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Our Cyborg Future

Cyborgs are everywhere and defining them as such could help speed up human progress.

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Cyborgs are everywhere and defining them as such could help speed up human progress.

Opinions

Our Cyborg Future

Cyborgs are everywhere and defining them as such could help speed up human progress.

Share this article

Many of us grew up dreaming of a cyborg future. From artists to comic books to Hollywood blockbusters, popular culture has long been fascinated with the coming together of man and machine, and what it might mean for society.

When movies like The Terminator and Robocop were released, 2017 seemed like the distant future – in fact, if you were to believe The Terminator we’re just a decade away from the raging “Future War” between man and Artificial Intelligence. So as we head deeper into the 21st Century, would you say you already knew any cyborgs personally? Probably not…

So, where are all the cyborgs?

To answer this we need to first understand what a cyborg is. There have been a number of definitions over the years but mostly it’s considered to be a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts, whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by the mechanical or electronic elements built into the body.

This rather clumsy definition has its etymological roots in the 1960s, but ever since, cyborgs have largely been presented to us as a whimsical, or sometimes frightening machination of flesh and metal. If we actually look into the useful applications of technology when implanted into the body, however, then the results are much less distressing.

For example, anyone with a pacemaker could be considered a cyborg, but it would seem strange if they defined themselves as such.

Interestingly, the pacemaker device started to gain clinical traction in the 1930’s but remained largely under wraps as Albert Hyman didn’t want to contest the widely held opinion that he was ‘interfering with nature’. It’s this same stigma that prevents us from embracing the definition even in today’s much more liberal and tech-centric society.

cyborg

Cyborgs don't have to be whimsical or terrifying

What counts as a cyborg?

If we accept that what makes a cyborg is an electronic or mechanic device that forms part of the body, we then arrive at a whole load of further considerations.

Does it have to be permanently connected? How much time does it have to spend implanted on your body? Must it connect with your body physiologically, or can it interface with your skin? Does it have to be an active component on your body or does a passive information tracker still count? You can see that the arguments start to become murky.

If it has to be permanently attached then prosthesis don’t count; but then, if you look at the modern hand prosthesis they’re impressively close to the Terminator-esque vision that James Cameron presented to us.

Similarly, kidney dialysis machines replace a function performed naturally by the body, but are only attached 3 or 4 times a week so one could hardly claim that it forms ‘part’ of your body.

Which leads us to the smartphone... We’re opening them with our fingerprints and faces. We’re talking to them constantly and they’re talking back, they’re augmenting our decision making, they’re tracking our every movement and recording our health.

They spend more time with us than our loved ones and hold more information on us than we realise. They make us laugh, cry and we communicate with and through them more than we do directly other people.

We are effectively technologically-enhanced creatures with these devices in our hands, so by most definitions the modern smartphone user is a powerful cyborg.

“What gets tracked can also get hacked”

The advent of the smartphone was a big step in the creation of our own 1984, but it is an entry requirement to the data society that most of us are willing to pay. One of our programmers often reminds me that “wherever you have the ability to track, you have the ability to hack” which could make some people think twice.

I often look to art as an indicator of what could be and the artist Lesley Ann Daly’s works; ‘Anthropomorphic Sensory Augmentation’ explore how human modification technology is developing alongside a growing interest in expanding the senses.

Yes, generating new devices that can push the limits of human perception is great, but they can also give rise to biohacks and data leaks. Personally, I question whether I want to know all my biomedical data, but I certainly don’t want my insurance company to have it.

Researchers at Columbia University have now created an artificial active tissue that when 3D printed to imitate a muscle, can withstand great strain and lift 1,000 times it’s weight.

Similarly, huge advances have been made in visual prosthesis, often tapping directly into the nervous system to restore retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

If you are losing your sight or your mobility, advances like these might seem like an attractive solution. But consider the implications of being hacked. This could allow another party to see all that you do, or even hack your muscle tissue to actually control your movement. The cyborg future starts to look increasingly like the movies.

It all sounds very dystopian and as much as it pains me to invoke the idea of lawyers and policy makers rubbing their hands with plans to create new laws, we need to be aware of what’s going on so that we can shape our cyborg future for the better.

hacker

Hackers could have a field day with 'connected humans'

Preparing for the day after tomorrow

The first thing we should do is to stop looking at cyborgs as a binary definition and start looking at a human/cyborg graph. Once we accept this, it will make it easier to break free from the stigmatic shackles and accept cyborgism at the center of the bell curve – only then we can start to realise the benefits.

We’re never going to completely avoid hacks, but that’s why we need as much protection in place to mitigate against them. Currently, cyborg law is woefully behind the curve as data protection laws only serve sentient beings in most jurisdictions.

As Tim Wu explained “the part of us that’s not human, has no rights. We as humans have rights, but the divide is becoming very small. I mean, it’s on your body at all times.” So if we accept the smartphone as an appendage officially and recognise that we really are are all cyborgs, the data within them could be protected under human law.

So maybe it is time to start defining ourselves as cyborgs, however strange it may sound – it could help our future as a race.

Jacob Beckett is the founder of Vitamin London.

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Our Cyborg Future

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