opportunities not only for people without limbs, but also for the over 5.4 million Americans with paralysis due to stroke, spinal cord injury or neuromuscular diseases.

Robotic augmentation offers people the promise of being restored — to be made “normal” again.

But why stop at normal?

Why make an arm that is just as strong as the original if you can make one ten times stronger? Why restrict a lower limb to looking like a leg if another configuration would work better — and could be changed out when needed? Why should a hand be limited to one thumb when two could be much more useful?

But our bodies’ limitations are what make us human. The ultimate limit — death — drives our very existence. Science strives to overcome our human limitations. We’ve learned to repair our failing bodies. We’ve learned to engineer devices to restore our bodies’ abilities. Now we’re on the verge of being able to engineer our bodies themselves.

Robotic augmentation may lead to a glorious future where we control our own evolution through technology. Where death becomes nothing more than a disease to be cured. Where we abandon the concept of ‘normal’ and not only tolerate, but appreciate, each other’s differences. Robotic augmentation may make us better humans.

Or, this new technology may bring out the worst in us. The future may be the dominance of a technologically enhanced elite and an ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Where wars are fought by super-soldiers who destroy everything but each other. Where we become intolerant of each other’s differences. Robotic augmentation could eliminate the very essence of our humanity.

The question is not whether we should start down this path: We are already too far along to turn back.

The question is how we traverse the road.

You are part of the answer. In the next ten years, you will be faced with individual choices about your (and your family’s) health, but you will also be asked to decide with your dollars and your votes. This book will help you figure out how to make those choices.