About This Technology

Basic human-augmentation technologies enhance a person's capabilities beyond that individual's current capacity. Advanced augmentation technologies may enhance those capabilities beyond those of most—or even all—humans. Technologies for correcting common defects (for example, nearsightedness) are well established, but human augmentation also aims to improve upon fully functioning capabilities. Therefore, emerging human-augmentation technologies aid healthy people as well as people with reduced abilities. For example, an exoskeleton could help a warehouse worker lift heavy items for long periods and help an elderly person walk long distances.

Most of the advances in human augmentation are arising from developments in prostheses and implants for people with disabilities or impairments. Developments include neuron-connected prosthetic limbs that users can control with their thoughts, retinal implants that restore some vision to people blinded by retinitis pigmentosa, and exoskeletons that aid people with mobility disabilities. Some companies are also creating exoskeletons for task support in heavy-labor jobs and in the military. Bioactive substances and bioengineering are also important technologies for human augmentation and offer the opportunity to augment the internal workings of the human body—including the possibility of rejuvenating organs. Other developments include information technology that augments cognition by giving people access to information—including information about their vital signs—and assistance almost immediately, especially via wearable technology.

In the near term, the increasing numbers of elderly people in many countries could drive the need for human-augmentation devices that enable older people to live—and work—longer with a high quality of life. Exoskeletons and other wearable robots are obvious candidates for augmenting elderly people. Indeed, wearable robots could become commonplace in health-care, military, and industrial applications, as well as finding use for entertainment purposes such as sport. Other technologies, including implants and genetic engineering, could give people novel capabilities, such as the ability to survive harsh environments. Many of these technologies will likely be costly, potentially leading to extremely increased life expectancy for a wealthy minority and significant inequality. However, successful augmentation and its widespread adoption are uncertain. Human-augmentation technologies could remain largely medical or utilitarian because of legal, regulatory, and ethical issues, as well as challenges with consumer acceptance. This uncertainty warrants a close monitoring of how human-augmentation technologies develop and how and when various groups adopt and use them.