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The blurring line of human and machine

Max Tegmark writes in his book Life 3.0 “We stand at the beginning of a new era. What was once science fiction is fast becoming reality, as AI transforms […] even our very sense of what it means to be human.” This quote describes the direction our world is going to. Technology advances faster than ever before. Usually one would encounter the word cyborg only in science fiction -novels, but it’s actually a rather timely topic.

Many researchers don’t think it’s a question of whether we will all become cyborgs but rather what the definition of cyborg is. Since the line between humans and machines is getting blurrier by the day, it is safe to say that humans will someday turn into cyborgs. The time is now to consider the risks and reasons of why we should or shouldn’t.

First, we should clear up some vocabulary since they often get mixed up. An android is a robot, that looks like a human or has human like features. A humanoid can also be a human like robot, but it usually refers to an alien that resembles a human or has human like features. The term cyborg on the other hand is drawn from the words cybernetic and organism and is usually defined as a human that has technology added to or imbedded into their body. This augmented technology can be divided into two categories. The first is therapeutic or corrective, which usually refers directly to medicine, for example, the correction of blindness or deafness. The other category is adding, enhancing or curative, where a healthy body get’s a completely new sense or ability or where the existing ones are made better. This division into two categories creates a few problems.

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The first kind we already have quite a lot of: hearing aids, intraocular contact lenses, pacemakers and many prothesis. Even various brain implants have been successfully tested, to be able to improve vision to those who have lost their sight, or mobility of those who are paralyzed due to brain injury. But the second kind is still for the most part thought to be weird or even sometimes morally questionable. Considered to be the pioneer of cyborg-related research is Kevin Warwick, also known as “Captain Cyborg”. He has independently conducted his experiments and research on the subject since 1998. His goal is not primarily to improve someone’s senses or to repair limbs – he thinks he’s working towards something way bigger. He wants to revolutionize both the way we communicate and think. The best known of his studies is his surprisingly successful attempt to connect his own nervous system to his wife’s nervous system by placing electrodes in their bloodstreams to create some sort of telepathic way of communicating. In the program Roundtable: Will we all be cyborgs in the future? Warwick believes, that even though we can surely take on new sensory input, a new way of communicating and a new way of understanding could change the world. He thinks that’s what we should prioritise.

Here we come to the core question about the two categories. Since we’ve come so far with the medical side of things, should we be focusing more on the enhancing of humans? In the same Roundtable episode, it’s discussed whether it’s ethically and morally right to try to enhance humans as a race. The opinions vary from “no, it’s inhumane” to “yes, it’s the next step in our evolution”. One of the biggest problems that comes up is the price and reachability of the enhancements. What if only the richest of the rich would be able to get them? That could in the worst-case-scenario mean, the rise of a new kind of human. Almost like a godlike race – a superhuman.

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All in all, there are many different perspectives on the topic. However, it is common in almost all of them that this development continues and cannot be prevented. Neel Harbison, who was born fully colour-blind, has an interesting view of the matter. Since he has a permanently to his head attached antenna, that allows him to experience colours without seeing them, he is the first ever formally recognized cyborg by the British Government. In addition to “normal” colours, the antenna registers infrared and ultraviolet. Harbison feels these frequencies in his skull as vibrations that make “internal sounds”. He believes that in the next decades, people will have more free hands on what their bodies are, what they know and what qualities they have. He also more generally thinks that these improvements could be a means of improving the earth and at the same time improving our starting point for space travel. As a species, we have reportedly changed this planet for thousands of years to survive, but according to him, we should do the opposite. The most important thing would be night vision, as it would eliminate the need for electronic lights (at least in theory).

Interestingly, Harbison’s opinion is very similar to what the 60’s article Cyborgs and Space has to say. It also speculates that wouldn’t it be easier and more profitable for space travel to modify the how the human body fits into space rather than to transform the environment in space to be like earths.

All things considered, even though the idea of cyborgs makes many raise their eyebrows, it’s not that farfetched. Technology keeps developing and we come along with it, whether we like it or not.

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