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The day, the week, the month, or even the year for neurotechnology

Discover the absurd futuristic tropes suggested in Friends that aren't far from reality after all

By Hannah Stephens

With the prospect of the looming summer exams, the news of the American hit sit-com, Friends, finally appearing on the UK Netflix is one of very few things to be thankful for. Being broadcast around the turn of the millennium, there is no getting away from some of the more dated aspects of the show, but one feature that seems eerily ahead of its time is some of the ideas that crop up about futuristic technological advances.

In S6E7, Ross’ description of uploading the human consciousness onto a computer to enable immortality seems ludicrous, and yet now it is a very realistic possibility. Take myoelectric prosthetic limbs, for instance; although certainly not on par with brain emulation, it is a very real example of scientists both linguistically and physically attempting to bridge the gap between the nervous system and sophisticated computers – and they are succeeding. A paper published in September last year1 described the successful attachment of prosthetic hands to amputees, which not only allowed limb mobility, but also provided some sensory feedback including pressure sensations and paraesthesia (“pins and needles”). This bidirectional communication between the organism and what is essentially a computer is a huge breakthrough. Examples can also be found that lie slightly less within the everyday eye; a paper published in Japan has described a novel neural decoding approach whereby a computer uses magnitude and sub-organ location of brain activity at night to compile an image: essentially computationally re-producing and visualising your dreams. It detailed how individuals were exposed to multiple stimuli whilst monitoring their brain activity for responses. This allowed mapping of the locations of various scenarios and emotions at a cerebral level, and then reversal of this translation. These highlight training computers to work in a similar syntax as the human brain, is no longer uncommon.

Another unnervingly, and at the time unknowingly, futuristic event occurs in S7E15, when Joey’s Days of Our Lives character is seemingly brought back from a deep coma following a brain transplant. Whilst this was almost certainly put in as a completely ridiculous and impossible event, it is not a far cry from the human head transplants that Italian neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, has devoted almost his entire career towards. Until very recently, this had only been successfully carried out on mice, but as of just 2 months ago, Canavero successfully performed a head transplant on a human cadaver, including successful fusion of the two cleaved spinal cords2. This potentially presents a new treatment for otherwise incurable peripheral nervous system conditions. Of course, the 36 year mark is not the finishing point for Canavero and his team; a major problem with transplants is the immune considerations with the physical attachment of a foreign body, considerations that were not necessary in corpses. As one can imagine, there are also huge social and ethical complications with the procedure.

The key point is how scientific ideas written into TV shows 20 years ago, under the premise of being completely and utterly ridiculous, are suddenly very real possibilities. It begs the question of how much of today’s futuristic dystopia in TV (for instance Black Mirror, famous for terrifying viewers with a society commanded by utterly inhumane technology) will be surrounding us by 2040. Or perhaps in another 20 years we’ll all be eating beef trifles and having our brother’s babies. Who knows?

From Issue 15

For more information, see:

E. D’Anna, F. Petrini, F. Artoni, I. Popovic, I.Simanić, S. Raspopovic, S. Micera (2017). Sci. Rep., 7, 10930.

X. Ren, M. Li, X. Zhao, Z. Liu, S. Ren, Y. Zhang, S. Zhang, S. Canavero (2017) Surg Neurol Int., 8:276.

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