From eons we have been augmenting our capability using tools, pebble first and then on and on with ever more complex and effective ones. Contact lenses are examples of augmentation, as a cellphone. Robotic exoskeletons are now moving their first steps (no pun intended) out of the lab to help in military field and in the medical one. In the former they are intended to augment a soldier strength in carrying loads, in the latter to enable paralysed people to walk around.
We can expect the former application (military) to drift into a much broader, civil, environment, as it happened to other technologies, born to target military applications and now widespread in the consumer market (just think about the GPS that we are now taking as a given…).
Prosthetics are also making amazing progresses and are now moving towards a in a symbiotic relation with the person using them in the sense that they understand what the person is expecting from them and provide the person with sensations they “feel”. Besides the newest prosthetics can learn from the relationship with the person and become better and better in integrating their functionalities with the person (see clip). They are becoming so good to go beyond restoring functionality. They can result in an augmented human.
However, I would not consider any of the above example as fitting in the category of symbiotic autonomous systems, mostly because they are not “autonomous”.
I would expect to see more and more cases of human augmentation through technology in the coming years but I would say that we will have to way at least a decade before seing examples of symbiotic autonomous systems augmenting humans.
Looking ahead, however, I can see an environment that is becoming so aware, filled with robotosied objects and able to interact seamlessly with us that we can consider this as an example of real symbiotic autonomous systems that result in human augmentation. In this environment the line dividing prosthetics from tools will become fuzzier and fuzzier. Think about robots roaming a warehouse that can be worn by a worker to becoming a symbiotic autonomous system having the strength of a robot and the smartness of a blue collar worker…or exoskeleton fitting construction workers to make their job safer and more productive.
Similarly, transportation in a city may slowly become a system in symbioses with humans, a building may enter into a symbiotic relation with people inhabiting it and the concept of home may actually be tied to this symbiotic relationship.
It is not just the ambient that is becoming aware and as such can interact more seamlessly with us. It is also an increase in our sensorial capability, brough forward by sensors enhancement implant, that will change our relations with the environment. Some animals can perceive infrared signals, other can perceive variations in the electrical field. We have created sensors that are able to “see” in the infrared (like infrared cameras) and sensors that can detect electromagnetic fields (your cellphone is an obvious example). These sensors in the coming decades will become implantable in our body and will connect to the brain extending our sensorial capabilities. We may become aware of people moving in the other room because as they move the alter the electromagnetic field in the environment (sharks, rays, dolphins and bees can detect electromagnetic fields). We will be able to see that someone was in a room before we arrived by looking at the infrared halo left by its presence… All in all we will evolve our relationship with the ambient we live in.
I already noticed the kind of symbiotic relationship we are having with our smartphone. This is going to grow further moving the symbiotic relationship from our smartphone to the “webspace” with this latter learning more and more about us and reshaping its behaviour accordingly. Also notice that we will have an influence, although a tiny one, in the overall behaviour of the web since we are part of its context and the web is evolving taking the context into account.
As you can see the evolution of symbiotic autonomous systems may give a boost to the augmentation of humans in a way that wasn’t foreseen just few years ago when Human Augmentation was imagined through embedded chips to enhance human senses and processing capability.