Ten years ago, Slate editor David Plotz wrote a series of stories examining the ways in which scientists believed humans could better their vision, strength, memory, alertness, and hearing, primarily through drugs or surgery. His “Superman” series examined emerging technologies ranging from retinal implants and prosthetic ears to gene therapies and memory drugs. Today, many of those possibilities remain frustratingly just over the horizon. In some cases, we’re hardly any closer to realizing them than we were in 2003. And some technologies that were newly available then, like the alertness drug modafinil, have grown in popularity even as they’ve proved less revolutionary than their most ardent supporters (and critics) had hoped or feared. In the meantime, a new crop of enhancement technologies has captured the attention of the media, the dollars of investors, and the scrutiny of ethicists. Some of the potentially most transformative achieve their effects not through biochemistry but by means of electronic devices that connect our brains to external sources of knowledge, sensory data, or physical power. We may not have gotten any closer to being able to put memory chips in our brains, but who needs those when we’re all walking around with the entire contents of the global Internet in our pockets—or on our faces?
The story of the Eiger reminds us that wearable technology isn’t an entirely new trend. But it’s taking off today in more ways than you might think. Muscle suits, long elusive, are starting to look more plausible, at least for specific purposes such as lifting a hospital patient out of bed. The military is working on “Spider-Man suits” that let the wearer scale vertical walls. We may never get our hoverboards, but jetpacks are already starting to give certain daredevils a superpower that humans have coveted since Icarus. But perhaps the most astounding enhancement technologies that have begun to enter the realm of reality in recent years are devices that interact directly with the human brain. Products now on the market can use things like your skin conductance, facial expressions, and perhaps even brain waves to detect your emotions and intentions, albeit crudely. In the medical realm, cochlear implants can restore some hearing to the deaf. Future neural implants could allow humans to manipulate real-world objects with their minds—a power some have likened to telekinesis. Incredibly, this may already be happening. In North Carolina in 2008, researchers got a monkey thinking hard about walking—and in Japan, a pair of robotic legs began to do just that, controlled by the monkey’s brain activity via the Internet. And last December, a quadriplegic woman in Pittsburgh used electrodes implanted in her motor cortex to feed herself chocolate with a robotic arm.