Half Man, Half Machine: Preparing for humans’ symbiotic relationship with technology

In the not all that distant future we will be able to swap out parts of our bodies like changing parts in a car and fight diseases like Parkinson's with a simple software update. We hear from Nexeon MedSystems CEO and bionics consultant for Deus Ex: Human Revolution Will Rosellini about the increasingly intimate realtionship between man and machine

If you’ve played seminal cyberpunk video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the name Will Rosellini may be familiar to you. You’ve probably hacked his computer in Sarif Industries headquarters, and read some rather terse emails between him and cybersecurity chief Frank Pritchard.

What you probably don’t know is that Will Rossellini is a real person. In fact, as chairman and CEO of bioelectronics company Nexeon MedSystems, he consulted on the video game to provide an accurate roadmap of the future development of human augmentation upon which the game is based.

A fan of the Deus Ex series since its development by Warren Spector back in 2000, Rosellini was disappointed that the 2003 sequel failed to contain the detail about augmentation that its predecessor had been so praised for. So when he heard that a new game was in development, he was keen to offer his expertise.

Image courtesy of Eidos-Montréal

“So I called the CEO of the videogame company and said ‘hey can I fix this for you guys? I’m an expert in neurotechnology, I love the game, I understand what the gamers want because I’m a gamer, let me go and write all of this,” Rossellini says. “So in 2007 I started writing the technology that would be used in Deus Ex.

“The fun part was I didn’t have to work that hard to predict what was going to be around in 2027 because that’s my job.”

According to Rossellini, in the time since the game has been released many of the predictions he made in his augmentation roadmap have started to become true.

“I was able to write what I thought was going to be happening and it did,” he explains. “A lot of stuff came true, and at the time that looked like crazy science fiction, but that made the game even more fun I think to see there was some reality behind how you had your health recovery or your ability to use your eye prosthesis etc.”

Software updates to fight disease

A key driver for Rossellini’s roadmap for the game was his belief that humans are increasingly going to have more car-like bodies in the future, where individual parts can freely be exchanged and upgraded as needed.

“My philosophy is that our bodies are going to look more like cars in the future, where we are making parts that can fit into anybody’s system, where we are upgrading parts the same way we upgrade a cell phone,” he says.

Our bodies are going to look more like cars in the future, where we are making parts that can fit into anybody’s system, where we are upgrading parts the same way we upgrade a cell phone

This could include new-and-improved organs, which could be custom printed and programmed to seamlessly work with a given individual.

However, of particular note is that this would not just cover hardware; it would also cover software that could be remotely updated to respond to new diseases or syndromes as required.

“If you think about the body of the car, there’s going to be a lot more ‘here’s the software program for Parkinson’s; download it’, just like the Tesla,” he says.

And while this is clearly some way away, the notion of running remote updates to implanted medical devices isn’t as far away as it seems.

“It’s happening now, so it’s just a question of how much software, what it does, what it can help you with, etc.,” Rossellini says. “Right now some of [medical device manufacturer] St Jude’s products today can be upgraded remotely with software downloads. So it’s just beginning.”

Cloud-integrated nervous systems

While these developments will undoubtedly have a phenomenal impact on human health, it is the potential to gather data about particular conditions on a completely unprecedented scale that Rossellini believes will have the biggest effect.

“My opinion is that these devices are going to start moving from the nervous system and being able to integrate with the enormous amounts of data that is up in the cloud already,” he explains.

“I think we’ll have dramatic, dramatic discoveries about how much we know about the patient’s disorder from the data that exists.”

As a result, Rossellini believes that the large-scale collection and cloud sharing of medical device data will very quickly lead to hitherto unprecedented cures for a host of different conditions.

“I think in five years we’ll be just ticking off disorder after disorder based on this data splurge that is going to come from linking all the information up and doing meta data analysis on it,” he says. “That’s what I think is next.”

Artificial hardware 

Image courtesy of Eidos-Montréal

We are, of course, some way off this goal, however the first steps are well underway and it’s not hard to see how things could progress from the current state of affairs to the heavily augmented future that Rossellini is predicting.

“We won’t be there in 20 years, but right now we’ve already been able to replace almost 30 different functions in the human body with an artificial device: artificial pancreas, artificial heart, artificial eyes, ears, nose, sexual organs,” he explains.

“So if you look at it on a map, you’re going to have a lot of hardware incorporated into your body’s and then it’s just a question of downloading new software as the programs come in.

“So that’s the vision of the world that we actually have, and we put that in Deus Ex and that seemed to be popular.”

Ethical roadmap

You’d be forgiven for being concerned about this future. It is, after all, a radical change in what it is to be human, with the potential to bring us to a new stage in our species’ development.

However, Rossellini is very keen to stress that considerable effort has been put into developing a strict code of ethics for human augmentation to ensure the technology is implemented responsibly.

“We spent a lot of time creating a code of ethics and human augmentation, and CNN threw a conference to kick it off,” he says. “We are adhering to a fairly strict ethical code as we think about how to be responsible with the technology.”

Covering both the medical and the DIY community, this ethical framework, entitled Human X Design, is designed to be a starting point that will be built upon as the technology progresses, covering responsible stewardship, public beneficence and justice alongside freedom and responsibility. And while it is very early days, it is hoped that by thinking about these topics now, they can be better dealt with future.

“In order to foster a sense of private agency and bolster public responsibility, discourse around human augmentation has to happen, now,” Rossellini and his co-authors wrote in the framework. “We hope this framework provides some tailored ways of deliberating the ethical questions that will shape our future.”

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