What will the human body look like in the future?
Tuesday, October 28, 2014 - 20:30

Most of us carry computers in our pockets or wear them on our wrists, but some of us are already embedding them in our flesh and brains.

This week, Insight meets people who are integrating technology into their bodies.

Some are modifying themselves with implantable and attachable devices to overcome disability, others are choosing to enhance themselves to test their bodies limits.

We ask: when does a human stop being a human and to what extent should we adapt the human body with technology? What ethical and scientific questions does it raise?

Presenter: Jenny Brockie  

Producer:   Hannah Meagher  

Associate Producer: Saber Baluch 

Associate Producer: Sarah Allely  

Cadet: Ella Archibald-Binge  

Join the discussion by using the #insightsbs hashtag on Twitter, or posting on our Facebook page.


Web Extra

As well as physical enhancements, scientists around the globe are researching whether the brain can be enhanced. Could humans become smarter, and possibly more dangerous?

A UNSW study is investigating whether mild brain stimulation combined with computer brain training is more effective in improving memory than either method alone.

Watch Neil's interview with SBS2's The Feed

In pictures: Scroll through a photogallery of our guests


JENNY BROCKIE:  Neil Harbisson, welcome to Insight. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  What is that on your head, what does it do? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Well this is an antenna implant and it allows me to hear colours. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Why do you need to hear colours? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Well I was born completely colour blind so ten years ago I started this project with a friend in order to extend my senses and perceive colour and so I wanted to hear colours and then it started as an art project and now it's just a body part so I can perceive colours as sound waves and actually go beyond human sight as well because it includes infrareds and ultra-violets. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So when you look at our audience here tonight with your eyes, with your natural eyes, what do you see? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Well I see things in grey scale but then with the antenna I just perceive colour through the sound waves that colour is creating. 

JENNY BROCKIE: So when you look at me…

NEIL HARBISSON: Yeah, so I'm hearing now - this sounds very, very much, it's like Jazz because there's different notes and then your shoes are very pure, they sound C. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You've got an app that mimics what you hear in your head because we can't hear what's in your head so turn it on? 



NEIL HARBISSON: This is your dress. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Very nice. 

NEIL HARBISSON: And then your shoes, a pure note. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Okay, so who then you are you drawn to in our audience with your antenna? Get a bit closer over this way because I'm interested in the differences in what you hear in your head. You're hearing all of this in your head? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  It's an implant, right? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Yes, so it goes inside my skull and then the different vibrations create different sounds.  But it's nice to hear different faces because each face sounds different.  So for example your eyes sound - so your eyes sound high pitched. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What about this lady's over here? 

NEIL HARBISSON: So your eyes sound F sharp, they sound lower so it's very different notes. So what I really enjoy sometimes is just doing sound portraits where I write down the sound of the eyes, the lips, the skin and the hair and I send the people an mp3 of their face so they can listen to themselves. 

JENNY BROCKIE: So you compose something from what you hear? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Yeah, I can either compose music or just send them a sound portrait, like drawing someone's face - I send the sound of their face. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Okay, can you replicate the sound of my dress or the sound of one of our audience here? 

NEIL HARBISSON: With the piano. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  With the piano, yeah. 

NEIL HARBISSON: For example, your eyes are C, your lips are E plus 4, skin is F sharp. So you sound quite musical.  So you have, so your eyes, then your lips are around here, your hair, and then your skin is F sharp. So that's your face. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  That's your face. Okay, how a look at Nicky because - just here. 

MALE: See I want to do that. 

NEIL HARBISSON: Now the lips, your lips on E and then F sharp and then you, F sharp and C. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So do you associate those notes with colour? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Yeah, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What are the lips? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Violet.  So actually having violet lipstick really combines well with skin because skin is F sharp.   So when people wear make-up, when you hear colours sometimes it doesn't really match, whereas if people wore purple or violet make-up they would sound, it would sound better with skin because skin is F sharp. So skin is F sharp and lipstick is F, so it sounds, doesn't sound really good, whereas if you use violet you have a major chord.  So this is skin and violet lipstick. So if we could hear colour we would usually, we would probably all wear purple or violet lipstick. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So does this turn you on and off people?  Like are the people, are there people you just don't like the sound of? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  There are? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Am I one of those people? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Good, good, we could have trouble otherwise tonight. 

NEIL HARBISSON: I just move the antenna down if someone's really annoying, so I can just…

JENNY BROCKIE:  So this is on twenty four hours a day? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Yeah, always. 


NEIL HARBISSON:  For over a decade so my brain is completely used to hearing colour so it's just normal, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE: So how much a part of you is it? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Well it's a new sense.  The software is a new sense for me and the antenna is a new body part.  It's an extension of myself and the good thing about the software and the antenna is it can keep evolving through lifetime.  So the older I get the better it can get.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Do you experience it the other way? Do you find it works in reverse, that music becomes colour? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  I think we've got some music here, we've got Amy Winehouse, I just wonder what colour she is? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Yeah, this piece for example is very red - violet, she uses a lot of notes between red and violet, also purple. So yeah, each piece of music can be transposed to colour and then you can see the… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And that's the artwork you've done, to represent that song, yeah? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  And what about other types of music? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Mozart very yellow, for example.  Many pieces of Mozart have a combination of yellow whereas…

JENNY BROCKIE:  And is that because they're all in the same key? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Yeah, the note G repeats a lot in Mozart so that gives me a lot of yellow, whereas Justin Bieber is more pink. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Of course, of course. Doesn't it drive you crazy this amount of noise going on inside your head? It's implanted, this is actually implanted in the back of your skull? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  This antenna. 

NEIL HARBISSON:  Mm-mmm. So in the beginning it did, it was a bit overwhelming because I was using my ears to hear colour so I was actually blocking a sense to gain a sense and this wasn't a very good idea. So perceiving colour through bone conduction is different, it feels like a completely different sense.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And is it a set volume or can you control the volume? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Volume depends on saturation.  So if a colour is very vivid I hear it louder than if it's a dull colour. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And have you always dressed like this? 

NEIL HARBISSON: No, I used to dress in a way that it looked good before.  Now I dress in a way that sounds good.  So I combine clothes by different notes and this, for example, is transposing a piece by Sega Bodega that I really like into colour so I can hear music as well or wear music basically. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  I'd like to introduce you to Darren over here. Can we have a look at Darren. 


JENNY BROCKIE:   How does he look colour wise or how does he sound? 

NEIL HARBISSON: He sounds slightly different, each one, so it's different shades of B. Very high pitched lips E; F sharp skin, and almost silent hair. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Okay, can you run the app over him?  Okay, we have got the idea I think. Darren, I'm interested in what you think of this, you lost your leg in an accident eight years ago? 

DARREN MCKENNA: Yeah, 2006, yes. I was coming back from a mine site after a job shift we did out there. I had a meeting on top of a bridge with another truck who weighed 120 tonne more than I did and he won. I ended up upside down in the truck for a couple of hours. Upon removal and taken back to a hospital it was found that my left leg had died and it was crushed and it didn't recover.  So they had to remove it - that was in 2006. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And you had an operation just last week, yeah? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Which could make a very big difference to your life. Let's have a look.





DARREN MCKENNA:  They're rocking and rolling are they?

I didn't realise my leg was missing. A doctor came in, he walked around the bed, pulled the sheets down, lifted my stump up, took the bandage off. Looked at the scar and I looked at it and I fell to pieces. I had no idea. I thought my life was over.

I've travelled the world looking for the right socket. This is my last opportunity to get up and walk. To put yourself in that situation again is pretty petrifying. It's applying a stint or a nail into the femur to attach the prosthetic to. Instead of having a socket, you have a nail coming outs of your bone through your skin for it to attach to.

DOCTOR:  OK, implant. So this is the implant.

DARREN MCKENNA:  I can see at the end of the rainbow, my little girl is turning 18, and she's graduating Grade 12. I want to be able to walk in there and dance with her at her formal.


JENNY BROCKIE:  Why did you want this operation so badly? What did you have before you had the operation? 

DARREN MCKENNA: Look I've had different sorts of sockets from everywhere.  I've had ceiling liners, different sorts of sockets.  Being an above knee amputee and most of them will tell you, you have a lot of flesh up there and a lot of movement. So a lot of movement, the bone will move around, the flesh will, you know, slop around inside there. It comes loose.  

I live in North Queensland so my other problem is obviously a lot of heat, a lot of moisture, a lot of sweating. I have a running battle with skin infections.  So one day walking will mean sitting in the wheelchair for another week to try and recover from it, due to just tearing the skin off or getting blisters or whatever. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what will happen with this, the metal will clip on to an artificial limb? 

DARREN MCKENNA: Basically the short stint will, just see at the bottom here, I'm not sure, this is the adaptor, isn't it?  Just the adaptor will sit at the bottom. Once the adaptor is out there it's just a matter of just clipping the leg on to the adaptor and away you go. Nothing actually sits on the socket itself, on the stump itself. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So when will you be able to test it out? 

DARREN MCKENNA: I'm getting up on it tomorrow. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Tomorrow? 

DARREN MCKENNA: I'm going to put weight on it tomorrow. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Wow. Do you think you'll make that dance? 

DARREN MCKENNA: Absolutely. I wouldn't stand in front of me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Munjed, you're the orthopaedic surgeon who operated on Darren and you've pioneered this technique.  How is it different to most artificial limbs or most artificial legs? 

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MUNJED AL MUDERIS, NORWEST PRIVATE HOSPITAL:  Basically osseointegration provides a direct skeletal attachment of an artificial limb or a robot to the human body and that served two purposes. Number one, it eliminates all the problems that the socket prosthesis have which Darren mentioned like chaffing, friction, ulcers, skin infections, et cetera. But what we found out later on that it decreases the energy consumption, so that enabled the person to function more naturally or closer to natural and the other thing is that it provides a very significant feature which is osseo perception, where people who wear the socket they can't feel the ground.  So if they tread on a cable or someone's toe they won't feel it, where with osseointegration you can feel everything. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Okay, so it's a skeletal attachment, it's not attached to nerves? 

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MUNJED AL MUDERIS:  Well, with the lower limb, because the computerised leg has a gyroscope and has its own functioning robot so it doesn't need nerve connection.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Brendan, you're a para Olympic champion, a world champion, a world record holder in swimming.  You had this surgery three years ago and you were the first patient that Munjed tried it on, is that right? 

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT, UNIVERSITY OF THE SINSHINE COAST: Yeah, it was a pretty scary thought but I'm glad I did it.  And look it's literally changed my life. It's made a tremendous difference. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How?  Can you show us how it works? 

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: Yeah.  This is one that was prepared earlier by Munjed, so you have your normal prosthetic component down below and as he said, it's directly attached to your skeleton, skeletal attachment, and then it's a simple process, you put it on in the morning. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  It's on an Allen key? 

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: Munjed's developed a newer system. 



PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: So, and then it's off. So you have your normal leg and then, not an antenna but a different type of attachment out the side. And so the skin can breathe, it's not, if you imagine jammed up in that wooden thing that they can't move around, and then to wear it, simply…

JENNY BROCKIE:  Don't rush. 

DARREN MCKENNA:  Jenny, to do what he just did there, to do that, with a socket, with my socket, would take me fifteen minutes to put it back on again. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  I want to see you walking. 

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: Yeah, I've been cured now. You've got that direct attachment and the beauty is you twist and your whole foot will follow and go where you are and you feel everything on the ground. So as you step you can pick that up each time. Now in terms of robotics it doesn't move by itself so you can't say take me to the bar to get another drink, it will react to what you do. If you bend it will straighten. 


PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: That's as much as what it's got.  But then the way it moves just gives you that feeling of stability and of comfort, the way you move around, and then when you sit down you're fully balanced on your cheeks.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MUNJED AL MUDERIS:  That's the biggest improvement that Brendan has, he can feel his butt cheeks. 

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT:  On the toilet seat, that's a major breakthrough. It's not heavy and it's really comfortable.

JENNY BROCKIE:  How much does it feel part of you? 

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: Completely part of you. Like you just, when you go to move it comes with you. You feel, it's that direct, it's an extension of your body in what you do. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  But you can't think and make it move? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  So you lost your leg when you were 21? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  So how does it compare to a human leg? 

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: Look, it hasn't replaced the function that you have with a human leg. I mean it's got some things like with Don here, we train hard and we become pretty flexible. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Well you are both athletes, Don you’re an athlete too.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: It's all part of our training so it has some…

JENNY BROCKIE:  Don't tune people, don't turn your televisions off. 

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: So it has some advantages but outside of being a bit more flexible…

JENNY BROCKIE:  A bit more flexible? 

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MUNJED AL MUDERIS:  We've noticed that people regain sensation in the residuum that they have, even in the soft tissue part of it. There is a lot of work happening now with connecting the brain into the function, functionality. It's more so in the upper limb.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Let's talk about upper limb. Come on down Tom. 

TOM HENDERSON:  I work out too you know, see I get around, sideways too. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Okay, you were fitted with that hand earlier this year after a workplace accident, eighteen months ago I think the accident was? 

TOM HENDERSON: That's correct, yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And you were fitted with the hand earlier this year? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  What is it like to have it? 

TOM HENDERSON: It's a heavy weight to carry around, you know, but it gives me some mobility that I wouldn't have normally had. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How do you move it like that? 

TOM HENDERSON: It's got two sensors, one on either side of the sleeve, and I do that sort of movement with it. So the muscle down this side and one that side and the sensors pick it up and that's what opens and closes it. 

CAMERON WARD: So basically it's got, it's basically reading off his flexor and extensor muscles and it's a little sensor inside the socket that's sensing the muscles through the skin.  It then sends that down into the wrist where it has basically a computer that tells it what it's doing and then it ramps up through a motor and a battery and then operates the hand. 

DON ELGIN: That's not osseointegrated though?

CAMERON WARD: No, that's a prosthetic socket with electrodes inside.  You have to fire that muscle up and make it do that. 

TOM HENDERSON: And I just keep going with it. 

DON ELGIN: So you can hitchhike.

TOM HENDERSON: I can hitchhike. The hand is actually programmed at the moment with two different types of grip.

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what are those types of grip? 

TOM HENDERSON: You've got the normal grasping one, move the thumb around a bit and just close my fist up. Hold it up, go around. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And do you have to think about that with your arm when you do it or is it instinctive now? 

TOM HENDERSON: I'm learning to be more natural with it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what sort of a difference has it made to your life? 

TOM HENDERSON: Well it's given me freedom that once I wouldn't have had. Because I live so far out of town I'm actually allowed to drive and I move around without somebody driving me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Does it feel like part of your body? 

TOM HENDERSON: It's an accessory at this stage. As time goes by it's feeling a bit better.

JENNY BROCKIE:  So what's out been a like since he's had it Elaine? 

ELAINE HENDERSON: Oh, this hand's been wonderful. It's given him independence, it's given him self-confidence. He'll go out now - we're actually trying restaurants and things like that which he's refused to go to since the accident because you can't handle the utensils and things like that.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Little things?

ELAINE HENDERSON: Oh, lots of little things. 


ELAINE HENDERSON: I mean we've been married for 35 years and it was quite common for him to walk past and go wham. Well, it all stopped when he had the accident because it was his right hand, you see? Now he's got the new one. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So you get a whack on the behind? 

ELAINE HENDERSON:  He comes and hit me with that and I turn around with the frying pan because it's quite solid, that.

TOM HENDERSON: Very solid, yeah. 

ELAINE HENDERSON: So there's all sorts, yeah, intimate things that had to be rechanged and reorganised and…

JENNY BROCKIE:  And do you take it off? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  How often do you take it off, and you leave it lying around sometimes? 

TOM HENDERSON: Oh, yeah, I love it lying around. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And does it move when it lies around? 

TOM HENDERSON: It can, if I leave it switched on it will actually start climbing to get up. 

JENNY BROCKIE: And do you find that.

ELAINE HENDERSON: It's like living in a haunted house, you know. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So Cameron, how cutting edge is this and I mean how close are we to getting to a point where, you know, you could actually feel through a hand? 

CAMERON WARD: Well I guess the real issue at the moment is the technology inside the hand is quite good, but the sensory system that we getting the message from the body to the hand is not so great. There are much newer technologies out there that can circumvent that. Things like a thing called pattern recognition where actually sensing a whole range of muscle movements across your arm so that it will actually know what muscle movement you want it to do and when it does that it will make the hand do it. So that opens up a whole lot more movements.

JENNY BROCKIE: Dianne, you lost your eyesight more than twenty years ago.  Tell us what you see right now in this room? 

DIANNE ASHWORTH: A whole mass of swirls that are going around.  As they go out I can see more light around, I can see there's a few lights on the ceiling and that there, but apart from that, that's it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Now you've recently trialled a bionic eye which is being developed here in Australia. We have some footage of you negotiating objects in a room with that bionic eye. Let's have a look. 




JENNY BROCKIE:  Okay, so you explain to us what you put on here when you were walking between objects. 

DIANNE ASHWORTH: Okay.  I had a camera on my head that was picking up the perceptions.  It was actually a depth perception camera that I had on and that was why it was quite big. I also had a backpack on my back which is, or houses all the, you know, software and the information and the computers and all that in there. Yeah, and…

JENNY BROCKIE:  What are you seeing?  When you had that on, that camera on, what were you seeing? 

DIANNE ASHWORTH: I was seeing spots of light.  So if I'd looked across like and if something was there, the spots of light which are call phosphines, would activate and then I'd go across and when they stopped I knew the object wasn't there and that's how I was working my way through the objects on the ground or the boxes.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What was that like for you? 

DIANNE ASHWORTH: It was fantastic. Sandy was over watching me, she was like …

JENNY BROCKIE:  Sandy, your dog? 

DIANNE ASHWORTH: Yeah, my dog, yeah, she was wanting to get to me like I should be doing this with you. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Worrying about being out of a job I suspect? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Rob, you're head of the institute that developed this technology. Tell us how it works with Dianne's condition? 

PROFESSOR ROB SHEPHERD, BIONICS INSTITUTE: So we're talking now about neuro prosthesis, devices that electrically stimulate or record from neural tissue and in Di's case the technology's reasonably similar to a cochlear implant. Di has a retinitis pigmentosa so over the course of thirty years of gradually going blind, she's losing, she was losing more and more photo receptors, the lining in the retina that would normally convert light into nerve impulses that would be then sent to the visual part of the brain and we'd conceive as images.

But importantly in the retina the neurons that form the optic nerve are still present. So that allows us to place an electrode behind the retina, an array of 24 electrodes and we could stimulate different groups of these neurons behind the retina to provide a very highly pixolised version of Di's visual scene. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Now that 24 is far fewer receptors than a human eye has? 

PROFESSOR ROB SHEPHERD: We're talking 24 versus over a million. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So what she's seeing is rudimentary but nonetheless it's actually helping her avoid objects when she's walking? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  How much potential does this technology have? How much further do you think it could go with sight? 

PROFESSOR ROB SHEPHERD: We're just at the very start. So as technology develops this bionic and all the bionic technologies, we envisage one day that there'll be retinal prosthesis that patients will be able to read a font and most importantly for patients when we get feedback from people like Di, what they really want to see is the faces of their loved ones, the faces of grandchildren, the faces of their children, and we're optimistic that that can be done but there's still a huge amount of research to be done to achieve that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Jonathan Oxer, you've had a piece of technology implanted in your arm. Let's have a look first. 


JONATHAM OXER: I've always been interested in the interface between people and their physical environment. To me the best user interface is no user interface. Seven years ago I implanted an RFI

Chip - like this - inside my left arm. The chip itself is tiny - it’s about the size of a grain of rice so you can't see anything from outside. You can't tell it's there. But you can feel a little lump if you push on it. From a practical point of view it means I can't be locked out, which is very cool. It means I don't have to think about having keys with me, I can just walk up to the door, put my arm near the reader and it lets me in. In some ways it's like having a mini superpower.


It's the same as used by vets in cats and dogs, so you can think of it as a little glass capsule. It's implanted using a tool which looks like a big syringe. It's inserted under the skin and then it remains there indefinitely. When I bring my arm near the reader, the reader asks who I am. The chip then responds and my identity is sent through to the computer. The computer can then decide what to do with that, whether to unlock the door. Immediately after implanting the chip, I had a very strange mental reaction. It felt like I was, I had an alien inside me, I felt like I was no longer quite human.


JENNY BROCKIE:  Why did you do it Jonathan?  Apart from the practicality of not losing your keys, why did you do it? 

JONATHAN OXER: Yes, it was really curiosity. At the time there was a lot of controversy about the use of RFID in Australian passports so there was a lot of hysteria. There were also a lot of people saying the future is we're going to be implanted with RFIDs so we can be tracked anywhere we go and I wanted to do some research and figure out what the reality was. One of the things I wanted to find out was how difficult it was to go through official channels to get something like that done. So I took an RFID implanter and the chip along to my GP and I said hypothetically if I wanted this implanted in me, what would it take? And he was actually really enthusiastic about the idea, he thought this is an interesting experiment, let's try this. 


JONATHAN OXER: This is where it gets interesting. So he referred me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Very keen collegiate stuff. 

JONATHAN OXER: He referred me to a surgeon who decided that he wanted to do the implantation and on the morning that it was due to be done he phoned me and said I'm really sorry, I spoke to my medical insurer and told them what I was going to do and they laughed at me. So in the end I discovered that it couldn't be done in that way and I did it myself. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So you did it yourself? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  And how do you feel about it now after seven years? 

JONATHAN OXER: It never even crosses my mind that it's there. It's just something that I use. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  It's like pay wave, yeah? 

JONATHAN OXER: Very similar.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What happens when you want it upgraded? 

JONATHAN OXER: That requires a scalpel. So that's one of the things you have to think about.

JENNY BROCKIE:  What's it made of?  

JONATHAN OXER: It's a very small coil with some electronics inside a glass capsule. It's..

JENNY BROCKIE:  So it can smash? Like if you bashed your arm it would break inside your arm? 

JONATHAN OXER:  Exactly, that's one of the dangers as well. So there are some dangers to this and one of the medical issues of course is that we don't have long term studies on this. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Ben, you've also had an RFID chip implanted in your hand two months ago.  Why? 

BEN SLATER: It was probably much like my friend here, it's a case of just trying it out.

JENNY BROCKIE:  So do you know much about the technology or do you just do it.

BEN SLATER: Just what I read about it on Google, yeah, which…

JENNY BROCKIE:  So you're doing it because it's cool? 

BEN SLATER: Doing it because it's different. It's certainly one of those things that starts a conversation at a party.

JENNY BROCKIE: Where is it in the hand? 

BEN SLATER: It's just in the fleshy part there. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And you can transfer your contact information to people? 

BEN SLATER: Absolutely.  So if you've got a phone there, it uses NFC which is like paper, and we can actually hold the phone, if the phone has NFC in it, over the top of the chip so there you go, so the information has gone from my hand to the phone. No business cards, no nothing, there's my details on the phone…. never met this lady before. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  There are massive implications to this. I mean privacy implications, you know, what if your hand gets hacked? 


BEN SLATER: Well yeah, at the moment it's not a thing. At the moment it's not a thing but we're at the very, very start of where we can be.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Who put yours into you? 

BEN SLATER: A tattooist in Melbourne.  So I paid $100 dollars to a website called Dangerousthings.com; sounds legit, yeah, and they sent me the pack from the US. I rang a tattooist, there's only two in Australia who are trained in doing this, went along and exactly the same thing, injected in my hand, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Who else would get an RFID, anyone? Don, would you do it? 

DON ELGIN: No, I like the feeling of just getting off the grid for a while. I just think if you're always, whether it's contact details, it starts curiosity but eventually it will be hello, talking to your hand. You just want to be able to not.

JENNY BROCKIE:  I think this is really interesting because you're starting to get, you know, I mean this debate is now starting to get into this whole ethical thing about enhancement. What do you think Brendan, would you get something like this? 

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: No, look I think you've got to, you just need to be at a base where you're bringing everyone up to like a typical standard, a typical level of function, but to go for human interest and super human, I personally wouldn't get into that space.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Neil, what do you think about all this? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Excellent. I think we should all explore the union between humans and technology.  We will slowly merge technology in humans and this will allow us to extend our perception of reality. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Have you had negative consequences though from your own experience with your eyeborg? 

NEIL HARBISSON: No, I've have actually also extended it to a thing receiving phone calls as well. I mean now that I have internet connection people can call directly to my head as well so this allows me to receive phone calls directly inside my head. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What does that feel like? 

NEIL HARBISSON: It feels like having an inner voice. So it's a very different feeling but antennas can also be used for communication, not only for colour perception or for…

JENNY BROCKIE:  And are you concerned about, you know, consequences that may be down the track that you haven't thought of now?

NEIL HARBISSON: If we don't explore it, we cannot tell. There could be negative things like anything that is created can be used in a bad way or in a weird way. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So your head could be hacked too? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Because you've got an internet connection? 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Can you turn that off? Can you not take a call? 

NEIL HARBISSON: No, I can't turn it off but there's only four or five people that have connections in my head so they know my timetable, between 10 and 10.


ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MUNJED AL MUDERIS: And the question is, okay, where to draw the line? 

JENNY BROCKIE: Yeah, that's the question and where do you think that the line should be drawn? 

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MUNJED AL MUDERIS: Well, it's very difficult. I mean technology is there, technology is coming.  We are modifying medications that will enhance your brain as well and when are we going to stop? I mean I do my day-to-day work as hip and knee surgery and I replace hips and knees all the time. Am I pushing the boundaries here? 

BEN SLATER: Surely the difference now is that we can do this stuff.  I can order something of the internet and have it implanted in my head. I don't have to go to a surgeon and things are getting smaller and faster and so on and so forth. So as an individual you can make that decision, you don't have to have that decision made for you by someone else. 

PROFESSOR ROB SHEPHERD: I think it's important to understand the medical devices, they go through years and years of preclinical evaluation on the bench and in animal studies to make sure they're safe and effective before they go anywhere near patients.

JENNY BROCKIE:  So where do you draw the line? 

PROFESSOR ROB SHEPHERD: With devices that would enhance patients, enhance people.

JENNY BROCKIE:  We'll talk about enhancement a little bit more there a moment but before we do I just want to take this a little bit further and talk to Stelarc in Perth because you're an artist Stelarc and you're also a director of a lab that explores the ethics and the engineering of prosthetics, robotics and virtual systems. What do you have on your arm? 

PROFESSOR STELARC, CURTIN UNIVERSITY: Well, there's been a near surgically constructed and cell grown on my forearm. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Can you show it to us? 

PROFESSOR STELARC: Sure.  It's only a relief for an ear at the moment, we still have to surgically lift the helix to create a sort of an ear flap and then we're going to grow a soft earlobe using my adult stem cells and when this ear is a fully three dimensional ear, then we're going to reinsert a small microphone that used to be in there and electronically augment it and internet enable it. So if you're in Sydney and I'm in Perth you'll be able to listen in to what my ear is hearing, wherever you are, wherever I am. 


PROFESSOR STELARC: Well, evolutionary architecture of the human body and being a fully enabled body, I've always been interested in performing with additions to my body. So it's not an ear for me, I've got two good ears to hear with. It's really a remote listening device for people in other places. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Can you feel it? 

PROFESSOR STELARC: Yes, because we're using, we had to sort of stretch the skin in that area to help construct the ear and of course that skin retains its feel. It's not a graft from anywhere else in the body. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What is your main motivation in doing it?

PROFESSOR STELARC: Yes, well, it is essentially artistic, so I've always been wanting to sort of explore the sort of the possibilities of state of the art technologies, whether, you know, this involves prosthetics, computer programming or in this case surgical procedures. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Who did the operation?  Was it difficult to find a surgeon who'd do it? 

PROFESSOR STELARC: It was difficult. It did take ten years to generate the interest and to convince three respected surgeons to participate in the project. What was interesting was that during the surgery, the second procedure, the photographer, Nina Sellers, overheard one surgeon saying to the other surgeon: "Well, this might be a work of art but if it is we must be the artists." 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Does it feel like part of you or does it feel like something alien? 

PROFESSOR STELARC: No, it certainly feels very much a part of me. The skin expansion process was the strange part of the whole procedure because you know, my whole forearm ballooned up, I couldn't wear a shirt or a normal coat. So that part of it, the skin expansion was very, very strange. It was rather, you know, irritating and sometimes painful. But now the ear is very much a part of my arm. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Do you have a partner? 

PROFESSOR STELARC: Well, I have to admit losing several partners along the way. My partner, my partner fully understands this project and in fact she did spend two years working as a prosector, dissecting human bodies for medical displays and for medical students so she fully understands this project. 

MALE: I reckon she's got plans for you. 

PROFESSOR STELARC: I hope she does actually. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Neil, do you have a line that you think well I wouldn't do that, I wouldn't go that far? 

NEIL HARBISSON: No, I think more senses that we could apply to ourselves, our senses already exist such as, in my case perceiving ultra-violets and infrareds, these are colours that go beyond human sight but in 2009 I decided to apply them as well so that I could sense colours that other animal species can perceive. Also we are developing other senses such as perceiving where north is like sharks can detect where north is, so it's an implant that allows you by facing north you can feel it.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Dianne, what if somebody developed a bionic eye that gave you better vision than a human eye? 

DIANNE ASHWORTH: I don't think I'd want to be better than, I'd be happy to have 20/20 vision. I can't see the use for me personally. I couldn't see the use of having more than what I needed. You know, I was asked, you know, if I could have vision behind me would I want that and I said well no, not really. I'd just like to see what's in front of me, yeah, I'd just be happy with 20/20. 

NEIL HARBISSON: But you wouldn't get used to having rear perception and that would also, I mean there's so many disadvantages of having all our senses focussed forward.

DIANNE ASHWORTH: But I can turn my head. 

NEIL HARBISSON: No, you can't really, you can't sense…


NEIL HARBISSON: Well not really because we can't really sense what's behind us. All our senses are focussed in front.

DIANNE ASHWORTH: Oh, I disagree, I do, I do, I hear things behind me that no one else would.  


PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: Look I believe, we've got to push the envelope to see what we can and can't do, but then it's the priority of where you deliver that. Who gets access to it, how it works, how it can be implemented in that space. And if we don't do these test cases I'd rather see them more controlled so you know, it's monitored better.

JENNY BROCKIE:  But what if somebody could make a leg for you that was better than a human leg and the leg you had before? 

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: Look, coming from before not having a leg I would, I would discuss that or entertain that possibility. If I could just keep up with Hussein Bolt, well then I'd be happy with that. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Spoken like a true athlete. Don, what about you? 

DON ELGIN: I personally wouldn't want to be at the start of the Paralympic Games at the hundred metre start line and know somebody over there has got a leg that, before the gun goes, you know, pulling a chord to get it started sort of thing. It just seems, or you know, turning a key, it doesn't really make a lot of sense.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Brendan, could a disabled athlete run faster than an able-bodied athlete using technology that's available at the moment?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: Look, not at the moment but that will happen at some stage in the future. We're still not there yet, because someone can't go along and pick up Adam Scott's golf clubs or Roger Federer's tennis racquet and all of a sudden become the champion because you're using that technology or that equipment. There are all these other components that need to and into that space.

JENNY BROCKIE: But there's debate in the Paralympic community at the moment, isn’t there? about what technology should be allowed and that kind of thing?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: That's more from the point of view of providing a leveller playing field.

JENNY BROCKIE: So could a runner in the Paralympics have a leg like yours?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: At the moment, they can. But it's being discussed vigorously.


PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: Literally, at the moment.

JENNY BROCKIE: Why is that?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: Well, it's always safety first. So can you run with these things? Well, we don't know but we need to push the limits to find out. And then the broader one is the ethical access, equitable access.

JENNY BROCKIE: Who can afford it?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: Who can afford it. Who gets trained by it. Do companies only sell it to certain sponsored individuals?

JENNY BROCKIE: OK. Don, you mentor up and coming Paralympians. How many of them have the capability to get the latest technology?

DON ELGIN:  To be honest, most of the people, the ones I'm mentoring and involved with personally, have also understood the belief that not all of us are going to be fortunate to have sponsors. Sometimes we have to be a bit creative. I mean, this leg here we have an Australia flag on here. I was one of the first athletes in the world thinking that if we could put a print on here, surely we could put a corporate logo on here and in return get funding from that and then I had my legs paid for by the corporate.

JENNY BROCKIE: The first international competition called the Cybathlon is being organised for 2016. Let's see how it's being sold.

Music aside, how do you feel about that idea of sport?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN BURKETT: I think it's awesome. It really tests the limit and we can see what we can do. It then goes down to the whole community. You can understand what works and what doesn't work. It motivates more people to become involved. But the big thing you have got to take away is that you want to have the sporting event that people are marvelled and inspired by the achievements of the human performance and not the machine.

JENNY BROCKIE: So if we imagine, you know, anything is possible, at what point would you consider that a human was no longer a human? 

PROFESSOR STELARC:  Oh, well one can argue that what we consider is human civilisation has always been directed by the trajectory of our technologies because a body has never been merely a biological body. Sometimes new technologies can sort of radically interrogate the human condition. For example, several years ago the first turbine heart, artificial heart, was inserted into a terminally ill patient, the interesting thing about the turbine heart is that it circulates the blood continuously in the body without pulsing. So that means in the near future Jenny you might rest your head on your loved one's chest, they're warm to the touch, they're breathing, they're certainly alive but they have no heartbeat.  Effectively erase you know, 5,000 years of romantic references to the heart, you know, as an organ, as a romantic organ.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Munjed, what do you think, when does the human stop being a human? 

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MUNJED AL MUDERIS:  I don't know.  I mean things are moving so fast, we're going at lightning speed now and I think, I mean I believe that we have souls and machines don't and that's a philosophical answer. But…

JENNY BROCKIE:  Neil, do you have a view on this? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Well, I don't feel that I'm using technology or wearing technology, I feel that I am technology. So I feel that well, becoming technology is actually something very, very human. I feel that technology is a human creation, humans are also human creations so uniting both only makes you more human. I feel extremely human now.

JENNY BROCKIE:  I want to talk a little bit about boosting brain power because I think that's very interesting. Donel you're a neuropsychologist and you're doing research into brain stimulation to improve memory. Tell us about that? 

DONEL MARTIN, UNIVERSITY OF NSW: At UNSW we currently have a clinical trial in process where we're using the combination of mild brain stimulation together with targeted brain training exercises to improve memory in older adults who are experiencing memory difficulties. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How do you stimulate the brain? 

DONEL MARTIN: Okay, so the type of stimulation we're investigating is called trans cranial direct current stimulation and what this is, is essentially like a sophisticated battery and it involves the application of a weak direct electrical current through the brain, via electrodes that we place upon the scalp. And so what we think is that it enhances the efficiency of particular brain regions and can enhance people's learning. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what other kind of work is being done in the world to boost brain power and where is it being done? 

DONEL MARTIN: One area is in terms of performance enhancement, is it's going currently being investigated in the US military as a method to try and enhance a skill acquisition. So complex skills, for example what soldiers need to acquire before they go into the battle field. So it's allowing people to learn faster. Another performance enhancing application is, to try and enhance reasoning and problem solving, but this is very experimental at this stage and it's very unclear whether it's going to work. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Jonathan, would you up for a brain chip that made you smarter or you know? 

JONATHAN OXER: Absolutely. Yes, I definitely would. I suppose I come from the perspective of looking at what is, what is human potential, how far can we take things.

JENNY BROCKIE: And do you want to take it further now Neil? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Yes, in my case when I compare myself with other animal species, I do feel disabled. Like the dog, he can see and hear much better than us, he can smell much better than us, and having these senses extended now that we can explore this extension, can actually help us perceive reality in a greater way. If we could all see at night or see without light, we wouldn't have all this artificial light. We wouldn't be using so much energy. The planet would breathe better.

BRENDAN BURKETT: Is that just our ego though as humans that think we're at the top of the food chain so we have to go beyond?

NEIL HARBISSON: Yeah, I think that's really what makes us human is the wish to grow, to extend ourselves, knowledge, that's why we learn things because we want to extend or knowledge. From the very, very beginning we keep eating because we want to grow physically and the other sense, the other part that we don't actually explore, extending the senses and perception but we can now and also people want to extend a sense of spirituality. So being human is one thing to grow and to extend ourselves and eventually the aim is that we will be a species that will be able to survive in space. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Tom, you're shaking your head over here? 

TOM HENDERSON: Everybody is about this enhancement but not everybody can face it emotionally or psychologically.

NEIL HARBISSON: Yeah, because I mean, in my case at the beginning it was overwhelming having a new sense so my body was actually rejecting this sense, it was too much. But I insisted, I just decided to not remove the new sense because I had a feeling that my brain would eventually get used to it and it did. So I think all of our brains are ready to have new senses and our bodies are also prepared to having new bodies parts, it's just that we need to start exploring this. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Okay, you wanted to say something.

MALE: Neil, I think you're an absolute courageous guy, I think you're amazing. I also think that the ultimate arrogance of humanity is to believe that if we don't see it, we don't hear it, we can't taste it, that that's, it not there, it's not real. What I'm seeing you doing is expanding those boundaries. The whole epistemology of our understanding could actually be heightened by what you're doing and I really hold my hat up to you. Well done. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  We have to wrap up.  Neil, what do you imagine the human body will be like in fifty to 100 years’ time? 

NEIL HARBISSON: Well, I'm sure we'll meet people with new body parts, with new sensors and that will be part of our daily life. We'll meet people and we'll ask what sensors do you have or what does your body part do? 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Rob, what do you think? Where will the big developments? 

PROFESSOR ROB SHEPHERD: I think the big developments will be in alleviating incredibly severe pain, alleviating severe psychiatric disorders in patients that have gone to the end of their therapeutic program and have not got any benefit from any other technology. 


ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MUNJED AL MUDERIS:  I think unfortunately we'll be hooked up with a lot of machines attached to us and our normal body will resolve gradually. That's what I see. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Stelarc, what sort of future do you see? 

PROFESSOR STELARC: Well, I think that's of course contestable but increasingly now we won't die biological deaths. We'll die when our life support systems are switched off.

JENNY BROCKIE:  Okay, we'll leave it there. Thank you all very much for joining us tonight, it's been a fascinating discussion and that is all we have time for here but I'm sure you're going to want to keep talking on Twitter and Facebook.