Dr Liang heads a research group at the Texas A&M University, the focus of which is, among other things, “the development of nano-manufacturing processes to fabricate nano-structures, nano-devices, and sensors”.
Rather than launch into a detailed explanation of what exactly these are and what their application is, we have conducted a brief interview with her on something that has taken her 10 years of research: the cyborg cockroach and the broad implications of creating cyborg organisms in the not too distant future.
The cyborg cockroach is, as the colloquial name suggests, a regular insect equipped with micro and nanosensors that allow its creators to monitor and control its movements and collect valuable information in the process.
Why choose an insect that inevitably invites reactions ranging from revulsion to horror, you might ask? The explanation is perfectly reasonable: the research team looked for an insect that was easy to get, is resilient and is associated with people (the cockroach is one of 2 species in existence that have survived millions of years).
Once the insects are thus enhanced, they are simply let lose in specific locations and deployed, soldierlike, to gather data that is not just valuable, but vital in certain circumstances.
They can find victims of natural disasters, detect toxic materials, even warn of an impending disaster, such as an earthquake or an outbreak of fatal disease. Like all insects, cockroaches are finely attuned to changes in the environment and can help us monitor it.
This approach is adaptable to other insects and the research project, given the proper funding, could explore a number of avenues.
What does the future hold for cyborg-type enhancements?
Functional implants, says Dr Liang, are already a reality and the neuron system technology will be flying high in the next decade or two. People who have suffered spinal cord damage or even brain damage will be able to walk again in our lifetime.
Will this extend longevity, the Holy Grail of humanity? This, it turns out, is not a question that has a simple answer. Science will better people´s lives and make old age more palatable in the sense that it would improve the quality of their existence.
We will be able to have implants that would enable us to communicate better or see better if a particular function is impaired. We might even be able to attach our brains to a machine (computers can already memorise vast amount of information).
Nothing, however, will replace our biological machine. Firstly, because living with an outside attachment must be incredibly uncomfortable. Secondly, and more importantly, because the immune system would attack any external mechanism – the lack of biocompatibility would mean that a partmachine human would suffer as its body would seek to reject such an attachment.
Will the world be further polarised by those who can afford to replace faulty “equipment” with an implant? Perhaps so, but not even the 1% would be able to buy immortality, it seems.
What we can look forward to is the simple and always reviled cockroach paving the way to setting up new colonies on different planets, by supplying us with the vital information needed to establish our species there, and even providing us with food by sacrificing themselves (insects are good source protein and other important nutrients), should we end up destroying ours.