Secret cyborgs and an old story

19.21, Monday 13 Jul 2020

Back in 2005, there was some controversy over golfers getting LASIK for better than 20/20 vision. Baseball pros too. 20/15 vision helps: Maddux, a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, was 0-3 in six starts before his surgery. He won nine of his next 10 games. Kite had LASIK in 1998 and won six events on the Champions Tour over the next five years.

It’s hard to detect, and the rules don’t know how to deal with it (or at least, didn’t at the time):

You can’t use a device to warm the ball, but you can use it to warm your hands. You can’t use a device to measure distance or “gauge the slope of the green,” but you can get the same powers through LASIK. In the age of biotechnology, you are the device.

FILE UNDER: cyborg enhancements.

What gets me is that this story is from 2005. What’s the state of the art today?

About 15-20 years ago, I was at a college reunion and got talking to a friend of a friend. I don’t remember the guy’s name, but he was a biochemist and doing his DPhil. I do remember that he had cochlear implants and he could turn a dial to hear better than I could at the party.

Our bodies have two ways to consume energy (he said), carbs and fat. Carbs are great: quick release. But carbs take up a lot of space. Fat, on the other hand, is slow to convert to energy, but it’s dense: a drop of fat carries the same energy as an apple of carbs.

I have no idea whether this is actually correct. I’m dredging up a story from almost two decades ago, and I barely remember it. The details are going to be all over the place, but broadly…

What this researcher was working on was a new kind of artificial energy store for use in food, and it was quick-release like carbs, but dense like fat.

And energy isn’t just used by your muscles. Remember it’s your brain too. What this researcher told me was that, in trials with rats in mazes, not only did the rats have more endurance, they were smarter too.

I asked him whether he’d eaten any. He said, yes he’d snuck some, and it tasted really bitter.

I remember specifically the current status: this novel food stuff was in human trials, and it was currently with the US military.

The early 2000s.

Ok, so he may have been bullshitting me. I have always been tremendously gullible, originally by nature and then strategically, deferring truth-assessment until the moment an idea or its consequences needs to be deployed, rather than at the moment I hear it. This broadens my imaginative space.

BUT: maybe it was a true story?

In which case – what is that substance? Does it have a measurable effect? How has it been developed, two decades on? Who is funding the research?

Also about 15 years ago I went camping in the desert with some neuroscientists. They told me about a “fix” for macular degeneration where the no-longer-functional retina was replaced by a regular camera sensor. The sensor was plugged directly into the optic nerve, and amazingly the brain would learn to interpret the signal. The subject would be able to see again.

Downside: the sensor output, being electrical and not electrochemical, would pretty soon entirely burn out the optic nerve, so - ethically - trials could only be performed on people who had macular degeneration and a terminal illness.

But every so often I hear about these sensors in the news, and go: hey, sounds like they’ve made progress.

Then there’s CRISPR gene editing, and the occasional conspiracy theory that some state or another has managed to develop it further than is publicly known, and there are edited humans wandering around. Indistinguishable from other humans, but - maybe - stronger, or smarter, or able to see in the dark, or with inhumanly high charisma, or much better at golf?

What would you do, as a country, if you had a dozen people who were smarter than everyone else? Would that make a difference?

What is the current cutting edge in secret cyborgs?

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