First seen in MIX Magazine, issue 42, Le Vin Chin asks, will we all become cyborgs?
And if so, will our robot overlords care?
Doctors at the University of California at Irvine have enabled a paraplegic man to walk again, by re-routing his brain signals directly to the muscles on his legs and bypassing his damaged spine; researchers have successfully implanted circuitry to replace the damaged spinal cords of rats. Project Cyborg connected a scientist’s brain to the Internet and to his wife’s brain in the early 2000s, but it’s only been recently that scientists have demonstrated the actual brain-nets of monkeys and rats, working in concert as gestalt organisms. With these breakthroughs, it seems increasingly likely that we will soon be able to circumvent any damage to our bodies by integrating bionic components directly into our nervous systems.
A living organism that is integrated with artificial components is commonly called a cyborg, but the field of integrating bodily function with technological parts is called biomechatronics. Parts can be used to restore disrupted body performance (think running blades, or the millions of people around the world with pacemakers and cochlear implants) or to create new capabilities (the world’s first officially recognised cyborg, Neil Harbisson, has implants that connect him to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and allow the colour-blind artist to perceive colours as vibrations in his skull); or as a vehicle for extreme decorative self-expression; think of the sculptural sub-dermal implants of the French artist Orlan, the bagel head micro trend in Japan from a few years ago or the sculptural art prostheses of the performance artist Viktoria Modesta).
The deluge of news relating to high-technology body modification at the moment can partly be ascribed to the rise of affordable, distributed 3D-printing, due to the complexity of objects that can be formed, the relatively cheaper cost of manufacture and the huge flexibility for individualised customisation. In recent times, we have heard heart-warming stories of children given life changing prostheses, many of which originate from the e-NABLE movement, a loose confederation of volunteer designers, engineers, makers and philanthropists, who aim to make robotic arms cheaply, or even freely, available by harnessing the power of the Maker Revolution; the designs are made open source, the manufacture is done at local 3D print shops and the whole enterprise is powered by donations from the public.
Casts for setting bones can also be customised for the wearer, for physical morphology and for aesthetic preference, as with the award-winning Cortex Cast. Medical implants can be tailored precisely to individual bone structure, as with the 3D-printed jawbone implants created by Belgian industrial designer Sebastiaan Deviaene, or the artificial skulls that have been implanted in the Netherlands and China. Most intriguing is the potential for 3D-printed biological organs. A technique developed at University of Florida in Gainesville will allow printing of human embryonic stem cells in a gel medium to prevent the soft matter collapsing on itself.
And, aesthetically, these movements bring the possibility for exquisitely designed and tailored body parts and bodies, with an endless choice of colour, texture and finish; no longer blandly functional, but personal, daring, extreme and unique. Of course, the ultimate expression of high-technology body modification will be when we learn enough about our genetic makeups to be able to rewrite our DNA at will. Gene therapy has been around for a while, but we still need to know which markers to hit if we want to regrow a leg, kill cancerous cells, or develop infra-red vision. Or, at the other end of the scale, we could replace every single part of our bodies with artificial parts. This raises the interesting question; as you replace one part after another, at what point do you change from human, to cyborg, to robot?
The potential benefits are almost unimaginable; eternal life and youth from a stream of replacement body parts. Enhanced life through incorporation of new physiological capabilities, such as breathing underwater, or access to the world’s knowledge via nanobot links from your brain to the Internet. Brain-to-brain (and brain-to-machine) telepathy. Of course, there will be dangers. At what point will we lose our humanity? At what point will we no longer be subject to the genotype adaptation process that is evolution? When our brains become machines, at what point will we ourselves become reprogrammable and at what point will we have lost our free will?
The median forecast date for the arrival of the Singularity is 2040. If we have engrained Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (essentially preventing any harm to humans) thoroughly enough into the robotic consciousness, and if technology will keep pace, the rising robots will take us with them, either through nanobots linking our brains to the robotosphere, or through our minds being uplifted directly, away from our frail, human, bodies, into perfect, eternal, android forms. Humans are becoming more robotic at the same time as robots are becoming more human. It will no longer be us and them, but a spectrum. We are becoming more like robots. And robots are becoming more like us.