Cyborg has been a highly debated topic. The basic essence of cyborg is the need to create enhanced humans. This article tries to explain cyborg and the human behind.
Fact or fiction?
Terminator, Robocop, Matrix were just movies wherein humans were shown to have extraordinary power. Humans in these movies were part humans and part machines. This exclusive breed is known as “cyborg”. Cyborgs are not only in movies but have come a long way from just imagining them on the screens. Of course the kind of super humans shown in the movies has not yet been replicated but in other 20 or so years we can expect drastic changes to the species known as Homo sapiens.
Fictional cyborgs are portrayed as a fusion of organic and synthetic parts, and frequently pose the question of difference between humans and machine as one concerned with morality, free will, and empathy. Fictional cyborgs may be represented as visibly mechanical (e.g. the Cyber men in the Doctor Who franchise or The Borg from Star Trek) or as almost indistinguishable from humans (e.g. the Terminators from the Terminator films). The 1970s television series The Six Million Dollar Man featured one of the most famous fictional cyborgs. Cyborgs in fiction often play up a human contempt for over-dependence on technology, particularly when used for war, and when used in ways that seem to threaten free will. Cyborgs are also often portrayed with physical or mental abilities far exceeding a human counterpart.
Real cyborgs are more frequently people who use cybernetic technology to repair or overcome the physical and mental constraints of their bodies. But the ones shown in these television series and movies too could become a reality soon.
So what exactly is a cyborg?
A “cyborg”, also known as a cybernetic organism, is basically a being with both biological and artificial such as electronic, mechanical or robotic parts. The term was coined in 1960 when Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline used it in an article about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space. D. S. Halacy’s Cyborg: Evolution of the Superman in 1965 featured an introduction which spoke of a “new frontier” that was “not merely space, but more profoundly the relationship between ‘inner space’ to ‘outer space’ -a bridge…between mind and matter.” The cyborg is often seen today merely as an organism that has enhanced abilities due to technology, but this perhaps oversimplifies the basic concept of a cyborg.
The basic root cause behind the making of such movies is the realization of rapidly advancing machines that are nowadays capable of replacing humans. From doing simple calculations, machines have come a long way.
Looking at the way machines are evolving, there is a strong possibility that the future might see more intelligent computers than humans. This will mean that robots, not humans, make all the important decisions. It will be a robot dominated world with dire consequences for humankind. Is there an alternative way ahead?
Welcome to the world of cyborg. A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism. Cyborgs shown in movies are no longer just fiction. It has come to existence with many people experimenting by inserting circuits and wires into their body to experience the power of being a cyborg.
Cyborgs: didn’t they already exist?
Well typically though, not exactly cyborgs but artificial limbs and other implants have been done before and so it is not really a pretty new concept. Also known as prosthesis this technology refers to surgically implanting an artificial device extension to replace a missing body part.
According to some definitions of the term, the metaphysical and physical attachments humanity has with even the most basic technologies have already made them cyborg. In a typical example, a human fitted with a heart pacemaker or an insulin pump might be considered a cyborg, since these mechanical parts enhance the body’s “natural” mechanisms through synthetic feedback mechanisms. Some theorists cite such modifications as contact lenses, hearing aids, or intraocular lenses as examples of fitting humans with technology to enhance their biological capabilities, however, these modifications are no more cybernetic than would be a pen or a wooden leg. Cochlear implants that combine mechanical modification with any kind of feedback response are more accurately cyborg enhancements.
The term is also used to address human-technology mixtures in the abstract. This includes artifacts that may not popularly be considered technology; for example, pen and paper, and speech and language. Augmented with these technologies, and connected in communication with people in other times and places, a person becomes capable of much more than they were before. This is like computers, which gain power by using Internet protocols to connect with other computers. Cybernetic technologies include highways, pipes, electrical wiring, buildings, electrical plants, libraries, and other infrastructure that we hardly notice, but which are critical parts of the cybernetics that we work within.
Bruce Sterling in his universe of Shaper/Mechanist suggested an idea of alternative cyborg called Lobster, which is made not by using internal implants, but by using an external shell. Unlike human cyborgs that appear human externally while being synthetic internally, a Lobster looks inhuman externally but contains a human internally.
There is a rather large gap between artificial hearts or limbs and being able to grow -fresh organs and install that’ll keep us from aging. Cyborg and having artificial implants has a huge difference. Cyborgs would mean a totally different species of humans.
A complete cyborg is though still just a concept but it is clear enough to turn it into reality within a span of 20 to 25 years.
To give a clue about the basic meaning of a cyborg, I’ll be giving simple examples to be proceeded by ones that prove the extended meaning of cyborgs.
a). In current prosthetic applications, the C-Leg system developed by Otto Bock HealthCare is used to replace a human leg that has been amputated because of injury or illness. The use of sensors in the artificial C-Leg aids in walking significantly by attempting to replicate the user’s natural gait, as it would be prior to amputation. Prostheses like the C-Leg and the more advanced iLimb are considered by some to be the first real steps towards the next generation of real-world cyborg applications. Additionally cochlear implants and magnetic implants which provide people with a sense that they would not otherwise have had can additionally be thought of as creating cyborgs.
b). People are advancing towards getting circuits implanted upon themselves without having any injury or illness. One such person I can quote is Prof Kevin Warwick. Professor Warwick is professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, where he carries out research in artificial intelligence, control and robotics. He is the world’s leading expert in Cybernetics and the world’s first Cyborg through a ground breaking set of scientific experiments.
Prof Warwick after his implant
In a shocking experiment in 1998, he surgically implanted a silicon chip transponder in his left arm. This experiment allowed a computer to monitor Kevin Warwick as he moved through halls and offices of the Department of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, using a unique identifying signal emitted by the implanted chip. He could operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger.
This chip implant technology has the capability to impact our lives in ways that have been previously thought possible in only sci-fi movies. The implant could carry all sorts of information about a person, from Access and Visa details to one’s National Insurance number, blood type, medical records etc., with the data being updated where necessary. The person could become his own identity proof with no danger of identity theft.
In a second of its kind, an array of one hundred electrodes was surgically implanted into the median nerve fibres of the left arm of Professor Kevin Warwick. The procedure, which took a little over two hours, involved inserting a guiding tube into a two inch incision made below the elbow joint, inserting the microelectrode array into this tube and firing it into the median nerve fibres above the wrist. In addition to being able to measure the nerve signals transmitted along the nerve fibres in Professor Warwick’s left arm, the implant was also able to create artificial sensation by stimulating via individual electrodes within the array. This bi-directional functionality was demonstrated with the aid of Kevin’s wife Irena and a second, less complex implant connecting to her nervous system.
a). Humans have limited capabilities.
b). Humans sense the world in a restricted way, vision being the best of the senses.
c). Humans understand the world in only 3 dimensions and communicate in a very slow, serial fashion called speech.
But can this be improved on? Can we use technology to upgrade humans? The possibility exists to enhance human capabilities. To harness the ever increasing abilities of machine intelligence, to enable extra sensory input and to communicate in a much richer way, using thought alone.
Stephen Hawking, considered by many to be among the brightest minds alive today, has been issuing some dire threats about future of life on this planet. “I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars,” Hawking said in an interview.
It is interesting to note that Hawking, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, says genetic engineering for new bodies will probably be needed to make humans capable of surviving the rigors of space travel. He suggests that we develop cyborgs, or humans with computers linked to their brains.
Kevin Warwick has taken the first steps on this path, using himself as a guinea pig test subject receiving, by surgical operation, technological implants connected to his central nervous system.
Classification of cyborgs
In medicine, there are two important and different types of cyborgs: these are the restorative and the enhanced. Restorative technologies “restore lost function, organs, and limbs”. The key aspect of restorative cyborgization is the repair of broken or missing processes to revert to a healthy or average level of function. There is no enhancement to the original faculties and processes that were lost.
On the contrary, the enhanced cyborg follows the principle of optimal performance: maximizing the information or modifications obtained and minimizing the energy expended in the process. Thus, the enhanced cyborg intends to exceed normal processes or even gain new functions that were not originally present.
Although prostheses in general supplement lost or damaged body parts with the integration of a mechanical artifice, bionic implants in medicine allow model organs or body parts to mimic the original function more closely.
Michael Chorost wrote a memoir of his experience with cochlear implants, or bionic ear, titled ” Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human.” Jesse Sullivan became one of the first people to operate a fully robotic limb through a nerve-muscle graft, enabling him a complex range of motions beyond that of previous prosthetic.
A brain-computer interface, or BCI, provides a direct path of communication from the brain to an external device, effectively creating a cyborg. Research of Invasive BCIs, which utilize electrodes implanted directly into the grey matter of the brain, has focused on restoring damaged eyesight in the blind and providing functionality to paralyzed people, most notably those with severe cases, such as Locked-In syndrome. This technology could enable people who are missing a limb or are in a wheelchair the power to control the devices that aide them through neural signals sent from the brain implants directly to computers or the devices. It is possible that this technology will also eventually be used with healthy people also.
Retinal implants are another form of cyborgization in medicine. The theory behind retinal stimulation to restore vision to people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa and vision loss due to aging is that the retinal implant and electrical stimulation would act as a substitute for the missing ganglion cells (cells which connect the eye to the brain.)
While work to perfect this technology is still being done, there have already been major advances in the use of electronic stimulation of the retina to allow the eye to sense patterns of light. A specialized camera is worn by the subject, such as on the frames of their glasses, which converts the image into a pattern of electrical stimulation. A chip located in the user’s eye would then electrically stimulate the retina with this pattern by exciting certain nerve endings which transmit the image to the optic centers of the brain and the image would then appear to the user. If technological advances proceed as planned this technology may be used by thousands of blind people and restore vision to most of them.
A similar process has been created to aide people who have lost their vocal cords. This experimental device would do away with previously used robotic sounding voice simulators. The transmission of sound would start with a surgery to redirect the nerve that controls the voice and sound production to a muscle in the neck, where a nearby sensor would be able to pick up its electrical signals. The signals would then move to a processor which would control the timing and pitch of a voice simulator. That simulator would then vibrate producing a multi tonal sound which could be shaped into words by the mouth.
Gift or curse in disguise?
By 2004, a fully functioning artificial heart was developed. The continued technological development of bionic and nanotechnologies begins to raise the question of enhancement, and of the future possibilities for cyborgs which surpass the original functionality of the biological model. The ethics and desirability of “enhancement prosthetics” have been debated and in its support the Trans humanist movement was born, with its belief that new technologies can assist the human race in developing beyond its present, normative limitations such as aging and disease, as well as other, more general incapacities, such as limitations on speed, strength, endurance, and intelligence.
Opponents of the concept describe what they believe to be biases which drive the development and acceptance of such technologies namely, a bias towards functionality and efficiency that may compel acceptance to a view of human people as defining in terms of upgrades, versions, and utility rather than defining them in terms of the characteristics of actual humanity and personhood.
We have both supporters as well as opponents of this concept and as a matter of fact any technology would. The way in which this concept is materialized would prove whether this technology aims towards a better tomorrow or towards the day when man becomes a cybernetic being and loses his own self that the almighty had once created.