Over the weekend I went to Norwescon and attended a panel on cybernetics. It got me thinking about the current state of cybernetic and what could be expected in the near future and beyond. This is a very complex topic and I may want to spin off separate threads if there is enough interest in the topic.
One of the things that makes it difficult to discuss is that it is poorly defined. The term cybernetics can cover everything from artificial hearths to high heels. For this reason I would like to go over different types of cybernetics. The 3 main ways I see to categorize cybernetics is by placement, responsiveness and function. Placement can be classified as external modification (glasses), external replacement (glass eye), and implanted (fully cybernetic eye). Responsiveness ranges from inert (peg leg), mechanical (Cheetahs prostatic), and interactive (Skywalker's hand). Function ranges from mechanical (running shoes), physiological (insulin implant) and neurological (brain implant). Not all cybernetics will be easily fit in these classification and many will fit more than one of the options for a given slot especially for function. The way I listed them they generally go from less complex to more complex.
There are a number of challenges that I see face the development of cybernetics. The biggest scientific challenges mainly face implanted cybernetics, especially interactive ones. The main challenges are power sources, longevity, and side effects. The last can be divided into immune response harming the host or implant and possible harmful effects of the implant. Much more difficult than the scientific challenges are the ethical challenges. The first part of the ethical challenge is the requirements for any experimentation on humans. Some believe this can be gotten around simply by going somewhere there are few ethical restrictions. What is overlooked with this is that this type of research is extremely expensive. Almost as important is access to medical information and resources. By acting unethically a researcher would put both in immediate jeopardy. Also any finding resulting from such research would likely be ignored for fear of being seen as using unethical practices. Though some may question it, medical research is the area of science where ethical concerns have the largest impact.
Another challenge that is not as obvious is the difficulty with bringing medical technology to the mass market. The reason for this is that due to ethics almost all medical technology is restricted to serving health. This restriction to medical technology is for the best in general but the result is the technology is more expensive for consumers and there is less money for research. How this effects advances in cybernetics is that most of the technologies from science fiction will not be done in the near future as they are viewed as unethical. Any elective cybernetics will likely be very limited for a long time. The ethics of replacing healthy tissue or attempting to enhance bodily functions will likely need to be eroded over time by many small changes.
A bit of a lecture but I am hoping it provides some food for thought.