Man Versus Machine: Are Cyborgs The Future?

7 mins

If cyborg science was once the stuff of fiction, it’s fast becoming a reality. But are the pioneering people leading the movement at the vanguard of what human kind will inevitably become? Or outsiders demonstrating a creepy future nobody wants?

Moon Ribas, an artist who bases her work around technology, has an implant. It doesn’t replace anything that’s missing. It doesn’t allow an organ to function. Rather, it gives her a new sense: it allows her to feel the shifts in the planet’s tectonic plates. She’s also recently worn a hacked, phone-connected ultrasound sensor during her pregnancy to give her partner the experience of a ‘digital pregnancy.’

‘I think we are at a time when we’ll see more and more of these kinds of enhancements, whether or not they’re under the skin, used in way that are more poetic, not just to solve some kind of deficiency,’ Ribas says. ‘Cyborg enhancements need not always be solutions-minded.’

That word, cyborg, tends to conjure up notions of science fiction dystopias: think of the Borg in ‘Star Trek’. But for many scientists, artists and so-called body-modders or bio-hackers — who pay privately for surgery to modify their bodies with tech – cyborgism is simply the future. It’s an extension of the tech we already carry around with us, and, increasingly, depend on – in the way, for example, that we might be said to download memories to our smartphones, and rely on them to retrieve knowledge we once held in our heads. It’s not, they say, anything to be squeamish about. In a sense, we’re already cyborgs.

‘Carry or wear technology and that’s fine. Put it just 1mm below the skin and for many it seems the whole mindset as to what technology is and what it’s for changes. But what’s the difference between using tech and it being part of us?’

Dr. Patrick Kramer, Founder and Chief Cyborg Officer, Digiwell

‘I don’t get it – this idea that the skin is some kind of holy barrier,’ exclaims Dr. Patrick Kramer, founder and chief cyborg officer of Digiwell, Europe’s largest platform for bio-hacking. He has several subcutaneous implants himself – used to lock doors or make contactless payments. ‘Carry or wear technology and that’s fine. Put it just 1mm below the skin and for many it seems the whole mindset as to what technology is and what it’s for changes. But what’s the difference between using tech and it being part of us?’

Rise of the Cyborg

That may sound futuristic, but it’s not a new idea. ‘Cyborg’ is a portmanteau of ‘cybernetic’ and ‘organism’ coined by scientists Nathan Kline and Manfred Clynes in 1960, in their studies regarding the physical modifications that astronauts may require for a future of interstellar flight. But it’s over the last decade that the idea has found numerous examples in reality, from carbon fibre prostheses to human microchip implants and artificial eyeballs that stream all they see to the internet. Elon Musk even has his own project Neuralink – a neurotechnology company that develops implantable brain–computer interfaces.

female cyborg with blue eye emitting and receiving information
Over the last decade the idea of wearable tech such as artificial eyeballs that stream all they see to the internet, has risen.

And the enthusiasm of people to become cyborgs, in a sense, is greater than might be expected too: a 2020 Kaspersky survey found that two-thirds of people would be ready to augment their body with tech either temporarily or permanently. That’s perhaps not so surprising if considered as just an extension of a path we’ve been on since humankind first used tools. 

As bio-hackers point out, we’ve progressed to be entirely comfortable with integrating tech that fixes problems – pacemakers, contact lenses, subcutaneous diabetes monitors, and so on, with leading thinkers in neuroscience agreeing that invasive brain tech that allows the restoration of upper spine injuries may well come to fruition within a decade. Even non-essential body modifications the likes of tattoos and cosmetic surgery have gone mainstream.

Normalising Cyborg Enhancements

But that still leaves those hands-on experimenters working at the literal bleeding edge – the likes of artist and co-founder of the non-profit Cyborg Foundation, Neil Harbisson.  The first person to be legally recognised by a government as a cyborg, he has an antenna sprouting from his head – and he’s not just wearing it. It’s osio-integrated – meaning that the bone in his skull and the tech are fused together. Born colour blind, it allows him, through vibration, to feel colour and infra-red light.

Man known as the world's first cyborg showing an antennae implanted in his skull
Neil Harbisson – the world’s first cyborg – has an antennae implanted in his skull to feel colour: Dan Wilton/The Red Bulletin

‘The coming demand for cyborg enhancements may be driven by all sorts of practical reasons, but I think in time we will start to see more attempts at using them as ways to reveal more of reality or change our perception,’ explains Harbisson, who is now set to trial a new prototype implant that will allow him to feel the passage of time. ‘It’s why I feel the better description of what I’m doing is ‘trans-speciesism’, because it’s about giving us senses that aren’t human.’

The idea that some of us may, in time, be beyond the normal human range of ability presents an ethical dilemma. Should anyone be free to pay for an enhancement that turbocharges their brain’s processing power?

That prompts philosophical debate – what, in fact, does it mean to be ‘human’? Where do we stop and the machines we are melded with start? These are pertinent questions when we’re starting to sense that the lines between human and tech are blurring – when we’re asking questions the likes of whether or not we own the data we each produce daily. There are practical questions to work out too: if we become part-machine, who owns that technology, controls it, tends to it when it breaks, prevents it from being hacked?

And, of course, the idea that some of us may, in time, be beyond the normal human range of ability – “upgraded humans” as Kramer calls them – presents an ethical dilemma as well. Should anyone be free to pay for an enhancement that, for example, turbocharges their brain’s processing power? Washington DC’s Society for Neuroscience has reported that a University of Southern California team has developed a ‘memory prosthesis’ brain implant, said to boost performance in non-human memory tests. Or is that no different to being able to pay for the best nutrition or exercise now? 

I’m not sure that’s a function that will get the man on the street excited about having a hole drilled in his head. The idea of being able to turn on your Tesla by thinking about it seems somewhat underwhelming.

Andrew Jackson, Professor of Neural Interfaces, University of Newcastle

According to Andrew Jackson, professor of neural interfaces at the University of Newcastle, the possibility of doing such a thing is likely many decades away. And he’s not convinced the demand for such cyborg enhancements is there – yet. To change the culture, what’s still needed is the killer app.

‘Scientists and engineers tend to get excited about the idea of, say, being able to control computers with our minds, but I’m not sure that’s a function that will get the man on the street excited about having a hole drilled in his head,’ he chuckles. ‘The idea of being able to turn on your Tesla by thinking about it seems somewhat underwhelming.

‘Or take legs,” he adds. “They are are straightforward mechanical things such that you can imagine robots by now offering something better than good old-fashioned biology. But millions of years of evolution have made legs really good at what they do, such that wouldn’t expect many people would be ready to chop off their legs to have cutting-edge robotic ones.’

Those that do will, at least, be a shoo in an extras for future episodes of ‘Star Trek’. 

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