In movies like RoboCop or The Terminator, or video games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the cyborg main characters view the world as if it's through a computer screen.
Text scrolls by on top of scenery, digital pictures pop up next to real human faces and entire dossiers appear out of the blue in the corner peripherary complete with information about their targets or objectives. DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense's branch dedicated to all manners of technological advancement, seeks to grant us that kind of cyborg vision.
The scientists at DARPA, the agency that is perhaps best known for the primordial version of the Internet, ARPANET, propose a "cortical modem" that could plug into your DNA and visual cortex.
This implant could have the power to overcome visual impairments such as blindness or decreased vision. Not only that, it could generate a heads-up display (HUD) in front of your eyes without the need for a helmet, contact lens or anything physical in front of your eyes, just like Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 or Adam Jensen from Deus Ex.
According to CNet, DARPA's short-term plan is to produce a tiny $10 device about the size of two coins that would create a HUD similar in size and shape to the LED of an alarm clock. Not exactly like the complicated displays of numerous first-person-shooter video games, but the possiblities extend far beyond heads-up displays. The goal, eventually, is to manipulate and integrate certain light-responsive proteins into the brains of a person so that it would be possible to activate or deactivate the neurons necessary to control and correct neurological disorders. The cortical modem could potentially restore the vision of someone who lost their sight.
And if that isn't enough, the possibilities expand even further -- into the realm of science fiction. The cortical modem could potentially make electronic telepathy and telekinesis possible, just like in the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson or the transhuman anime Ghost in the Shell. Of course, society-shaking advances like that are a ways off. After all, we are still at the LED alarm clock phase.
"This isn't going to give you a high-fidelity augmented reality display soon. And since the current approach is based in optogenetics, it requires a genetic alteration of the DNA in your neurons," wrote Peter Rothman of Humanity+ Magazine, who attended the Silicon Valley event where DARPA made its proposal. "The health implications are unknown, and this research is currently limited to work with animal models. Specifically discussed was a real-time imaging of the zebrafish brain with about 85,000 neurons."
Still, it's fascinating to imagine we could eventually live in a world where such a thing as HUDs within our very vision and electronic telepathy could be possible. It's also fun to think about how such things could impact society and the way we live day to day. Science (or rather, speculative) fiction has explored these ideas for a while now. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex dealt with these specific questions as it warned of the benefits and dangers of brain implants and interconnected neural networks. In the clip below, the main character detective (soon to be played by Scarlett Johansson in a live-action adaptation) ruminates over the powerful abilities of a criminal genius hacker who can manipulate peoples' vision and perception of reality. Whether or not DARPA will give way to scenarios like these, we'll just have to wait and see.