Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


16.3.2  The Bionic Alien

The word "bionics" describes the science of constructing artificial systems that resemble or have characteristics of living systems. Specifically, the reference is to a device which mimics some natural function of the lifeform or improves upon it. The use of artificial parts in man results in a hybrid entity which has been dubbed a cybernetic organism, or "cyborg." The term was originally applied in astronautics, but now is widely used to describe any creature possessing bionic components -- a being created by joining living flesh with nonliving devices.

Because of the great potential utility of artificial prosthetic equipment, and because the space environment is far more hostile to biology than to bionics, the extraterrestrial cyborg is a very real possibility. A bionic alien undoubtedly will represent a vast physical improvement over the original biological model. He may have better senses -- telescopic or infrared vision, high frequency and hypersensitive hearing, perception of radar or x-rays, acute smell or taste. He may have powerful limbs like Steve Austin of Six Million Dollar Man TV fame, or perhaps the astrocyborg will simply be more flexible and agile than the original -- there’s no premium on raw strength in the weightless conditions of space. He may have bionic blood (a special synthetic formulation based on fluorocarbons which is protein-free and thus generates no immune rejection response) and a bionic beatless heart.

Extraterrestrial cyborgs may possess bionic skin, a tough rubbery silicone material with enormous tensile strength and high resistance to vacuum and radiation. This skin could be photosensitive, absorbing photons and combining them with blood gases and water directly to produce valuable carbohydrates -- a new twist on the "autotrophic man" concept. A step in this direction has been taken by Dr. Joseph J. Katz, a chemist at the Argonne National Laboratory. Katz and his research team have constructed what amounts to a "bionic leaf," a contrivance of metal, glass, plastics and chemicals. The device is designed to produce hydrogen, rather than carbohydrates, from sunlight.2698

And bionic aliens may come equipped with advanced abilities that have no direct biological analogue. For instance, ET astronauts could have a "radiation gland" to warn them of rising radiation levels in the vicinity and to automatically inject protective chemicals directly into the bloodsteam. Aliens may have a direct hookup to their pleasure or sleep centers in the brain, to permit them to while away long hours of waiting without succumbing to acute boredom or depression. Other artificial organs may be implanted which provide radio contact with others, or which monitor internal bodily processes for signs of impending stroke or exhaustion. Appropriate stimulants and energizers could be dumped into the bloodstream during emergency situations.

It is worth taking a brief look at the state of the art in human bionics technology because it's suggestive of just how well aliens may be able to do.

Take, for example, the bionic arm. One artificial limb called the "Utah arm," developed by Stephen Jacobsen at the University of Utah, can flex at the elbow, rotate at the wrist, and manipulate fingerlike attachments capable of holding forks, bottles, or pencils.2659 The bionic arm is fitted to volunteer amputees and controlled through a computer. Using sensors on the subjects’ arm stump, tiny muscular contractions are interpreted and translated into the delicate motions of the artificial limb. Dr. Frank Clippinger, Jr. at Duke University Medical Center have created a similar device with feedback, to impart a sense of feeling and touch.2692

While Steve Austin’s superstrong attachments are mechanically improbable, much progress has been made toward the goal of a bionic arm which performs better than the original. Dr. Vert Mooney at the Rancho Amigos Hospital in California has built a prototype 3½ kilogram artificial arm with self-contained battery pack and motors. Sensors connected to muscles in the forearm allow the device to respond almost as well as the original. It was first used on Reid Hilton, a 24-year-old karate expert from Santa Ana who lost his right arm in an automobile accident. Hilton was able to perform extremely fine movements such as tying shoelaces, as well as the larger motions required in karate. Amazingly, the bionic arm has a grip strength of nearly 20 kilograms, as compared to only 10 kilograms for the average man.2691

Another example is the bionic eye. Opthalmologist William Dobelle of the University of Utah, with the cooperation of blind volunteers, has developed a primitive system for artificial sight. In his experiments, a teflon strip with an array of 64 platinum points is inserted between the two hemispheric halves of the brain, in direct contact with the visual cortex. This grid is wired to external TV cameras through a coaxial cable plug mounted in the subject’s skull.

When electrical stimulation from the lab cameras reaches the patients’ brains, they report seeing flashes of light -- called phosphenes -- which are about the size of a small coin held at arm’s length. Most are red, yellow or white in color. One subject, blinded by a gunshot wound more than a decade ago, said that they resembled small lights "like a time and temperature sign on a bank, or a scoreboard at a football game."2660 This same man has been trained to read in a phosphene-Braille system with 85% accuracy at a rate of six words per minute.

Says Dobelle of the system currently in use: "Our objective is not normal vision. It is low definition black and white -- analogous to the first television pictures sent from the moon by the astronauts. We do not propose to create a reading system. Mobility is more important to the blind than reading." Still, the ultimate objective of the bionic eye project is considerably more ambitious: "We hope to develop a functional artificial eye for the blind, consisting of a small TV camera in a glass eye, a small computer system perhaps built into the frame of a pair of glasses, and an array of electrodes on the visual cortex."2447 Dobelle estimates that the entire system may be on the market in about ten years, and might sell for a few thousand dollars each.2661

The development of artificial replacements for human body parts is one of the fastest growing areas in medical research today. Bionic ears, complete with sound pickup, amplifier, and rechargeable implantable power supply, will be on the market in the early 1980's.2365 Bionic lungs, kidneys, livers and pancreases have been developed with reasonable success. The spare-parts catalog runs into the hundreds, including dentures and artificial jaws, skull plates, bionic joints and bones, orthopedic pins and shanks and spinal disks, bionic tracheae, larynxes, sphincters, tendons, ligaments and muscles.*

If sentient extraterrestrials invest heavily in bionics, the brain/machine interface will become all-important. Much research is now in progress in human laboratories to enable computers to "read minds." Dr. Lawrence Robert Pinneo at Stanford Research Institute, for example, has constructed a "thinking cap" which picks up the subject’s electrical brain wave activity via scalp electrodes, analyses them, and then translates them into action. Pinneo’s volunteers can move dots from side to side on a computerized television screen, or run an object through a video maze, simply by thinking.2365 The executive computer can also recognize words, spoken aloud or silently thought (it makes no difference), by comparing them to prerecorded characteristic brain wave patterns of the particular subject.2662

Dr. Grey Walter at the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol, England, has devised a similar computer-directed brain reading apparatus which operates as a remote controlled TV channel selector. By sheer force of thought, subjects can cause pictures to change or to hold on a television screen placed before them.92

Speaking at the 1976 annual AAAS Conference, Dr. Adam Reed claimed that within fifty years miniaturized computers implanted under the scalp will be programmed to read and speak the electrochemical language of the human brain. In ten years -- by 1986 -- Reed believes we will have cracked the code the brain uses for information processing. According to one science writer, "once that’s done, information can be fed directly into the brain’s central processing unit without going through peripheral equipment such as eyes and ears. You don’t read a book: the computer literally squirts its contents into your head."2664 To achieve these results, it is estimated that at least 100,000 electrodes/mm2 will be required in the implanted matrix (Figure 16.2).


Figure 16.2 Practical Electronic Telepathy?2699

Wearing the latest in this fall’s, scientific hat fashions is Tom Santoro, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology. Arrays of 30 to 50 scalp electrodes in the hat are designed to measure distribution of nerve activity in the brain that is evoked by visual stimulus. Studies of scalp potentials have shown they are related to certain visual perceptions Hence the brain-wave hat is able to detect what a subject thinks he sees or, in other words, measures the brain’s visual acuity.


Alien cyborgs outfitted with such "biocybernetic links" would be able to plug into modular units containing vast quantities of data in specialized areas. Internal or external storage devices could increase memory capacity by a billionfold. Bionic ETs with computer implants will have access to virtually all knowledge possessed by their civilization -- mathematical, physical, medical, psychological, and cultural. Alternatively, each individual could have an on-line radio link to a mammoth external computer intelligence -- one need only think of some problem, request a solution, and patiently wait for the answer to appear in his thoughts moments later.

Such systems would also make possible a form of practical electronic "telepathy." Messages and other information might be dispatched from one brain to the master computer network, and then relayed on to any other biocybernetically equipped brain. Like telephone conference calls, ETs may be able to link minds together through an electronic medium to confer rapidly and obtain solutions to particularly complicated dynamic problems. And if a generalized, mathematical computer language is used in the external system, this may also provide an ideal channel for interspecies communication when first contact occurs.

Of course, there’s really no need for fragile organic brains to venture out into wild foreign environments. Detachable bionic senses and effectors-called "teleoperators" -- may be sent out to explore strange planetary surfaces while the alien’s flesh-and-blood brain remains safely in geosynchronous orbit high above. If ETs are receiving data via biocybernetic channels, what difference does it make whether the bionic eyeball which is doing the actual seeing is located in the eye socket of the skull or halfway around the planet? Except for minor time delays due to the finite speed of radio wave propagation, perception would be as instantaneous on "local" as on "remote." Alien astrocyborgs may send their eyes, ears, arms and legs wandering through space or across the surface of a world, leaving their minds safely at home.


* Artificial penises and bionic erections are now available, although at considerable cost. Developed as a treatment for physical impotence, the device is made up of two collapsible silicone rubber cylinders placed inside the corpus cave nosum of the male organ. Upon squeezing a tiny pump tucked away behind the scrotum, hydraulic fluid is transferred from an implanted spherical reservoir to the cylinders in the penis, causing the member to become erect.349 This can be maintained for an indefinite period of time, and permits full sensitivity and normal ejaculation. Says neurologist William Bradley, one of the proud developers of the "bionic penis" at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas: "It isn’t like a real erection -- it is a real erection. Enlargement, growth in diameter... it's great!"2365


Last updated on 6 December 2008