Human Technological Implants

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Issue 16, Volume 112

By Seth Fenton 

Cover Image

Implants date back as far as 2000 BC, when they were used to replace missing teeth in Ancient China. In recent decades, humanity has developed several implantable technologies that have been crucial in the rehabilitation of millions of patients. For instance, implantation devices like an artificial heart valve implantation with an external pacemaker—a device that regulates the heartbeat—have been used to treat heart diseases since 1951. Such advances have significantly improved the quality of life and expanded our ability to monitor internal bodily conditions, repair bodily functions, and even replace limbs and organs.

Implantable sensors are the category of human technological implants with the widest variety of uses. They are placed inside a person's body to provide information about their bodily functions. Due to recent advances such as better tissue to metal connections, they can provide a constant, reliable data stream from a patient no matter how far away they are. As a result, they improve surgical outcomes and reduce the need for in-person checkups. This allows for a lower risk of infectious disease spread and for precious hospital beds to be freed up without compromising the quality of care. In current times, when COVID-19 continues to spread and hospital capacity is very strained, these seemingly minor efficiencies are more necessary than ever.

The second type of implant, and the most common, improves the function of internal organs. This category includes heart valve replacement (a valve within the heart is replaced by a synthetic replica), pacemakers (a device that can set the pace of the heart beat), BLVRs (bronchoscopic lung volume reduction, a procedure to reduce the amount of air within the lungs) and cerebral spinal fluid shunts (a tube that reduces the amount of cerebrospinal fluid in cases where it has built up in excess). These have allowed people with previously crippling or fatal diseases to live relatively normal lives. These implants often last longer than 20 years and are used with implantable sensors to provide the aforementioned benefits.

Sensory implants, as opposed to implantable sensors, are used to replace or repair one of the five senses—generally sight, hearing or touch. The most well-recognized of these is the cochlear implant which helps with hearing by bypassing damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulating the auditory nerve.

Sight impairment is significantly harder to cure. Artificial retinas represent our best capability to improve sight, but even they can’t deal with the majority of forms of blindness. What’s more is that they are incredibly expensive and, thus, widely inaccessible.

The final major category of implant are prosthetics which replace limbs, allowing for the ability to freely manipulate objects. Recent prosthetics are capable of neural-muscular interface which means they can be controlled by the brain and allow for the freedom to manipulate objects comfortably. They are also capable, albeit rarely, of providing the sense of touch to people who had long lost it.

Implants are used to restore the body to what is considered normal function, but there are some technologies attempting to improve human function beyond these limits. So far, this type of implant has advanced slowly due to moral concerns that have impeded funding. As of now, there's only one type of implant that's even remotely practical for human enhancement: neural implants which can enhance cognitive function and memory. Actually increasing human capability with a neural implant is impossible with current levels of technology. However, a neural implant was recently tested in a pig that measured its mental activity for over two months without being removed. It’s possible that these implants may soon be capable of controlling technology with the brain. In the distant future, they may even provide limited telepathy.

Medical implants have saved millions of lives and allowed many more to live autonomously. They’ve also been developed relatively quickly—in 70 years, the lives of millions have been completely changed. More than that though, they have the potential to revolutionize the human condition by allowing us to mentally control technology, communicate more effectively, and improve our mental functioning.