One of the most important things to remember when considering whether or not it’s ethical for people to become cyborgs, is that that ship sailed a long time ago. Today we are looking at cyborgs, this subject having placed first out of a few dozen options on the most recent topic poll over at the EduQuarks’s Facebook Group.
Cyborgs is an interesting topic, but also tricky one for me to cover because it falls into that range of technologies where I feel we’ve let popular fiction kind of let our imaginations run wild and not in the good way.
It’s a topic that gets a bit controversial when it probably shouldn’t be, and we have a hard time defining what a cyborg is, in terms of what people think a cyborg is, in such a way that it would not already include most of us nowadays. When we explore the more proper definition we will see that it is even harder to argue that we aren’t cyborgs right now.
So instead of starting by defining what a cyborg actually is, let’s ask ourselves what it is not. When I think cyborg I think of someone who looks like a regular human, but has some machinery inside them, probably mostly microscopic, that helps with some task. What a lot of folks picture is a guy with shiny metal arms, and sadly something a bit less than human, or sometimes just as troubling, as more than human. For that matter folks often confuse them with androids, which are robots that look human, and the line could get blurry between the two on some paths.
Fundamentally a lot of terms like machine or robot or cyborg or android can get quite indistinct. This is something I always warn people about with definitions for hazy concepts that are still emerging, you need a definition that includes all the examples you think should be in there without including those which should not be.
That is very hard with a cyborg because, for instance, tons of people already have machines inside them, such as pacemakers and cochlear implants. We wouldn’t normally call Jim a cyborg because he’s got a pacemaker in his chest. Similarly, one hardly needs to make a machine out of metal, a plastic or ceramic machine would seem the same. Many of us do have fillings in our teeth or pins or plates in our bones or skull where we got injured, we are not cyborgs. Many folks have piercings or tattoos, they are not cyborgs either.
We also can’t exclude things which are strictly medical as opposed to elective and cosmetic. A man does not become a cyborg because he elects to have his arm replaced with a robotic prosthetic rather than having lost his arm to an accident. Nor would the sophistication of the device seem a key factor in our definition.
A person with an ancient wooden peg-leg would seem an absurd example of a cyborg, but itis hard to argue some fundamental transition has happened by using some prosthetic that is more sophisticated. So what is a cyborg? Our answer is in the actual definition of cyborg and of cybernetics, and how the term originated, because it is a bit surprising and alters the perspective on this concept. That new perspective is one I think far more useful to this topic too.
Cyborg is simply short for Cybernetic Organism, but most folks do not know what cybernetics is or what it originally meant. Unsurprisingly, like a lot of science terms, it is Greek, and we see it used all the way back to Plato, who used it in the context of governing systems. We see the term evolve a bit as we get into 19th century, when folks like Ampere, from who we get the unit of electrical current, the amp, use it to discuss control and communication systems inside mechanisms.
We had begun getting machines complicated enough to need lots of valves and so forth to help ‘govern’ the proper function of the device. Jump forward to the middle of the 20th century and we get the founder of the cybernetics discipline, mathematician Norbert Wiener, defining cybernetics as the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. A cyberneticist might study a human to see the various feedback and control mechanisms our body uses to regulate itself.
They might similarly study the weather and climate to see how that feeds back and regulates itself. Jumping forward another decade or so to the 1960s, and we see the term cyborg coined Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, no relation, and was defined as follows: “A cyborg is essentially a man-machine system in which the control mechanisms of the human portion are modified externally by drugs or regulatory devices so that the being can live in some environment different than the normal one. “There’s some interesting language there, ‘modified externally’, ‘drugs or regulatory devices’, and the part about living in a different environment.
They were talking about space explorers, and a cyborg would be a man in a spacesuit, for instance. Note, not the man, the man plus the spacesuit. That is the cybernetic system and it is an it. Now there’s a strong implication of something long-lasting or permanent, throwing on a winter coat to go out in the snow doesn’t make you a cyborg, that would give us too trivial of a definition, but it is not really ‘you’ anyway. The cybernetic system is getting called ‘it’ not to imply a lack of humanity but in the same way we would refer to a rowboat being powered by one or more people as an it.
The traffic system of a large metropolis is a complex one, as is its sewer system, and both might be studied by cybernetics, that the one happens to have actual people inside it doesn’t mean we stop referring to it as it. But no dehumanization is intended. We begin to see what we are actually talking about is not replacements, but alterations from the natural state. Now natural is always a bit of an iffy term, especially when we talk about complex systems.
Nature is constantly in flux and only achieves brief states of meta-stability. Natural and artificial are both terms that highlight the issue we have with definitions and are obviously relevant to discussing cyborgs, but our interest in the moment is how if an ecological system is destabilized by something, it will tend to settle into a new equilibrium.
Some plant moves in and one critter eats it and grows in number while another does not and decreases in number, and the predators alter their numbers accordingly. Ten years later a family of beavers moves into the area because the predators that used to reside there are no longer as big a threat as they used to be. Beavers being beavers, they dam up a river and the whole local ecologies changes again, and so on.
New equilibriums are reached. Individual organisms as complex as humans have their own complex ecologies inside them and they change too, but as a whole that variation is fairly tiny from our perspective. I don’t catch a flu and sprout a third arm or suddenly develop a dislike for coffee. A person who suffers hearing damage, lowering the range they can hear well, might pick up a bigger fondness for drums than higher-pitched horns. If we fix that, the situation may change. It doesn’t matter how, surgery, medication, transplants from someone else, cloned eardrums, mechanical ones, or whatever.
But if we increased his range to include higher frequencies, we once again alter the state of the system. Again the method doesn’t actually matter, our person can now hear ultrasonic sounds, under our definition they are now a cyborg. The field of cybernetics is again focused on such complex and dynamic systems of control and communication.
Now whether you know it or not there are ultrasonic sound going on around you quite regularly. Indeed, there are sounds going on that most of us can’t hear anymore, but little children usually can, since our hearing decays with age and most strongly in those upper ranges. There’s actually a device called the Mosquito that generates irritating sounds in those lost ranges which some places use to deter young people from loitering.
You can use the same on many animals to keep them away from an area. A person given ultrasonic hearing might find all sorts of environments unpleasant, and avoid them, they might find some music the rest of us enjoyed unbearable because the instrument emitted horrible squeaks we couldn’t normally hear. Now, that’s an easy fix, whatever you did to them to let them hear that can have an off switch included, but it is a simple example of what we mean by cyborgs and cybernetics.
Your classic sci-fi or comic book cyborg with the metal arm that lets him hoist up cars with that hand is rarely shown having his arm rip of or his spine snap under the weight and forces. It’s a bit like superman, he can lift up a plane or train but for some reason the ground under his feet doesn’t collapse. I’d imagine at least some writer explained that but a hand wave is a hand wave even when dressed up to sound logical in the fictional science of sci-fi and comic books. If you want to be able to punch through a wall, we need to reinforce your skin so it isn’t shredded.
We need to make sure where it connects to the body has been reinforced so it does rip free under the forces on your arm from hitting that wall. If you want to be able to lift up heavy weights, we have to modify almost every bone to handle the stress. I’ve seen a number of cartoons where someone whirls around like a tornado, but we know spinning around causes vertigo, and we also know doing that causes the blood to rush to your extremities.
So if you wanted to be able to do that you’d need to also alter that person to handle both of those issues. Of course we also have to worry that a person who has been augmented in some fashion could have a personality change too. The ability to bench press a truck could alter someone’s behavior and not necessarily for the best.
Now like many technologies that we discuss here, it is often the case that the ethical or moral issues that arise are not entirely new ones. If being a juiced up cyborg makes some folks arrogant and act untouchable and superior, so too do many other things. We often encourage folks to get into good shape for their health and include the mental side of things too, it often helps with confidence or depression, so it is change but a good one. Though I’ve known a fair few folks who got into shape and became a bit unbearable. So too, someone who has been poor their whole life and humble in demeanor might become quite the jerk if they suddenly got wealthy.
I’ve known many a person who after getting an education became a bit of jerk about that too. We obviously don’t consider someone a cyborg for such things, but it’s fundamentally the same sort of issue. I am not going to ban going to the gym or starting a business or going to college for fear it might make some folks get a big head. Such being the case, I can’t see the reason or difference in banning someone getting themselves some cybernetic augmentations to be stronger or faster or smarter. I wouldn’t be surprised if some places did ban them of course, but many places would not.
I remember last week I joked about a nice advantage of oceanic launches of rockets is that doing it in international waters let you get around most regulations. Talking with a friend afterwards I joked about how you could gamble at such spaceports too, and casinos might make a nice extra source of income for such a floating island. I could easily see cybernetic shops setting up there too. Now while it is amusing to imagine floating cities springing up offering all manner of services, likely many unsavory, that are banned or restricted elsewhere, the legalities of cyborgs don’t interest us too much today.
What does interest us, now that we’ve gotten the concept down, what it is and is not, is what sort of augmentations we might see. I’m going to mostly bypass the idea of being stronger, faster, or smarter, we already talked about faster reflexes and thinking in the Transhumanism and Superintelligence articles. And the image of the super-strong cyborg who can flip cars, have bullets bounce off them, and has a laser gun in the arm is honestly kind of boring to discuss.
We already know that concept and I’d have little to add. Flashy concept but straightforward, and not actually that handy on a day to day basis. I’ve divided the various types of augmentations into some general categories and we’ll discuss the options for each. Those are Medical Applications, Augmented Reality, Sensory Augmentation, Physical Augmentation, and Mental Augmentation.
Now in many of these cases it isn’t necessary to actually implant anything at all, and it doesn’t make much difference to us today. Beginning with medical applications, it is worth noting that again cybernetics is about communication and control of a system, and we see that strongly in this subject. The first and most obvious medical application that could be viewed as augmentation is something that lets you keep track of your health. We already have this emerging, watches that kept track of your heart rate too have been available for a long while, but the FitBit and its competitors are starting to get quite common. I wear such a device on my wrist and I’d imagine many of you do too.
What’s actually handy about such things is that the data can be sent to your smartphone, with its greater capacity for running applications, and you can look at it and see other things like how you are sleeping. As a diagnostic tool for doctors this is fairly handy, and as such monitors improve its medical value will improve too. Such monitors might come to monitor almost everything, we might figure out how to do detailed analysis of our blood without poking a hole in ourselves to get a sample, but implant or something you wear, it is very easy to imagine us all having monitors constantly keeping track of everything going on inside of us and also what we put inside us.
You don’t need to input manually what you ate because various detectors in or on you run analysis on what you are eating and say that cheeseburger has this many calories. Or perhaps you’ve got a little sensor in your stomach that’s keeping track of nutrients and toxins coming in. Others are tracking your white cell count, or if you are deficient in iron or Vitamin C, or if you are dehydrated.
Long before you get a headache or noticeable symptoms of a cold it’s detecting the signs. With that information you can take action before it gets bad and requires more effort. With all that data available it can say take an aspirin or ibuprofen, but more over it can say, take exactly 172 milligrams of ibuprofen or 42 micrograms of Vitamin K. And if you have any nice implants that can precisely administer exactly the right amount at the right times and frequencies, the results would be beneficial. Needless to say that same information, available to your doctor, could help us diagnose severe conditions long before they become problematic or life threatening too.
We can also imagine more sophisticated implants might be able to manufacture these things inside of you, just alerting you if you needed to eat something that it was low on for manufacturing the required medicine. Even further along those lines would be Nano machines augmenting a person’s immune system or repairing damage, but we’ve discussed that before. Of course if you’ve got little machines inside you they might need some fairly a typical supply, and you might have to consume something weird like Gadolinium.
There’s a sci-fi book series called Merkiaari Wars by Mark E. Cooper that revolves around transhuman cyborg soldiers called Vipers, and it’s a pretty good read, but in it they have to occasionally drink what they call a “Viper Smoothie” that’s reported to taste horrible and has all the necessary bits for their cybernetic components and nano machines.
It’s amusing to read about them cringing while drinking the things but realistically you’d probably only need small amounts you could take in a gel capsule. I could easily multivitamins for cyborgs having the recommended daily values of Tungsten or Graphene or Silicon. In the nearer term, an obvious application I suspect we will see become the norm soon would be for life monitors that could call for medical assistance on its own. We actually have this, but it’s not in regular use on healthy people.
As the devices get more common and reliable, and as smart phones become more ubiquitous, we can imagine that it will become more and more common for everyone to have a wrist monitor that could call emergency services. Obviously you need to take steps to avoid lots of false reports, but it is interesting to think of the impact on society if that became reliable and normal. Even on something like crimes, since we have a lot of accurate information to help figure out what happened and when.
Of course we also have the ability to include in those monitors things like cameras on our person recording events and our location. It is a bit creepy to think of anyone being able to see what you saw and know where you are, but with the right privacy protections you could seriously deter violent crime when just about everything is being recorded by your victim and potentially stored off site. Of course for all that monitored information to be useful we have to have some way of seeing it.
This brings up the concept of Augmented Reality, which differs from Virtual Reality in the sense that it is overlaying stuff on your normal senses of things around you, not sticking you in a totally simulated environment. I suspect many of you are already familiar with this concept and it is also pretty straight-forward, so we won’t spend much time on this. Whether we are discussing a pair of glasses or contact lenses that display information or something directly connected to your brain’s visual cortex, the basic notion is simple enough.
I’m sitting there talking to someone and information is being displayed for me. My heart rate, an email from a friend, the person I’m talking to’s name, my three o’clock reminder to go to the store. Now this has many potential entertainment and safety uses, but keyed back into the notion of monitoring things, when I get to the store in a bit it would be nice to be able to look inside my fridge or pantry at home and see what I’m low on, without having to actually go home.
It’s nice to be able to have a road map display on your vision while driving, but it is even nicer to have an impressive sensor suite on your car that is monitoring your surroundings with much more focus and accuracy than you can and can lay down the road boundary lines on your vision when it’s foggy or snow is covering them, or highlight oncoming cars before you can see them, or detect cats or dogs or deer or kids near the road and highlight them so you’re noticing them sooner.
A radar in your car that fed the information to you as a visual overlay. Or can send an alert from your health monitors letting you know you’re sleepier than you think and need to pull over for a nap and some coffee, or give you a little buzz when it notices that after an hour of driving you are getting highway hypnosis. Of course it is even nicer if you don’t have to rely on your car’s sensors because you’ve got your own up gunned sensory package.
Sensory augmentation that let you see into infrared or hear ultrasonic. That let you zoom in on things too small to see clearly or too far away. That enhances your sense of taste or smell or touch, maybe even adding new things we can’t normally taste. There’s some debate about what we can taste, we know of five for sure, salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami, the savory taste we associate to MSG. Some other have also been suggested, and there’s argument about what exactly taste is, but with just those five we have a panoply of dishes and tastes we enjoy by mixing the intensity and ratio of those. As we do with color, when we essentially can only see red, green, and blue, we can still make a huge spectrum of color hues and textures.
If we added a fourth cone, say one sensitive to infrared, could we alter the brain to see this as a new distinct color? Or several, as that spectrum is far bigger than the standard visual one? Including a device that saw infrared but showed it to us as red is handy, but what new experiences are available when it is a new color? How much better a meal if you can taste three or four entirely new flavors? It would be handy to hear ultrasonic or see behind you, but how much neater to be able to hear instruments designed just for ultrasonic ranges or truly see fifty or sixty colors, not just combinations of three?
Of course our brains would need to be physically modified for things like that, which we will get to shortly, but it is also worth remembering that sometimes you don’t want your senses augmented, indeed you might want them attenuated. It would be rather nice to have the ability to shut off your smell around foul scents, or tune out loud distracting noises.
Particularly if this could be done automatically, removing glare or blinding lights, filtering out just those sounds you don’t want to hear so you can focus on what someone is saying to you in a crowded room. Of course an alternative to that is ears you can move around to focus on sound, like cats can do, but that would be a physical augmentation, so let’s move on to those.
As I mentioned, we see plenty of examples of cyborgs with super strength and toughness, but there’s a lot of other modifications we could make that might be handier. No pun intended but one example would be steadier hands. As someone with a neurological condition that makes my hands shake, I tend to be a touch envious of folks who can work on intricate things, those steady nimble fingers we think of surgeons having.
It would be nicer to be able to type as fast as we thought and never miss a key, or going back to the sensory angle, to have fingers more sensitive to touch and texture. We have a lot of options here that are under explored. Lungs that filter out toxins, get oxygen better, so you could breathe easily in low pressure without long adaptations periods or needing a drug like Diamox to help with altitude sickness. Maybe one that could filter oxygen right out of water, likes gills, or even electrolyze it right out of water. Maybe ones that could seal up your throat if you got exposed to vacuum and start scrubbing carbon dioxide so you can reuse it as oxygen.
Maybe alterations that let you eat a rock and process it into everything you need. It kind of helps with concerns about food supplies and farm space if little factories in your body can process dirt into food without using plants as a middleman. Back to medical applications, what about little bands near major arteries that could clampdown as tourniquets if you suffered an injury causing massive blood loss?
Now you can’t tie a tourniquet around your neck if your head gets chopped off, but what if you could? Someone lops off your head and back up Bluetooth connections kick in to send and receive signals from your body while your arteries and veins constrict to stop blood loss and a small backup ‘lung’ in your sinus cavity turns on and supplies oxygen and keep your blood flowing and oxygenated for a while.
There a thing that can do most of a muscle or bone’s job better or lighter or taking up less space, so instead of packing in enough synthetic muscle to let you lift a car or giving yourself the Wolverine adamantium laced bones, maybe you replace them to keep to human norms of strength only, or just a little better, and use that space and energy for other things. Maybe synthetic skin that feels just like the original, and in both senses of that, let’s you have that heightened sense of touch too.
Maybe it is very injury resistant, maybe it can suck air in through your pores to help you breathe, or help with cooling, a lot of these components might build up phenomenal heat when in use after all. Take a lot of energy to run probably too, but maybe you don’t need batteries and can derive it from your food, or maybe that synthetic skin could be photovoltaic too, though for modesty’s sake solar panels built into your clothes might be better.
You can take things like that pretty far too, especially if you have dense enough power storage or generation to run big things. Modifications to let you walk around without a suit on an airless moon or swim around in ultra-cold liquid nitrogen, all while looking and feeling otherwise human are probably feasible. Lots of redundant or backup systems for extreme conditions probably are too. Not ‘a’ mechanical heart to replace your normal one, but a bunch of small pumps distributed through you to provide assistance and backups for pumping blood. Not bones made of titanium so you can get hit by a car, but hollow ones made of titanium that inside them included the necessary mechanisms to fabricate bone marrow to make red blood cells and the rest of that space is data storage, a backup or supplementary kidney or liver. Some compressed oxygen to use if you can’t breathe, a backup brain to distribute your thinking outside of your head.
Speaking of brains moves us into mental augmentation. Now as I said we’ve discussed this before and we’ve also discussed the general difficulty in contemplating what we really mean by intelligence and augmenting it, so we will bypass that today. It is very easy to imagine being smarter but also very hard to imagine being smarter, so to speak.
What we can easily imagine is integrating electronics and computers into the mind. Our brains are phenomenally powerful, but they are tuned toward certain tasks, and not designed with many things in mind that are helpful nowadays. The ability to add or multiply eight digit numbers is something the most primitive electronic calculator could do in an instant. It would also be nice to be able to enter a room and instantly know how many folks were in that room and what all their names were, not just have that data show up on your augmented vision, but to actually know it.
Search functions of all your sensory recordings would be handy too. It’s a chilly day and you want your green sweater, but going back and looking through every recording of the last year trying to find when you last saw it doesn’t help much. That’s actually something we are very good at, our brains can search our memories quickly. But the ability to recall things from years back with crystal clarity, and to do it quick and easy, right to the relevant memory, is a massive advantage.
On the more extreme end of things, being able to make ourselves smarter, make it so we can truly see 50 colors not just red, green, and blue, making it so you aren’t zooming in with your eyes to see things far away or small but actually have a visual resolution that high, would require some big changes and improvements to our brains themselves, not just some chip that can see that you are picturing your green sweater and knows you want to find it, then runs searches through those digital recordings of your memory.
So what would this be like? These more extreme forms of augmentation where you have abilities like this? It’s worth considering because many of us will probably live to see a lot of this comet be. Many of these things are emerging right now, and with better health comes long life, more time for such things to come about. I wouldn’t think feelings of invincibility would be too bad, after all there would be plenty of other folks who were like you, but there would certainly be a lot of confidence in knowing that even if you had a heart attack by yourself the paramedics would be therein minutes, that would be even higher if you knew you had several redundant pumps that could take over.
Even if everybody else is just as soaped up as you are, there’s a lot to be said about being able jump off a tall building and not shatter every bone in your body when you landed, or not only not being able to lose your keys but remember where you left that paperback you read ten years ago, and more over remember every page of it so it doesn’t matter where you stuck at one could argue that if you altering folks enough off the baseline with all these superhuman abilities they might no longer really be human. I’m not sure I could entirely argue that wasn’t the case, and while I personally don’t like terms like transhuman or post-human, there is some validity to that concept.
When we tie it to life extension, which we’ve also discussed, even if we aren’t making people super-intelligent and even if they are staying human in appearance, there would probably be something very different about a cyborg who had lived a couple thousand years and could recall any given moment of that with crystal clarity. You can envision other people doing this in fiction or in a remote future generations sense, but it’s often a bit strange to try to imagine yourself with that existence. What if you were cyborg’s up enough you could walk around on an airless moon without suit?
Traditionally when you get superpowers you are supposed to don a mask and cape and go fight crime, but in a society where most folks can do that you have to find other things to occupy your time, and you might have a lot of time, especially when factoring in not only the possibility of radical life extension but also the notion of accelerated consciousness, speed intelligence, that we discussed in the Transhumanism article.
So we’ve looked at a lot of concepts today and I think we will end here. Many of those were pretty far out there, stuff that might be centuries coming or never, others ones we can expect within a decade or so with great confidence, all of them with the potential to really change life here on Earth in profound ways.
Next week we will be returning to talking about getting life off of Earth in the Upward Bound Series, and looking at alternatives to chemical rocket engines in the form of atomic rockets, in The Nuclear Option. The week after that, it will back to Existential Crisis Series for Infinite Improbability Issues, and we are going to explore some of the stranger implications of concepts like the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and Alternate Universes.
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