Steve Austin, fictional character from The Six Million Dollar Man–that’s the answer you might have received in the 1970s if you were to ask anybody the question, “what are cyborgs?” Today in 2015, the same question might yield multiple answers, and plenty of them would be real life, flesh and blood (and biomechatronic, of course) people.
You might hear the name Rich Lee, who implanted magnets into his ears that work like earbuds, or Kevin Warwick, a pioneer in neurosurgical device implantation. The name Neil Harbisson might come up, famous in the media for his skull-implanted antenna that allows him to hear color, and for becoming the world’s first legally recognized cyborg–and these are just the famous ones.
Grandpa Jerry with his pacemaker? Technically, he’s a cyborg. That little girl down the street with cochlear implants? Yup, also a cyborg. Even Cousin Paul, who just had surgery for an internal penile pump implant, is now a cyborg. They’re everywhere.
When Science Fiction Becomes Reality
Of course, it’s still natural that many associate cyborgs with science fiction. The most striking early depictions were of visibly half-human, half-machine beings, much like The Borg from Star Trek (the moniker itself derived from shorthand for “cyborg”), or RoboCop.
It’s understandable that we’d distance ourselves from calling a person with hearing aids or even reading glasses a cyborg–but by some definitions, they are just that. Founding executive editor of Wired magazine goes so far as to argue that homo sapiens began as and still are cyborgs–but most tend to agree that the term “cyborg” denotes implantable technology, not as easily removable as a Google Glass unit or headphones for example. Being a cyborg basically comes down to possessing technology that becomes integrated with the wearer–or part of the wearer, if you will.
It’s hard to imagine the mainstream adoption of cybernetics, at such an early stage of its existence–but one only has to look at the humble beginnings of any widespread technology to see that once materials and production become cheap enough, somebody will find a way to manufacture it in quantity and sell it to everyone else.
Virtual reality headsets, for example, were an expensive pipedream in 1968, but are poised to invade every living room in Middle America in 2016. In the 1940s, computers used to fill entire rooms. In 2013, this guy put one inside of him arm. You get the picture.
Ready to Become a Cyborg?
The other major nerve that cybernetics strikes in many is the invasive, implantable side of it. A lot of people are a bit squeamish about the whole “surgery” thing–but of course, they’ll get over it as the trend catches on and it becomes more publicly acceptable to cut yourself open to shove hardware inside.
More realistically, a trained professional would provide this service, somebody like renowned body modification artists and pioneer Steve Haworth, a man who’s been credited with performing the first sub-dermal implants, and who recently put a cell-phone-sized computer into the forearm of cyborg Tim Cannon.
Still, DIY culture is strong and there are those biohackers, aka “grinders”, that will opt to take the knife to themselves, though this is not advised by many. If you have a hard time believing that people will willingly mutilate themselves to achieve transhuman aims, ask yourself this: do you have a tattoo? How about a piercing?
Imagine the incredulous looks you’d get if you were to travel back in time to the 1950s to tell the common American that by 2012, 42% of people will have injected colored ink into their dermis and that 61% of adults will have punched a hole through an extremity like an ear, a tongue, or a nipple, simply to hang jewelry there. With that in mind, cybernetics suddenly don’t seem that far-fetched–especially when a huge advocate for cybernetics and transhumanist ventures is running for U.S. President in 2016.
A Movement Around Transhumanism
Zoltan Istvan really has no chance of winning the coveted title of Commander in Chief, but he knows it. He’s not really running to win, but rather to bring more attention to the Transhumanist movement, an international and intellectual movement that aims to transform the human condition by developing and creating widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. He’s the political posterboy for anybody that dreams of a future where the marriage of tech and biology is the norm–and perhaps even a future where we’ve conquered death.
“As a group, we in the cybernetic community are a branch of the transhumanist movement,” says Neil Harbisson, “who want human consciousness to continue beyond biological death within technology.”
Harbisson, and many other cyborgs and transhumanists are excited by the prospect of immortality. The ultimate aim of many futurists/transhumanists revolves around conquering death and reaching the next stage of human evolution, where instead of succumbing to aging and failing organs, we either replace them with spare parts, or outfit them from birth with advances such as a cybernetic sock that electronically and seamlessly controls primary functions.
Some even think that there will come a time that we separate the consciousness from the organic body and upload it into a server, where it will exist in perpetuity as a sort of software version of yourself so that you may “live” forever within a computer network.
How Cyborgs will Change Society
If these types of concepts don’t necessarily sit right with you, you’re not alone–and not everybody in the cybernetic community is on the hunt for the technological equivalent of The Holy Grail. Still, concerns over how cybernetics might change society are abound.
“If a lot of people are able to afford a device, a technology, or a surgery that enhances their capabilities, the average capability in society shifts upward,” says Bertolt Meyer, a social psychologist at the Chemnitz University of Technology. “That means that something that is normal today will be seen as a shortcoming in the future because a lot of people are ‘better than normal’ in the future.”
We already see this in today’s society. Anybody that doesn’t own a cellphone is seen as a philistine. Even those that hold on to older technology, like desktop computers running Windows 95 or box televisions, are subconsciously filed as a “different”, usually on the basis of socio-economics or philosophy.
So what happens when little Peter gets bullied at school because he doesn’t have the latest Apple earbud implants or a Samsung mental receiver? He’ll be one of the few children that still has to watch TV on a screen while the teacher beams the information directly into the heads of the other students.
On the flip side, natural deference to what we don’t know and don’t understand has ensured that the road to a cyborg-inhabited future will not be met without resistance. Cyborg Steve Mann can attest to this as the sole victim of what might be considered the world’s first cybernetic hate crime.
As he and his family were eating at a McDonald’s in France, several employees expressed discontent with his Digital Eye Glass, a cybernetic enhancement that resembles Google Glass. Even though he presented the employees with medical documentation explaining the device’s necessity to Mann, the documents were ripped up and Mann was assaulted by one of the employees.
“He angrily grabbed my eyeglass, and tried to pull it off my head,” says Mann. “The eyeglass is permanently attached and does not come off my skull without special tools.”
While their actions are not justifiable, it’s easy to understand why Mann’s assaulters feel the way they do; go point a recording camera in the face of just about anybody walking down the street and see how they respond. We get uncomfortable at the thought of extensive police surveillance, let alone unwarranted recording by the average cyborg, and examples of how those intent on achieving selfish aims will abuse new technologies.
A New Type of “Cyber” Crime
Hackers have become good enough with ransomware, for example, that not even the FBI is able to thwart them. Imagine that instead of your most valuable files being held for ransom, it’s your bionic heart’s shutoff switch. Terrifying indeed.
Fortunately, grinders and biohackers are precisely the ones who worry about these types of things. The advent of RFID chips, for example, have ignited the ire of many conspiracy theorists, claiming that the government will be able to shut off the chips that contain your health records, banking information, and identity, and will be able to track you via these methods. What they fail to mention is that the government–and many other private entities and corporations–already track you via these methods.
The RFID chip utilizes the exact same technology as credit cards, and don’t present any more of a danger than we see in existing technology. Of course, a mandatory government issued RFID system would be just as scary as a mandatory government issued credit card system–but ultimately it would take control of the same technologies.
Fortunately, for now, we will continue to tread lightly and move slowly when it comes to cybernetic enhancements, because, ironically technology is moving too fast for the field. It wouldn’t make sense for the majority of the world to be constantly performing surgery to accommodate upgrades in technology. But while it may be slow-going now, a cyborg future is an inevitability.
“This stuff is going to happen,” says Bertolt Meyer, “it’s just a question of when.”