How Soon is Now?

How Soon is Now?

30th October 2014 // By Jack Howes // Technology

The future is here. Seriously. Cyborgs; the end of paralysis; a virtual/augmented reality project that no one understands but has raised over 542 million dollars in cold hard cash-money, and, the only thing any of us have truly cared about since we first saw Back to the Future II –hoverboards. This shit exists.

First things first: the hoverboard. It’s being developed by a company called Arx Pax through Kickstarter. Chasing $250,000, they’ve raised over $317,000 with 50-odd days to go. Go check the videos out, like, right now. There are grown-ass men charging around on this thing like there’s no tomorrow. Okay…so that’s a slight exaggeration.

The board only works on super-conductive surfaces like aluminum and cooper as it functions through electro-magnetising the surfaces beneath it, so it’s not quite ready to be taken down George Street just yet. And it does seem quite likely that this is all a marketing stunt, with the startup behind the hoverboard looking to use, and sell, the technology that could theoretically help protect buildings from earthquakes and similar. But still – It shows that this sort of thing can be done. They’re on their 18th prototype now, with who knows how many more to come. All I know is that if I had a cool 10 grand in my back pocket I’d be banging down their door yesterday.

Possibly even cooler, at least potentially, is Magic Leap’s secretive project Dragonstone. This is the one that’s inspired Thomas Tull – the CEO of Legendary Entertainment – to say

‘It's so badass you can't believe it… It's one of the few things I've ever experienced in my life where I came out and said, this changes everything. This is a marker of the future.’

Internet detectives have discovered a patent relating to the project, which describes it as a ‘massive simultaneous remote digital presence world.’ What does that mean? I have no idea. But there’s a registered trademark to Magic Leap for a ‘Dynamic Digital Light-Field Signal.’ Apparently this is a ‘Wearable computer hardware, namely, an optical display system incorporating a dynamic light-field display. What it boils down to is a wearable display of some sort, one that projects both virtual and augmented realities. This isn’t just another way to get your Tweets. This is going to be Google Glass on crack with some top-notch acid on the side.

And speaking of acid, the work of artist Neil Harbisson is downright trippy. He was born with a condition called achromatopsia, a form of colour-blindness that left him only able to see in black and white. Now thanks to an electronic eye embedded in his skull, he can experience colours beyond ordinary human capabilities. This works thanks to the ‘eyeborg’ that effectively allows him to ‘hear’ colours by sensing them, and reading them as sounds. Seem bizarre? It is. He’s listed as a cyborg on his passport and it seems likely that he won’t be alone for long. His work with the Cyborg Foundation has seen a number of other prototypes developed – including the Speedborg, Fingerborg and the 360 Sensory Perception. As this technology improves, the hope is that it’s most immediate application will be in helping amputees and sufferers of other physical impairments.

As amazing as this work is, it stills pales in comparison to the towering triumph of medicine we saw just the other day. In an achievement described as ‘more impressive than man walking on the moon,’ a UK research team in collaboration with Polish surgeons has enabled a man paralysed in 2010 to walk again. Darek Fidyka was paralysed after an attack that saw him stabbed repeatedly in the back, almost entirely severing his spinal cord. Now the surgery - which allows him to walk with the aid of a frame – has left him describing the feeling as being ‘born again.’

The surgery involved taking cells that form part of our sense of smell, olfactory ensheathing cells (OECS) and transplanting them into the spinal cord. OECS are essentially transmitting cells that allow nerve fibres to be continually renewed. The team believes that injecting them into the spinal cord above and below the cut formed bridging pathways that allowed damaged nervous systems and fibrous tissue to reconnect. This is an enormous triumph with almost limitless implications, is the end of paralysis truly in sight?

In an age of cynicism and brutality, it’s worth remembering the greatness that we can, and have, achieved. Hoverboards are about as cool as it gets, but enabling a paralysed man to walk again is one of the greatest scientific achievements of our time.

Image: Hannah Greethead