It's the internet's equivalent of a note posted in a newsagent's window.

The website has a single page. No fancy videos or graphics. No colours even. Just black and white text offering jobs to "exceptional engineers and scientists".

The task at hand: "Developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers."

This is Neuralink - a company that wants to blend man and machine to make cyborgs. Its founder, Elon Musk.

Advertisement

Why does Musk want to make cyborgs?

Tesla founder Elon Musk is working on yet another bold scheme. Photo/Getty Images.
Tesla founder Elon Musk is working on yet another bold scheme. Photo/Getty Images.

To save mankind. He believes that artificial intelligence (AI) will soon outstrip us and that, as a result, AI will treat humanity, at best, like a pet.

So, thinking big as usual, he decided that we mortals should developed "brain-machine interfaces" (BMIs) to meld seamlessly with AI, and so become superintelligent too. If you can't beat 'em...Naturally, it sounds mad.

But Musk has form in making mad work, revolutionising both the car and space industries in a single decade. And BMIs are already improving human capabilities.

Professor Jose Millan, chairman in Brain-Machine Interface at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, leads research that allows tetraplegics to control wheelchairs with their thoughts.

He says that, for healthy people, BMIs can be used "as a second level of cognition". Last year, with Nissan, he unveiled technology that allows a smart car to read a driver's brain signals to anticipate and improve actions like braking.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week, there was plenty of evidence that the cyborg revolution is indeed underway.

"A few years ago exoskeletons were something from sci-fi," says Millan. "Now they are at the CES. This is moving very, very, very fast."

Advertisement

Today, the global market in "human augmentation" is worth just $600m (£467m). That is predicted to grow to $3bn by 2023, the bleeding edge of a medical market in bionic replacement limbs and organs itself predicted to be worth $28bn by the same year.

So just what is the cyborg tech available now, and what can it do?

Exoskeletons

Roam is a company in San Francisco that wants to make thigh-burn disappear with its Elevate, which skiers in Lake Tahoe can try out from February. The company has secured $12m in funding.

Other leading names include Ekso, which claims it simply wants to "amplify a person's natural" strength, flexibility, or endurance, and SuitX.

Costs range from the thousands of dollars to the hundreds of thousands.

At CES, South Korean giant LG demonstrated an updated version of its own tech - the Cloi Bot.

Hearing

Augmented Hearing takes the concept of noise-cancelling headphones and runs with it, selectively turning up or down the volume of ambient noise and allowing you to focus your hearing forward on an interlocutor, say, while tuning out the jabbering neighbour at your side.

Some buds add language translation too.

In-ear devices have a prime spot right next to your brain. Photo/Getty Images.
In-ear devices have a prime spot right next to your brain. Photo/Getty Images.

All the very biggest tech companies - Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft - are investing considerable time an effort in the sector, not least because in-ear computers ("hearables" in the jargon) will have a prime spot next to your brain - perfect to deliver information, but also advertising. We may all soon be wearing them permanently.

Sight

Augmented Vision tech is getting smaller and better looking. Now smart glasses such as Focals, by North (US$999), actually look like glasses.

Google Glass was long criticised for its awkward design. Photo/Getty Images.
Google Glass was long criticised for its awkward design. Photo/Getty Images.

They can give you a heads-up display featuring weather info or text messages. And full Augmented Reality (AR) glasses are coming. One of the hottest sectors in tech right now, AR overlays dynamic information on the world around the user, in products like the Microsoft Hololens and Magic Leap One. The Vuzix Blade (£999) and Nreal Light ($1,000) drew crowds at CES by being lighter and cooler than the opposition.

Prosthetics

So far, cyborg tech is limited to what you can strap on. Powered exoskeletons, microchip-enabled hearing buds or glasses augment our capacities, but do not replace them. Current prosthetic limbs or cochlear or retinal implants are still generally pale imitations of the real thing. But that is changing.

True bodypart upgrades will require two things - BMIs that allow the brain both to control prosthetics and receive information back from them. BMIs today are good at this first part, bad at the second. The loop needs to be completed.

Last week the only company authorised to insert retinal prosthetics in America, Second Sight, announced a $40m rights issue to develop its bionic eye, which has restored sight to some blind people.

Robot prosthetics are quickly evolving. Photo/Getty Images.
Robot prosthetics are quickly evolving. Photo/Getty Images.

With improved BMIs researchers are already talking about bionic eyes that could increase the spectrum of visible light. Indeed, a British prosthetics company, Open Bionics, happily embraces the idea that prosthetic limbs might soon bestow "superpowers" upon their users.

Its flagship product is the Hero Arm, a 3-D printed arm that costs just a few thousand pounds, and consciously apes comic-book styling, while boasting of great strength and control.

Co-founder Samantha Payne says the Hero Arm can pick up a marble or a heavy shopping bag.

"Already you could make a prosthetic that's better than nature at just one function, say, crushing with extreme force," she says. "But nature put a lot of functions in a small package."

Open Bionics is creating a lot of excitement. Last week it raised £4.6m from investors to crack the US market.

Superheroes

James Young, 28, offers caution. He lost his left leg below the knee, and left arm below the shoulder in 2012.

"There are two parts to bionics," he says. "The control interface and the hardware itself."

Neither has the sophistication he wants. Yet.

Both Payne and Young are excited about TMR, which locates muscle-controlling nerves in the body.

Surgery called osseointegration can then fit a titanium stud to those nerves. The stud pokes through the skin, which could be connected to any prosthetic you like.

"Just like a photographer changing lenses on a camera," says Young.

And, of course, such add-ons, tailored to specific needs, wouldn't necessarily be limited to the limb-different.

One man is convinced that this future is not far off. Hugh Herr heads the Biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab and since a climbing accident wears two bionic feet. He works on closing the gap between brain and prosthetic, with what he calls NeuroEmbodied Design.

"I believe [its] reach will extend far beyond limb replacement and will carry humanity into realms that fundamentally redefine human potential," he said in a lecture six months ago."In this 21st century, I believe humans will become superheroes."

- The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Media Group