The cyborgs are upon us. Turns out, they’re more ‘enhanced reality’ and less ‘science fiction.’
In 1998, Professor of Cybernetics Kevin Warwick had a chip implanted in his body that would open electronic doors and turn on lights as he passed. In 2002, he had a 100 electrode array wired into the nervous system of his arm to allow him to remotely control an artificial hand. Today, he’s working on using animal brain cells as a control system for robots.
Performance artist Stelios Arcadiou (whose has changed his name to Stelarc) has spent 10 years growing an artificially-created ear that is surgically attached to his left arm. In 2009, Jerry Jalava, a Finnish computer engineer who lost part of a finger in a motorcycle accident, turned his prosthetic finger into a USB drive. Colorblind artist Neil Harbisson has an antenna that helps him to ‘hear’ colors. Avant-garde artist Moon Ribas had seismic sensors implanted in her feet that detect the vibrations caused by earthquakes, and records the data online. She then transforms that data into dance.
The list goes on and on.
For the aforementioned people, incorporating technology into their bodies to enhance the human experience was an obvious next step. Over the past years, they’ve tried to reimagine their bodies and take charge of their own evolution. They identify as cyborgs, but they are a far cry from the stereotypical cyborg assassin, such as the one described in The Terminator (1984):
“This weapon will be powerful, versatile, and indestructible. It can’t be reasoned with. It can’t be bargained with. It will feel no pity. No remorse. No pain. No fear. It will have only one purpose: to return to the present and prevent the future. This weapon will be called…The Terminator.”
For the longest time, cyborgs only existed only as part of largely hostile, dystopian worlds in science fiction. Although there were also the occasional friendly cyborgs, they tended to be unmistakably futuristic and riddled with danger to humans. Science fiction films and TV stretching from 1927’s Metropolis to Alien, Battlestar Galactica, RoboCop, and Ghost in the Shell fuelled our imagination and kept the idea of the evil cyborg alive. The onscreen idea of the cyborg also seemed technologically light-years away, and almost unattainable.
The illustration of technology transforming people into Frankenstein-like monsters and taking over the world has been redrawn several times, thereby creating an image of doom and gloom and causing most of us to have negative associations with cyborgs.
However, of late, humans who have taken the leap and become cyborgs have started to dispel this negative association and show us what real cyborgs are actually like.
So, what exactly is a cyborg?
Around 62 years ago, Austrian-born scientist Manfred E. Clynes and American scientist Nathan S. Kline coined the term ‘cyborg’. The word first appeared in an article called “Cyborgs and Space” in the September 1960 issue of the journal Astronautics.
“For the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously, we propose the term ‘Cyborg,'” wrote Clynes and his co-author Kline, who both taught at Rockland State University.
The term was coined with an eye toward space travel, the greatest scientific project of the 60s. “Space travel challenges mankind not only technologically but spiritually, in that it invites man to take an active part in his own biological evolution. Scientific advances of the future may thus be utilized to permit man’s existence in environments which differ radically from those provided by nature as we know it,” the paper adds.
The authors were against the idea of customizing environments for humans, rather, they argued that humans should adapt themselves to extraterrestrial conditions.
“If man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continuously be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine. The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel,” Clynes and Kline wrote.
The paper was published before the first human made it to space. As a result, scientists had no information about the long-term effects of space travel on humans.
Though Clynes’ and Kline’s definition of a cyborg (a portmanteau of the words cybernetic and organism), includes beings with both organic and biomechatronic body parts, certain definitions of the term can also include humans with pacemakers or an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator as the devices use the synthetic feedback mechanism to keep the person alive.
Merriam-Webster defines a cyborg as a bionic human, with “bionic” meaning biological capabilities or performance enhanced by electronic or electromechanical devices. Modifications like hearing aids or artificial hips can be thought of as a technology that helps humans enhance their capabilities. Albeit, hearing aids and pacemakers do not provide any superhuman capabilities, so it’s debatable if it’s accurate to label such people as cyborgs or bionic humans.
Oxford Reference’s definition of a cyborg, however, went beyond the implant. It termed the cyborg as a hybrid being: half-human, half-machine (a contraction of ‘cybernetic organism’). The concept was taken up by anthropologist Donna Haraway in 1985 to explore the blurred boundaries between the organic and the technological as a radical challenge to biological essentialism.
In her essay A Cyborg Manifesto, she describes the cyborg as a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Haraway describes the idea of a cyborg as an organism made up of technology, biology, culture, and politics. It is used to subvert the key differences between body and mind, body and machine, and masculine and feminine.
Haraway has proclaimed herself a cyborg, a quintessential technological body, who does not resemble the cyborg we see in films. She described being a cyborg as “more like a favorite aunt than a billion-dollar product of the US military-industrial complex”, in an interview with Wired.
Here, Interesting Engineering delves into the “cybernetic organism” that represents a radical vision of what it means to be human in the western world in the late twentieth century.
More human, not less
The 1990s were thought to be the beginning of the cyborg era, and a shift was evident in the thought process of researchers in the field, wherein they considered cyborgs more as nodes on networks.
Kevin Warwick, an emeritus professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, England, where he carries out research in artificial intelligence, control, robotics, and cyborgs, had his first implant in 1998, a simple Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip placed under the skin in his arm. He earned the moniker of “cyborg”, only after the second implant in 2002, which was integrated into his nervous system and extended what human biology was capable of. With the implant, he could be wired up to computers, control robots on other continents via the internet, and sense ultrasonic sound waves.
“It’s like a superpower suddenly your brain can control,” Warwick told Live Science. Later, he connected his nervous system with the nervous system of his wife, Irena Warwick, after she had electrodes implanted into the nerves in her arm, too.
It gave the Warwicks abilities that they didn’t possess as humans.
Here’s where Clynes’ and Kline’s definition is bound to make more sense. For Clynes, the interface between the organism and the technology was just a means of enlarging the human experience, as per The Atlantic. Their first definition ran under the section entitled: “Cyborgs — Frees Man to Explore.”
The cyborg was not less human, but more.
“The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel,” Clynes and Kline wrote.
Enhanced powers and elevated perception
“To me, being a cyborg has nothing to do with the body. You may have many implants but do not consider them as organs within your body. Similarly, you could have no implants, but feel an inherent connection to technology and identify as a cyborg. The question here is how strong is your relationship with technology? Is it altering your reality? If yes, then you’re a cyborg,” he said, in an interview with Interesting Engineering.
Born color-blind, Harbisson has an antenna implanted in his skull that perceives colors beyond the normal human spectrum: he can hear infrared and ultraviolet. “Color perception gives me a new reality, and I can sense colors that the eye cannot detect. The antenna is a way of gaining new inputs of stimuli from reality. I can now paint what I hear,” he explained. After a tussle with the UK Passport Office which didn’t let the antenna be part of his passport picture, Harbisson fought a battle that eventually led to his victory and becoming the world’s first legally recognized cyborg.
Ribas, an Avant-Garde artist, and choreographer developed the Seismic Sense, a sensor that vibrates when there’s an earthquake. After taking out her seismic sensors after seven years, Ribas says she felt like a phantom cyborg, a term she coined, for the longest time. “I could still feel the vibrations from the seismic sensors for the longest time,” she told Interesting Engineering.
Harbisson and Ribas are also prime examples of people who felt no connection to technology until they became one themselves. “My perspective changed when I joined art school and got into the context of contemporary and experimental art. When I stopped using technology as a tool and became one myself, I began to understand it differently. It can open up our senses and help us reconnect with nature in ways we could never think of,” explained Harbisson.
Ribas elaborated that she had a distant relationship with technology. “Initially, it was never about being a cyborg, rather a means to explore and experiment. I had these kaleidoscopic glasses which would help me see just colors, not shapes. Then, as a choreographer, I wanted to explore movement in different ways. So I chose to implant seismic sensors,” she said.
“Once I did, the connection was rather profound. It felt great to feel how alive the planet is. Most importantly, the technology ingrained in me an awareness about the other forms of existence. My perception of reality was elevated,” she said.
Ribas added that she’s in constant transformation. “Right now I’m pregnant, and my partner and I are working on technology that could help him hear the baby’s growth. He will have access to that new sense and develop a connection,” a visibly-excited Ribas said. Meanwhile, Harbisson is testing a prototype that will sense the passage of time.
Evolution is in our hands
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, said that we are indeed on the cusp of a revolution.
“In the coming decades, for the first time in history, humanity itself will undergo a radical revolution. Not only our tools and politics but our bodies and minds will be transformed by genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and brain-computer interfaces. Bodies and minds will be the main products of the 21st-century economy,” he said.
Harari also said that our idea of the future mostly involves a world in which people are identical to us but enjoy smarter technology like intelligent robots and spaceships that travel at the speed of light.
“Yet the revolutionary potential of future technologies is to change Homo sapiens itself, including our bodies and our minds, and not merely our vehicles and weapons. The most amazing thing about the future won’t be the spaceships, but the beings flying them,” said Harari.
However, the present-day “cyborgs” also feel that people are yet to come to terms with the idea.
Warwick has retired from upgrading his body with technology. While he won’t rule out one more implant, he’s disappointed with the rather slow scientific progress humans have made as cyborgs ever since he went under the knife. According to Warwick, his cyborg experiments didn’t quite take off academically, and his peers never fully accepted his work.
He expected lots of people to have implants in their brains by now. “We don’t have anybody doing that, which is really disappointing,” Warwick told Live Science.
Both Harbisson and Ribas resonate with the same sentiment. “Fear is probably a factor. And the revolution is taking longer than I thought. Money is not a prerequisite as a few pieces of technology will suffice to open up our senses. We can see students and people passionate about experimentation becoming cyborgs. They are unafraid to modify their body,” said Harbisson.
Ribas notes that some aspects of implant or “cyborg” technology are acknowledged by the general public as useful. Brain-computer interfaces are part of assistive technologies that read and translate brain signals into commands for an output device carrying out the user’s intention. People with restricted motor functions can move robot prosthetics or use computers with their minds. Meanwhile, there’s Neuralink, Elon Musk’s company, developing neural interface technology, putting microchips into people’s brains. The technology could help study and treat neurological disorders.
“People have accepted the union of technology with the human body for medical reasons, but not for artistic or experimental ones. Fortunately, the new generation, I believe, will find more ways of experimentation, and it keeps me optimistic,” she said. Harbisson and Ribas consider implanting technology as artistic statements and created the Cyborg Foundation in 2010 to help humans become cyborgs, defend the rights of cyborgs and promote cyborg art.
Will the future see only cyborgs? “Hopefully not, as diversity is essential,” said Harbisson. “In the future, we’ll have a diverse set of realities and future, coupled with the freedom to the freedom to be a cyborg. We may have a range of different species, those who are 100 percent organic, those who are completely cyborg, those who are genetically modified. Diversity in the future will be nothing in comparison to what we have now.”
Such a choice also raises questions. As technology and interfacing improve, will the abilities possessed by cyborgs eventually change the rules and fabric of social life? What happens to 100 percent organic humans? Will they be sidelined? Only time will tell.