12 Current Technologies for Human Augmentation

When you think of human augmentation, it’s easy to conjure up sci-fi-style images of bionic limbs and other futuristic inventions. However, human augmentation is more prevalent than many people realize.

Human augmentation technologies provide improvements or enhancements to normal human health, quality of life, performance and functionality. These could be highly questionable alterations to the human body or brain, or simple gadgets like reading glasses.

In this article, we’ll discuss many of the human augmentation technologies currently available, as well as some that are in development.

What are augmentation technologies?

We define augmentation technologies as those that become part of a person’s day-to-day life.

There are three main categories of augmentation technologies:

  • Those that reproduce something we already have (like prosthetic limbs).

  • Those that enhance an ability we have (like making us smarter or stronger).

  • Those that add a new ability (like seeing infrared light).

Now that you know a little more about augmentation technologies, let’s take a look at 12 examples of human augmentation.

1. Glasses

Arguably the oldest invention on this list, glasses with lenses that allow the visually impaired to see again have been around since the 13th century. Magnifying glasses have been around for even longer, dating back to ancient Rome. By restoring vision, glasses can be classified as a replicative augmentation technology.

2. Smart glasses

Bearer of Google Glass

 Image credit: Loïc Le Meura /Wikimedia Commons

A big step forward from normal eyeglasses, smart glasses are designed to provide wearers with an augmented reality view. This could include viewing a screen similar to a computer monitor, or it could mean overlaying the real world with useful information. Many of these technologies are in their infancy, with the best currently offering a small field of view (FOV) and limited battery life.

3. Hearing aids

Hearing aids have been around for a long time. In fact, the first electric hearing aid was invented in 1898. Hearing aid technology has developed considerably since then. Newer versions can isolate, enhance, and amplify vocals in front of you while suppressing incidental noise.

4. Cochlear implants

We now also have cochlear implants which allow a person to hear again without having to wear external hearing aids. These work by bypassing the usual biology of the ear and directly stimulating the auditory nerve. In some cases, cochlear implants are able to restore hearing much more effectively than hearing aids.

5. Smart headphones

Waverly Labs has also created a set of headphones capable of translating foreign languages ​​in real time for the wearer. These are still in development at the time of writing, but such technology would mean learning foreign languages ​​is a thing of the past.

6. Bionic eyes

Woman with bionic eye

While we don’t necessarily have bionic eyes yet, we do have a lot of things that come together.

For example, there’s eSight, a company that is developing a portable device with cameras that display an image of the environment in front of the user’s eyes that allows people who are legally blind to see. Researchers in Switzerland have also developed contact lenses with a built-in 2.8x zoom, and Samsung has patented a contact lens design that can produce an augmented reality display.

7. Plastic surgery

Although it was invented to heal and restore the appearance of victims of war and burns, plastic surgery is now also used to modify and improve the appearance. From relatively inconspicuous procedures like a botox injection to a full facial reconstruction, plastic surgery has come a long way since its conception.

8. Orthodontics

Not often seen as a human augmentation technology, orthodontics helps maintain and restore the function of teeth and gums. It’s come a long way since sticking wooden blocks in your mouth (like the famous George Washington myth). Nowadays, complete and realistic tooth replacements or dental veneers are available.

9. Prosthetic limbs

Woman with prosthetic leg

Engineered prosthetics have become considerably more sophisticated in recent years. There are prostheses that allow the user to have extremely high levels of dexterity and in some cases even to simulate sensations.

BrainRobotics has developed an AI-powered hand that can translate muscle signals from the brain into precise movements. SENSY has developed a neuroprosthetic leg with the ability to send information back to the brain so that the user can “feel” through the leg, including position, pressure and contact.

10. Exoskeletons

There are already exoskeletons on the market. Sarcos produces the Guardian, an industrial exoskeleton that allows the user to lift 200 pounds and perform repetitive actions without increasing pressure on the body. There are also ankle and leg exoskeletons that increase running speed and reduce muscle strain, and similar technology aimed at restoring the ability to walk in patients with brain damage.

11. Brain-computer interfaces

While brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are still largely in the early stages of development, there are already BCIs that have allowed users to control computers, prosthetics and other devices using only their minds. A currently commercially available BCI is IntendiX. This allows users to enter messages and control external devices with their thoughts alone.

A notable example of BCI technology is Elon Musk’s Neuralink which aims to make BCIs capable of treating brain injury and disease, eventually providing a complete symbiosis with the artificial technology. However, Neuralink is still in the early stages of its development and shouldn’t be showing results anytime soon.

12. Internet

Photo of an internet connection router

With the Internet now so closely linked to our daily lives, some experts see it as augmenting technology. The internet puts almost all human knowledge just a click away, dramatically expanding our memory (in a way) and our ability to learn new information.

The combination of the internet with wearable technologies such as smart glasses, smartphones or smartwatches greatly expands the capabilities of a person with minimal invasiveness.

And after?

With current human augmentation technologies already so prevalent, it’s fascinating to consider what might be right around the corner. From restoring functionality to providing new capabilities, the future of human augmentation technology is exciting and a little bit scary.

Genetic engineering is reaching a new level of sophistication with biological technologies like CRISPR potentially capable of modifying our genes as we wish. On the flip side, linking our biological brains to AI software can give us levels of cognitive prowess and decision-making abilities like never before.

Much of this technology is brand new and far from commercially available. In a way, this is a good thing because it gives us the opportunity to consider the ethical implications of using such technology. What exact amount of normal human functionality should we be modifying? And who should have access to human augmentation technologies?

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