More Human than Human: We are Already Cyborgs

This article was written in 2015 for MISC Magazine, and I still only consistently wear 1 piece of technology (hint: it was invented by Elizabeth Miller in the 1800s).

Never has the question, “what does it mean to be human?” been more relevant than right now. Cyborgs, embeddables, and androids, oh my – yet granted in five or ten years, that question will surround an even more thought-provoking, conflicted world, however, for the time being, it forces us to confront the reality of our evolving technology and potentially devolving humanity.

The wearables movement hit business and society with the promise of heralding a change in the very way we live and while it yet may, wearables are really nothing new; they are more intricate and complex extensions of the technologies we as a species have been wearing for thousands of years. VR headset, running shoe, knife – a seemingly unrelated list, yet taken in the same breath, we can view them all as temporarily ‘worn’ tools that help to augment and expand the limits of the human body.

One could argue that the embeddables movement accomplishes the same thing: the ability to augment and expand the limits of the human body. However, one stark difference stands between wearables and embeddables: permanence. This implicates not a temporary boost in human capability, but a fixed, unnatural evolution in our body’s design. In short, there’s no guarantee of being able to hit Ctrl-Z. By contrast to wearables, which we can view as external tools, embeddables have the potential to be seen not as independent objects, but as integrated extensions of ourselves.

If we build off of this loose definition, an argument could easily be made that society has a long history of embeddables as well. The cardiac pacemaker was first conceptualized in the 20s and first implanted into a human subject in the 50s. Though if we look beyond active embeddables, we can view a long history of passive attachments to our bodies such as fake eyes, prosthetic limbs, intramedullary rods, and dentures dating back hundreds if not thousands of years.

Still, something is different about the emerging generation of body modifications. We are teetering on the edge of a time when embeddables and bodily integrated technologies are being viewed not simply as restorative, but augmentative and enhancing. We are no longer simply thinking about how to replace a lost limb, faulty organ, or broken body part, but instead are now asking the question of how we can improve upon nature’s design. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we need to at least acknowledge the implications of cracking ourselves open and tinkering with the fleshy bits. We need to realize that elective surgeries and hacks to ourselves will have consequences, both immediate and long-term, personal, and societal.

The potential for bodily harm is an obvious risk and one that will be taken at varying degrees by a range of people who opt to roll the dice on more unproven procedures all the way to the rigorously routine. And while a few people will undoubtedly die on the operating table, or a cardboard mat in a dark back alley, I view a much more frightening risk about the decade-plus implications of a population of people stuffing themselves with servos and circuits with no long-term testing. These could alter our physiology and cause massive issues with chronic pain or disablement. The use of chemicals or electromagnetic communication could lead to mutations and bring on new forms of cancer variants. The potential for harm is literally as diverse as the spectrum of things we choose to shove inside of ourselves.

From a societal perspective, there are some pretty scary thought exercises to mull as well. While the augmentation of human ability will potentially do wonders for our efficiency as humans and push the limits of human achievement, outside of a socialist utopia, only a select group of individuals will benefit from these breakthroughs. The class divide will be as present within the embeddable movement as it is within any other facet of our world, however, unlike other aspects of our lives, this divide will manifest as literally making certain people better human beings than others. You won’t simply have more money, more things, and greater access, you will literally have a stronger body, smarter brain, and longer lifespan.

At an extreme, this divide could become less about classism and even start to be viewed as a specist. While other “isms” may fade with time, concern over the colour of your skin, sexual orientation, or faith could simply be replaced by judgment of the electromechanical contents of your body. Yet far from the organic-purist view often portrayed in popular science fiction of judging cybernetically-enhanced individuals as some form of digital-junkie, the reality is far more likely that it will be the enhanced who have the funds to augment themselves and who will hold power, and judgment, over technologically “lesser” individuals. This is a frightening world for both sides, as history has more than its fair share of examples of the downtrodden rising up against extreme discrepancies of quality of life and redistributing the wealth of power –rather gruesome imagery in the case of body implants.

And while my last point raises an alarming issue on a societal level, the same considerations must be brought down to the reality of the individual. Modifications to the body of such an extreme nature bring into focus the existential questions raised at the start of this article. Are androids and cyborgs human, or some other species entirely and if so, where do we make that divide? Regardless, what are the implications of turning our historically sacred biological beings into commoditized vessels with swappable parts and quarterly upgrade modules?

Well beyond phantom limb syndrome, the human brain may not be capable of adapting to such massive bodily modifications and even if it is at a functional level, what of mental health? As we spiral further into this physical loss of self, how will we emotionally cope with the reality of not recognizing our own flesh and bone when it becomes silicone and steel? With our current hyperactive, digital existence already contributing to a host of issues around depression, identity crisis, and social isolation, it is easy to imagine how the further integration of technology, not only into our lives but our very beings, will only exacerbate these issues. We will mourn limbs actively chosen to be replaced or augmented. We will yearn to silence the digital voices actively being streamed into our minds. We will feel uncomfortable within our own skin, sensing the ticks, tocks, and buzzes of something unnatural underneath. In short, we could reject what we have become, even if it is of our own making.

While anyone who reads my articles would likely agree that I am far from being considered a sobering voice in the field of technoethics, we’re remiss not to ask the moral and ethical questions at hand. I could care less about playing god, however, I do understand that for millennia we have held technology as a collection of tools to support and enhance our lives, and all of that is about to change. The looming singularity does not simply change the nature of technology or our relationship to it, but the very essence of what it means to be human. Who among us is ready or worthy to shoulder that burden of responsibility?

Cyborgs Among Us

Far from being the stuff of freaky science fiction, countless examples exist of embeddable technology that people have stuffed inside of themselves in order to become more human than human.

Artificially ‘Enhanced’

While in many cases, artificially grown ears, heart valves, bladders, and other organs can be life-altering or lifesaving procedures, recent work being done by an institute in North Caroline has shown promise for growing artificial penises and vaginas. Though the work is presently being promoted for individuals with congenital abnormalities or post-trauma, it doesn’t take much to envision another, much more lucrative elective application for such a breakthrough.

Night Vision Eyes

A team in California recently enhanced a man’s eyeballs with Chlorin e6, a substance found in deep-sea fish, in order to allow him to have more sensitive vision to better recognize objects in low-light. Though temporary, this type of experiment highlights our ability to alter our own body’s chemistry to enhance our senses.

Blade Runners

Popularized by Oscar Pistorius’ inspiring victories (and later tragic arrest), many amputees are still able to compete athletically through the use of engineered carbon-fibre prosthetics, or blades, that enhance sprinting. However, Pistorius’ success within able-bodied competition raised criticism over having a technologically unfair advantage that one would assume will be a source of even more contention as the technology improves and biological legs are viewed as inferior.

Wet Ware

Though envisioned by William Gibson’s short story, Johnny Mneumonic, cybernetic neural implants may not be simply science fiction as DARPA has been developing a neuromodulatory device called ElectRX. As our understanding of the brain continues to progress, such devices use small electrical stimulations throughout the nervous system to achieve a variety of desired outcomes from removing joint pain to promoting healing.

Ear Speakers

A Nevada-based bodyhacker had small magnets implanted in his tragus (cartilage just outside the ear) in 2013 to act as small, in-ear speakers activated by a magnetic coil worn around his neck. While initially crude, this type of experiment paves the way for humans to have a discreet, permanent audio link to others and the web for anytime access.

Are you a cyborg yet? What have you done to yourself?

Shane Saunderson plays with people, ideas, and toys at Idea Couture.