Who has never admired superheroes in comic books or films? Who has never craved to gain their supernatural skills and abilities, or just to be stronger, faster or smarter? What if there was a way you could enhance yourself? Would you resist the temptation, or would you give in to the inexorable principle of progress?
From the point of view of biology and nature, human evolution is slow. Indeed, too slow in comparison with today’s hectic time. While animals have evolved and adapted themselves to the environment they live in, people have evolved very little and adapted the environment to suit themselves. Since we cannot wait for millions and millions of years before we change, cyborgism might be the course to follow to get around our imperfection.
‘Cyborg’ is a blend of the words ‘cybernetic’ and ‘organism’. Coined in the early ’60s, this term refers to a human being whose physiological functions have either been added to or upgraded via electronic or biochemical mechanisms/technologies/concepts. Technically speaking, we could describe anyone with prosthetics as a cyborg. Nevertheless, when we keep to the usage of the term ‘cyborgism’ to mean substitution or advanced usage of our body using a technological device, we realise that the term comprises a broad spectrum of scientific fields: biomechatronics, biomedical engineering, cybernetics, neural engineering, nanotechnology. Most of these disciplines are still in their infancy. Bionic limbs, cochlear implants (bionic ears), fully artificial hearts, bionic eye implants – all of these have been ‘on the market’ for less than 30 years.
A man with an antenna
When Neil Harbisson (born 27 July 1984) had an antenna (illegally) implanted in his skull, it dropped a bombshell in human society. The stir he created in scientific circles has not settled yet. Cyborgism, which used to be a fantasy of writers and directors, became a reality overnight. However, the reason for all this fuss was quite mundane.
Harbisson was born with achromatopsia – total colour blindness. Despite his handicap, he proved to be very gifted and creative from a very young age. Therefore, studying fine arts at the school of Alexandre Satorras in Barcelona seemed to be a clear choice. He even got special dispensation not to have to use any colours in his works. Later he attended Dartington College of Arts in Devon, UK, this time to study music. The experience he gained in both studies led him to his final thesis – the invention of the ‘Eyeborg’. The Eyeborg was an apparatus composed of an antenna equipped with a webcam connected to a computer and headphones. This invention could differentiate each colour into 360 various sound waves, thus enabling Harbisson to perceive even infrared and ultraviolet colours. Harbisson kept improving and developing his contrivance until he came up with a computer system in a small chip which it was possible to put in his skull. The antenna catches the frequency of light, which consequently vibrates in his head. Since every colour has its own vibration and resounds in the inner ear, Harbisson can ‘hear’ the colours. Using common technology (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi), he can hear colours all over the world and even from the universe.
The world according to Musk
Elon Musk takes his visions even further, beyond the comprehension of the majority of people. In 2016, he established the company Neuralink, which researches the implementation of a chip connected with more or less 1000 electrodes in the human brain. These are supposed to be alternatives to neurons damaged by disease or injury, thus (expressed in layman’s terms) making disabled people walk again. So far, Neuralink has conducted successful experiments on mice. It is assumed that it will start testing the technology on humans in 2020. It might make you dizzy to think about the next planned stage in interconnecting the brain with technology. The possibility of expanding brain activity or creating a new sense using similar sets of chips and electrodes is just as appealing as all those supernatural skills of sci-fi heroes.
Threats vs Promises
Each invention brings with it ethical questions and questions of potential risk, together with questions of how it might work to the common good. The issue of financing the technology and financial availability to all levels of society raises questions of whether cyborgism could be misused by the wealthy and powerful, so deepening the social difference. At the same time, there is a danger that the technlogy could be taken advantage of to create an invincible army. Also, we cannot foresee all the medical impacts cyborgism might have on the human body in the long term.
On the other hand, progress in disciplines such as technology, engineering and medicine may result in improvements to the quality of our lives and minimizing of impacts of human disabilities or even their complete resolution, plus broadening and deepening of our knowledge of human body functions and organs.
Anything is possible
As we know, progress is a basic feature of evolution for all animal species in the world, and it is inevitable. The advantages of cyborgism are undeniable, although there exists a possibility of abuse, either by an individual or a particular society. Are we able to overcome our fear of potential consequences, or is progress something which we should prevent in the name of the common good? Can cyborgism be a reversible process? The only sure thing is that we cannot be sure of anything where people and their weaknesses are concerned. However, addressing these weaknesses is precisely the point of cyborgism. For now, cyborgism addresses physical weaknesses, but one day, I am sure, it will also address mental weaknesses and character flaws.
So, what do you say? Are you in?
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