The merging of man and machine, creating a superhuman. That concept is the driving force behind the recent Johnny Depp thriller "Transcendence." In the movie, the mind of Depp's character is uploaded onto a computer, but spirals rapidly out of control.
It's a Big Idea: a man backed with the power of a machine. Some call it transhumanism.
"The dictionary definition of Transhumanism would be the belief that we could push past the limits of human abilities," says author Ramez Naam, a leading expert on the topic. Naam has written several books including Nexus: Mankind Gets an Upgrade and More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement.
It sounds awfully futuristic, but that future might already be here.
"Our age already looks very science fiction to someone born a century ago," Naam says. "If you use an iPhone, you're sort of a transhuman to a certain extent: you have these new abilities you didn't used to have."
But what if you can't hear or see? Let's take things a step further and go inside the body. That's where technology is already leading to some amazing advances.
"I think the future is limitless," says Dr. Sean McMenomey, a surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan. On a fairly regular basis these days, he operates on patients to place auditory implants in the brain. That's right, the brain. The auditory implants have become standard treatment for a patient missing a critical link in the ear, like a damaged or missing nerve connecting the ear with the brain. Those patients cannot use a hearing aid, because those devices still require the ear to function, even poorly.
"Before the advent of the brainstem implant, there was nothing available for [those patients]," said Dr. McMenomey. "They were going to be without sound for their entire life."
But with the implant, some now can pick up the sounds of speech without looking. Patients work with an audiologist to learn to translate the electric signals sent by the implant into sounds.
"What do they hear? How quickly do they hear? It depends on the patient," says Dr. Bill Shapiro, an audiologist at NYU. "There are patients that are able to understand speech almost immediately."
It's not just implants for the ear. Doctors at the University of Louisville made news in April after a spinal implant gave four patients once considered hopelessly paralyzed the ability to regain movement. And this January, four patients received the first U.S. implants of a bionic eye in Michigan.
Since we're going inside the body to help people see or hear why not fight disease? Well that's about to happen with nanotechnology, giving new meaning to the phrase "under your skin."
At Columbia University Medical Center, Dr. Ira Tabas is working on a nanopartical to slow down the build up of plaque in arteries, which can lead to a heart attack. His nanoparticles, designed with Harvard's Dr. Omid Farokhzad, bind themselved to the plaque and deliver drugs on the spot. Nanoparticles also have huge potential in treating cancerous tumors.
"You can get exactly the drug you want, exactly the place you want it, and release it over a timeframe that is ideal for stopping the progression fo this disease," Dr. Tabas explains.
But perhaps cancer and heart disease will become a thing of the past. Technology is also about to let parents combine their DNA virtually to see if a potential child is genetically likely to develop disease. Some worry it could lead to designer babies, but that idea excites Ramez Naam.
"I'm not sure that selecting some of the genes for our children is that different than selecting what schools they go to, picking their diets, picking what books we read them," Naam says. "Parents have always been looking out for the health and well-being of their kids."
It's all about making mankind stronger, smarter and healthier, he says. Who doesn't want that?