Can Death Be Cheated by Merging Humanity with Machines?
The idea of combining "artificial" technology and "natural" biology has fascinated the human imagination for centuries. Examples in fantasy abound from Frankenstein's creature to cyborgs.
The field of biohybridization has the potential to solve health problems and increase the quality and length of life by merging modern machines with biological systems—human, plant, and animal—down to the cellular and even molecular levels.
A wide range of problems in healthcare, medicine, ecology, and even in smart devices, are already benefiting from biohybrid applications in surgery, prosthetics, gerontology, and other fields. Uses and demand for biohybrid systems continue to expand rapidly.
New Leases on Life
Biohybridization is a dynamic, fast-growing field. At the moment, two sectors of bio-hybrid technologies are in active development. One emphasizes synthetic biology, and the second focuses on a combination of robotics, neuro-material science, and bio-interfaces.
Synthetic biology targets programmable biosystems such as cells. Synthetic biology spans a range of initiatives including: the modification of enzymes, production of artificial enzymes, creation of so-called “alternative meats,” and the development of microbes and more complex life forms. A particularly interesting area of synthetic biology is tissue engineering; one goal of this research is to create biological organs for transplantation.
The method of genome editing with engineered nucleases, recognized as the scientific method of the year in 2011, promises to have an enormous transformative impact across various biomedical, ethical, and agricultural fields, including tissue engineering. In 2017, the human genome was first edited inside the human body to treat a genetic disorder.
The second major sector of biohybridization combines “man with machine,” a process that began about fifteen to twenty years ago with the development of robotic prostheses and wearables. A more recent development in the field of prosthesis—neuromuscular-skeletal prosthesis—consists of an autonomous robot directly connected to the nerves, muscles, and skeleton of a person. In this case, control signals are read by the prosthesis that come from electrodes implanted in nerves and muscles. Prostheses send tactile sensory feedback to the nervous system to determine how hard to grasp or squeeze an object.
Biohybridization allows human neurosystems to control robotic limbs and interface with computers.
The key technologies for such prostheses are neuro-interfaces that allow both the reading of signals from neurons and the stimulation of neurons. Several independent technological areas have developed in this field, such as brain-computer interfaces (used in medicine to help restore function after a stroke, for instance), techniques for implanting electrodes into the brain, functional brain mapping, and neuro-engineering.
Another component of biohybridization is the fusion of cellular and non-cellular components, such as the development of “bioartificial livers” (BAL) that sit outside of the body and interface with a person’s liver at the cellular level. One of the purposes of BAL is to support a victim of acute liver failure until a transplant can be located.
One of the more successful areas of biohybridization is 3D bioprinting technology, which involves the “printing” or creation of soft tissues, bones, blood vessels, and more complex organs for surgery. In 2017, for instance, a patient received an artificial ear created using bioprinting technology.
“Wild” Projects in the Plant Kingdom
Biohybridization is also applied to plants and plant tissues. Since technological applications are simpler in the plant kingdom and less likely to raise ethical concerns, many projects involving biohybrid plants are in development.
The Flora Robotica project explores possible symbiotic relationships between robots and plants by combining plants and urban architecture to create “smart” plants. The WatchPlant project links urban plants (trees) into an information sensor network. This project is designed to get energy from the biochemistry of plant sap and to use plants to sense air quality.
When connecting neuro-implants or controlling robotic-prostheses, it becomes possible to digitalize cognitive brain functions and transfer them to a computer simulation. One of the first projects of this kind investigated simple model organisms such as the Caenorhabditis elegans worm. About a thousand cells of this organism were implemented in a computer model to create the first virtual organism (OpenWorm project). Three hundred two virtual nerve cells and ninety-five virtual muscle cells allow the simulated worm to move in a virtual world of computer simulation.
The Prolongation of Life
Biohybridization provides a means of enhancing and prolonging activity throughout life and even significantly extending lifespan, by stabilizing body parts or replacing worn-out organs. Bank of America has estimated the market for “life-extension” at 600 billion USD by 2025. There are already dozens of firms operating in this space, tackling anything from genomics and AI applications to smart health devices or so-called "biohacks." Almost all the IT giants, including Google, Amazon, and Apple, invest in these types of firms.
Promise and Potential
Biohybrid solutions, such as cell implants, robotic prostheses, or living ecological biosensors have the potential to enhance our quality of life and our understanding of the mechanisms of cellular regulation that go beyond organic processes.
In addition to its huge market and social impact potential, this evolving technological field revives the idea that nonbiological and “mixed” forms of conscious life may be possible. As the future becomes the present through this frontier science, humanity will grapple with serious philosophical and ethical questions on what determines consciousness, life, death, and even immortality itself.
*Serge Kernbach, Dr. rer. nat, is the research director and CEO of Cybertronica in Germany. His research background is in robotics, sensor systems, and fluidic measurements, and he has published over 200 articles in international journals and conference proceedings.