Hacking the human body

For centuries researchers have searched for ways to assist, rebuild and augment the human body. High-tech prosthetics, tissue regeneration and pharmaceutical engineering are just a few ways that scientists are pushing boundaries in the field of bioengineering. Adam Piore, author of The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human, joins Hari Sreenivasan.


For centuries, researchers have searched for ways to assist, rebuild, and augment the human body.

High-tech prosthetics, tissue regeneration, and pharmaceutical engineering are just a few ways that scientists are pushing boundaries in the field of bioengineering.

Joining me now to talk about some of today's leading research in tech is Adam Piore, author of 'The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human.'

We've been trying to hack our bodies to go faster, to jump higher for a long time, but, really, just in the last 25, 30 years, the mechanics of it have gotten a lot more interesting.

Yeah, I'd say, I mean, one thing that it's enabling this revolution is computer processing power and also our ability to sense and characterize the way different parts of the body work together.

So, you know, one of the first people I talked about in this book is Hugh Herr, who's at MIT.

And he was a double amputee, who lost both his legs to frostbite and was a rock-climber.

And he has basically built these bion-- Now he is the leading prosthetics engineer at MIT, and he's built these prosthetic limbs that pretty much mimic the lower human limb.

And, you know, there's only a few hundred constituent parts in the lower leg, and so that's a manageable thing for sensing technology now to pick up.

And he can then look at the different ways that the constituent parts fit together and affect one another and then put that on a microcomputing chip and emulate that in robotic limbs.

And that's just in one particular lab and one particular limb.

I mean, we're talking about now people are trying to use all this tech to figure out what's going on inside, as well as outside.

Yeah, I mean, what we're seeing with Hugh Herr and what he did with the human leg is sort of a preview of what's to come.

We don't yet have the processing power to, for instance, decode all of imagined speech with billions of neurons, but I did -- You know, that seemed, to me, to be the far frontier of what people are trying to do.

So I went to a lab of a guy named Gerwin Schalk, who's in Albany.

And he's actually trying to restore the ability to speak to people who are locked in, trying to actually decode the neural signals in their brain.

And, you know, what they've discovered is that, when we talk, but also even when we imagine talking, the brain sends a copy of the instructions that it would send to, you know, our throat and lip muscles to the auditory cortex as an error-correction mechanism.

And this occurs even when we're just imagining talking.

So he's actually able to see that neural signature, but, you know, there's a lot of noise.

There's billions of neurons to sort through to try and figure out what those words are.

As I started reporting these things, the things that really stuck with me were the people on the extremes, who had lost abilities and were regaining them, like Hugh Herr, who, when he first lost his legs, he would dream every night of running through a cornfield behind his house with the wind on his hair.

And then he'd wake up and he would realize he'd never be able to run again.


Now he jogs every day around Walden Pond.

It's incredible.

And, you know, there's this woman named Pat Fletcher, who was blind.

She lost both her eyeballs in a grenade-factory explosion.

And she used to love nature.

And now she can see with this device that lets her see through her ears.

And her brain has learned -- Once she gets the signals in there, her brain has learned to recognize that it's a representation of the visual world and route it to her visual cortex.

And she saw a mountain for the first time in years and started weeping.

Where is the top-end limit here?

I mean, it seems that, on the one hand, you have kind kind of the Ray Kurzweils of the world, saying that we will reach singularity at 2029, where microprocessing power might come close to all of the axons and neurons that we have firing in our brains.

You know, I've definitely have written about that and thought about that.

Gerwin Schalk, you know, like I said, is doing the most sort of cutting-edge thing, which is, like I said, trying to decode billions of neurons for speech.

He sort of thinks it's inevitable that, someday, we'll all be able to tap into a giant hive mind.

You know, we won't need Google.

We'll just ask a question and we'll know, immediately, the answer.

And we'll all know what each other is about, and it will be this amazing humanity.

That kind of boggles my mind.

I mean, I have read many of the books on ethics and futurism, Ray Kurzweil, but, for me, a lot of them were -- You know, they weren't as specific as I wanted.

I couldn't evaluate them and tell what was really possible and why.

So, you know, I'm a reporter, so this book was sort of an exploration.

I wanted to go out, understand the technologies and figure out, you know, is it really possible that we'll reach a singularity.

What are some of the ethical dilemmas that we'd be facing as these technologies become more available?

Well, that was -- Yeah, that was another issue.

I tried to bring up the ethical issues whenever I came across them, but the answer I found was just that it depends, you know?

As one military scientist said to me, 'Is a baseball bat a good thing or a bad thing?'

It's a good thing if you play baseball with it.

It's a bad thing if you use it as a club to beat somebody over the head with.

So I tried to point that out.

I went to the Beijing Genomics Institute, and they have a project that's very controversial there, to reverse-engineer the genetics of intelligence, which is a long way off, 'cause there's so many different genes involved.

But I talked to one of the researchers there.

I said, 'Doesn't it alarm you, you know, that maybe the rich will have access to this and not the poor?

And are you worried about this?'

And he thought everyone would eventually have access.

And he said that he thought a parent should be able to decide if they want their child to be really intelligent.

But then I said, 'Well, is there anything that alarms you?'

And he said, 'Well, if there was, like, a really ruthless tiger mom and she wanted to engineer her kid to have perfect intelligence and sociopathic tendencies with no empathy or altruism, that is an alarming thought.'

And I thought, 'Yeah, that is kind of alarming.'

Yeah, that is an alarming thought.

All right.

So, is there -- From the people who are benefiting from this, how have they seen their lives change?

You said that there was a woman who is blind who was able to see again.

I mean, that's a -- Again, I don't know what it is that she saw and whether that matches our definition of what that mountain would look like.

She is a special case, 'cause she had sight before.

So some of those neural pathways existed, but she actually regained 3-D depth perception, which is pretty remarkable.

And, like I said, they brought her to Harvard Medical School, and they -- What it does is -- it takes a picture and it turns the pixels into sounds, and our brain is capable of discerning maybe 30 or 40 different sounds at the same time, different tones.

So, over time, since the brain is a pattern-recognition machine, it learns to route it to the visual cortex.

And, so, they scanned her brain with these soundscapes, and it was -- her visual cortex lit up.

But, at the same time, they jingled keys, and that went to her auditory cortex.

And the way that it's been described to me is, in part, you know, the world when you're blind is intensely claustrophobic, you know?

It doesn't exist beyond what you can touch with your cane or your hands.

It expands a little when it rains.

You know, there's depth.

But for her, that's what happened.

When the soundscape machine started playing these sounds in her ears, the whole world expanded.

And she could see into rooms and she could see into the sink and she could see patterns.

She got lost in the patterns on the wallpaper in her dentist's office, for instance.

And, yeah, I just love those stories, you know?

Just great stories of human resilience and adventure.

You know, there's so many of them that these technologies are unleashing.

Adam Piore, the book is called 'The Body Builders.'

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you.