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Pondering a cyborg future

How close is modern science to an era when technology can restore lost motor functions. Scientists say we're getting close-but a huge effort still remains.

I saw a video today of a wheelchair-bound man who moved his hand for the first time since he was stabbed in the neck two years ago.

Blown away?

Totally.

So for that matter was the rest of the audience listening to John Donoghue talk about the progress being made helping paralyzed people regain lost motor skills.

Donoghue, who directs the Brain Science program at Brown University, showed the brief clip Thursday during a panel discussion at a San Francisco conference organized by Fortune magazine.

Unfortunately, the experiments with brain implants being undertaken these days provide only limited and temporary help with patients' motor functions. Although he allowed that the results may be relatively crude, Donoghue still remains optimistic about what his research suggests about the future of neuro-technology.

"We're nearing the age of bio-hybrid man," he said, "where we'll have the ability to reconnect nerves when physical ones are broken."

"I'll make a prediction," said another panelist, Tomaso Poggio, who works at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. "A few years from now, it will be easier to have an implant in a human being than a monkey."

Scientists being scientists, however, the panelists remained guarded about offering a time line for any big breakthroughs.

Biologist Craig Venter, a leader in the field of genomic research, expressed frustration with the quality of the current crop of computing tools at the disposal of researchers. "These are baby steps compared with what we need to have...My feeling is that we're at very primitive level compared with where we need to be. We're so early in that curve that I feel a great deal of frustration with it."

Too bad nobody from the U.S government attended the session. Here's one instance where throwing a ton of money at the problem likely would do wonders.