If you hear the word ‘cyborg’, chances are your brain immediately jumps to science fiction. We’ve all seen movies like The Terminator or Robocop that create a bizarre world where a human can merge with a machine to give them extraordinary abilities. But did you know that there are already cyborgs amongst us?
At least, this is what some people believe.
On March 28th, nine inquisitive minds met to discuss the era of the cyborg and whether or not that era is already upon us. Some believe that our complete and utter dependence on our technology makes us cyborgs – never mind that the technology is located outside our bodies. It may only be a matter of time before the services that our smartphones provide are implanted, after all. Others believe that you can only become a cyborg if your body is somehow merged with a machine. But this creates other prickly problems. Is a person who uses a pacemaker considered a cyborg?
Regardless of what a cyborg is, there are many more questions pertaining to what becoming a cyborg would mean. The guests discussed issues with identity, privacy and inequality and asked if fundamentally altering our bodies would wreak havoc with our identities, if privacy would become obsolete when our machine parts could constantly transmit data about us, and if the disparity between those who could afford enhancement and those who could not would result in even more inequality between humans.
On the other hand, would the elimination of our corporeal bodies also eliminate biases? Could technology in the cyborg era help us to better know ourselves and reclaim primal knowledge we lost as we moved faster and faster toward a technological world? Would connecting our minds to the cloud make us feel more connected to our neighbors? And most importantly, can we successfully steer our technology in a positive direction as we move irrevocably toward the era of the cyborg?
My parents were self-proclaimed Trekkies. Many nights we would sit down together and watch old reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation. On occasion, the crew aboard the star ship Enterprise would come into conflict with their enemy, the Borg. The Borg were alien cybernetic beings enhanced by technology and linked in a hive mind called the Collective. I believe this was my first introduction to the idea of cyborgs.
As I grew up and technology advanced, my parents jokingly began to refer to themselves as the Borg. I remember when they purchased their first cell phones and my step dad attached it to a clip on his belt, like the technology was a part of him. Although they couldn’t have known it at the time, my parents’ corny Star Trek jokes were not far off the mark. Today, many people believe that the era of the cyborg is upon us. Some even believe that we’ve made the transition to cyborgs long ago.
This was the topic of discussion for Her Century’s Salon Dinner #6 on March 28th. Nine people came to discuss the future and whether or not it held the possibility of humans merging with machines, and if so, what that future would look like.
Our guests included transhumanist enthusiasts, futurologists, an independent researcher who studies AI and robotics, a robotics engineer, and others in the design and education industries, as well as our host and founder of Her Century, Olga Yanovskaya. Some of our guests were passionate about human enhancement, and others were curious about where the future would lead humans as we moved every steadily toward the era of the cyborg.
What is a cyborg?
Firstly, understand that cyborgs are no longer a thing of science fiction. Hollywood has created The Borg, Robocop, and Robyn Williams’ happy-go-lucky yet confused character in the movie AI. But Hollywood has missed the mark. Many people believe, including some of the guests at the Salon Dinner #6, that cyborgs are already among us. Before I get into the dinner discussion, I will briefly explain some of the most current definitions of cyborgs.
The term “cyborg” - a combination of the words “cybernetics” and “organism” - was first coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in a report for a NASA conference on space exploration. The report, called “The Cyborg Study” was intended to solve the difficult problems of sending a human into space. Clynes and Kline proposed that rather than simply changing the astronaut’s environment (providing oxygen, sustenance, gravity etc. in space) why not attempt to adapt the human body to this hostile environment? Through the use of drugs or surgical and/or technological enhancement, humans might be better equipped to explore the universe.
Since Clynes and Kline released The Cyborg Report, many more definitions have emerged to denote human enhancement. However, the definitions seem to revolve around two relatively distinct categories. In the first category, a human can only be considered a cyborg if they are physically altered by machine parts or even surgery and drugs. The school of thought in the second category is that a human can be a cyborg if they are so reliant on the technology outside their bodies that it would be difficult for them to function without it.
Because so many of us are dependent on technologies like smartphones, there are some people who believe that we’ve already crossed the Rubicon. When my parents bought their first mobile phones, for example, it was during the days when mobile phones were still just that – telephones that could be transported. Today we carry around mini computers in our pockets that become more powerful with every new release, and we are becoming more and more reliant on them. We need our phones to find our way around a city, to store our contacts, to remind us of upcoming meetings, to communicate with friends, family, and colleagues. In China, our smartphones are even more central to our daily lives. If you’re an expat living in China and you don’t speak the language, you need a translator app to communicate even the most basic things. You also need your phone to purchase items or in some cases, use the metro, the bus, or pay for taxis. Some would argue that because we’re so reliant on this technology, it has become an essential part of us, never mind that it’s located outside our bodies. Our dependence on the technology we use has made us nearly one with it. We are already The Borg.
Some take this idea to the extreme and argue that we’ve always been cyborgs to some extent. When we created the written language and numerical systems, for example, we devised a way to store memory outside of our bodies. As empires grew, rulers depended more heavily on these written systems. Managing taxes, immigration, labor, class systems, war, etc. would have been impossible without a way to keep track of vast numbers of people and goods. Were the ancient Sumerians cyborgs because they were dependent on these written systems to control their empire?
One of the dinner guests, a futurologist and expert in market strategies, exponential technologies and brand growth models, argued that these technologies do not make humans cyborgs. It is only when the technology becomes a part of us, she said, that we make the transition from human to cyborg.
And yet this is a tricky question as well. The company that Olga works for develops healthcare products, including pacemakers. Some say that the first time a pacemaker was implanted in a human was the moment the first cyborg was born. This scenario seems to meet all the requirements of a standard cyborg definition. The human is dependent on a piece of machinery that is implanted in his or her body. In fact, that person probably cannot live without their piece of implanted machinery. So, is a person with a pacemaker a cyborg?
The dinner guests pointed out that pacemakers are not the only implanted technology that humans benefit from today. Cochlear implants help the hearing-impaired, and athletes who lose a leg can replace it with a prosthetic one and reach ever higher levels of athletic accomplishment. But people also enhance themselves in a myriad of other ways. People who suffer from depression or anxiety take drugs to balance their mood, the vision-impaired wear eyeglasses or contacts to correct their sight, and some people receive plastic surgery to change their appearance. Which of these enhancements make us cyborgs and which of them should only be considered aids or augmentations? Where do we draw that line?
One of the dinner guests suggested that it’s only a matter of time until the technology we use on the outside is implanted on the inside. Today we use our smartphones so often and for so many things that we hardly notice we’re doing it. It’s like the air we breathe. The transition from using that technology on the outside to simply implanting it in our brains might not even be noticeable. Essentially, we would become the hardware for the software we’re already dependent on.
While we throw the word ‘cyborg’ around carelessly when we talk about Science Fiction, there seems to be some reluctance around labeling real-life humans as cyborgs. The dinner guests were no less hesitant. Most interestingly, the futurologist who defined a cyborg as someone who was physically enhanced by a piece of technology in their body, could claim this enhancement herself. With an NFC chip implanted in her hand, she can lock and unlock her house doors or store valuable information. But when asked if she considers herself a cyborg, she met the guests part way and called herself a “mini cyborg”. So when exactly is it that we make the transition to full cyborg?
The problem is maybe one of identity. We see Robocop or The Terminator and we can’t connect, even when those characters are sometimes given to very human responses when faced with moral dilemmas. Those characters are still too foreign for us to take a leap into their shoes. What we fail to understand, perhaps, is that we will probably never have to make that leap. Rather, the change will be slow and insidious. We will not one day wake up a cyborg, as Robocop did. Instead we will begin to merge with the machine before we realize it. With advancements in robotic prosthetics and technological medical enhancements, we are slowly creeping toward that reality already.
Although we are slowly beginning to enhance ourselves, it seems we have not made significant enough changes to consider ourselves something other than human. At the dinner, Olga brought up the point that we’re only augmenting ourselves to bring us to baseline human. If you have trouble hearing, you can receive a cochlear implant. If you have trouble seeing, get Lasik surgery. Another dinner guest, a robotics engineer from Italy, makes robotic prosthetic limbs for people who are disabled or who are missing limbs. But does replacing our human limbs for robotic ones make us less human?
One notable example that the guests discussed is Neil Harbisson. Harbisson is a transpecies activist and artist who was born with a severe form of color blindness that enabled him to only see black and white. An antenna implanted in his brain sends audible vibrations through his skull to report information such as electromagnetic radiation, phone calls, music, and videos or images. He can even ‘hear’ color with it. Even in this extreme example, this self-professed cyborg hasn’t gained any superhuman abilities nor has he altered his identity as a human. In fact, his enhancement only makes him more human.
But one day, humans may enhance themselves to acquire abilities that go beyond that of the average human, even borrowing senses and abilities from other animals. One of the guests, however, asked why we would need to enhance ourselves with abilities that evolution did not see fit to endow us with, to which the guests responded overwhelmingly with ‘why not?’ If you had the chance breathe underwater or fly or survive in space without a space suit, why wouldn’t you?
So perhaps we will become cyborgs only when our humanism is fundamentally changed or when our augmentations change us in such a way as to completely alter our identity as human.
One of the greatest concerns of our time is privacy. In our interactions with technology, we are constantly producing data. This data is an extremely valuable commodity to companies who would like to use it to offer you products or services you might be interested in buying. If you’ve ever used the Internet, you’ve certainly had the experience of seeing ads for Thailand tours after you’ve done some internet searches on Thailand.
For some, this is a massive privacy concern. If companies can collect your data and use it for their benefit, are your internet searches really private? There are other unusual cases as well that most of us don’t think about regarding privacy. For example, pacemakers not only keep your heart beating, they also send out a constant stream of data regarding your heart’s activities. But you as the user of the pace maker do not have access to that data. Rather, it’s the company that owns it. Normally any medical information is confidential between you and your doctor. If the company who makes your pacemaker receives the data sent from your device, should that be considered a breach in privacy?
If this is true of the pacemaker, will there come a time when our bodies are upgraded by multiple pieces of machinery all capturing and sending out data to companies who then sell it for a profit? Imagine how powerful corporations can become if they can capture data not only through your internet searches or through your interactions with apps and other software, but via empirical information from your body or from your body’s reactions to the stimuli all around it. Replacing our body parts with machinery that can capture data and release it to the manufacturer may give that manufacturer a deeper insight into our desires and preferences than we even have access to. After all, we can lie to others and to ourselves about having enjoyed that artsy film, but our bodies cannot lie to biometric sensors that say otherwise. If corporations have access to our deepest desires and preferences through the use of hardware in our bodies, will privacy lose all relevance?
Data is not the only problem regarding our privacy. What about monitoring? If we all have technology or chips implanted in us, it may be possible that corporations or the government know where we are at all times or may be able to listen in on our conversations.
However, the dinner guests made the case that we’re already living in that world. We wear smartwatches or use fitness tracking devices that track our location and our steps. And it’s not unthinkable that our conversations and activities are already being monitored, recorded, and listened to. The debacle with the American National Security Association showed us just how much our privacy may already be an illusion.
Right now our privacy is still a big concern, but as we move from an era of low-grade surveillance technology to a world where we’re constantly being monitored we may not even notice it. Or perhaps when we become cyborgs, our data will one day be used not to sell us things but to help us make big life decisions using the empirical data from our body’s biometric sensors. The tradeoff may one day be worth it, or it may someday just not be such a big deal. As we move toward the cyborg era, it goes without question that we will be plugged into the system more so than ever before. We have to decide how much privacy matters in that kind of world.
One of the biggest fears the dinner guests had regarding the cyborg question was the very real possibility of exaggerated inequality. Surely the first people to begin enhancing themselves with superhuman abilities will be the rich, the guests surmised. This possibility has also been voiced by Yuval Noah Harari, author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (and our topic of discussion at Salon Dinner #5). What will the populace do if the top one percent not only holds half of the world’s wealth (as it does now) but is also biologically smarter, stronger, and lives longer than the rest of us? What if they can fly and read our minds? If we think there’s inequality now, imagine what kind of divide we’d have if there was a divide in human biology through enhancement. Even more frightening is the possibility that these superhuman abilities could be bought by genocidal dictators.
There is the possibility that, just like any technology, these enhancements may be exorbitantly expensive upon first release, but as they become more commonplace, the prices will drop to a mostly uniform affordability, allowing everyone to acquire enhancements. Of course, inequality will most likely still be prevalent if this is the case, as some enhancements will most likely be more expensive than others. While today most people in developed nations can afford cars, not all of us can afford Ferraris. Imagine if the Ferrari of augmentations was a superhuman intellect.
One of the guests - a tour operator for Mongolia - expressed a fear, not only of this potential divide, but of the paranoia that could result when humans cannot tell an enhanced person from a non-enhanced person. This is a valid concern if you don’t know who might be capable of reading your thoughts as you sit minding your own business in a café. Or what if you send your child to take chess lessons, but unbeknownst to you and your child, his chess tournament opponent is enhanced. How will you ever know what you’re up against?
Another dinner guest – an education specialist – posed a question to the table. “As parents, would you consent to have your child enhanced?” Olga conceded that, yes, she would consent to enhancing her child, within reason, if it meant giving them a better chance at a successful life in a world where perhaps enhancement was the norm or where job competition was so high that only humans with superior abilities could make a livelihood. She also talked about augmentation in the womb. If we knew our child would be born with a disability, wouldn’t every single one of us augment our unborn child to give them a normal intellect or to keep them out of a wheelchair? However, most guests at the table were more ambiguous about their answers. Every parent wants their child to have the best chance at a good life as they can get, but at what cost? Would technologically or biologically enhancing your child from a young age have devastating but unforeseen effects? Or will it one day become the only way to keep up in a world of preschool resumes and high job competition? The guest who posed the question also referred to the chess scenario, reminding us that if the opponent across from your child is enhanced, you as the parent have the right to enhance your child to give them more of an edge. But this could also become a very slippery slope that leads to a kind of cold war-esque race to the most augmented child.
However, some at the table argued that parents already augment their children to some extent. Does giving your child tutoring lessons in languages, music, maths, and chess give them an advantage over other children whose parents can’t afford such things? Does prescribing a child Ritalin count as adjusting their personality? Perhaps biological and technological enhancement will only create as much inequality as we have today, as we all move along the cyborg path together.
One thing the guests agreed that we must consider is the question of bias in the machine. For all our good intentions and our high notions of equality, the reality is that years of social conditioning has left humans with subconscious biases, and each and every one of us inserts these biases into our work and our daily lives. For instance, the film industry mostly dominated by white males. Is it any wonder that movies and TV shows feature mostly white casts and leading figures who tend to be men? These caricatures of reality that many of us welcome into our homes each night alter our perceptions about the world. How might our perceptions be altered when these biases are hardwired into the code that runs your biometric sensors and your augmented body parts? As we build the future in code and machinery, we should perhaps first open the wounds of our prejudices and clean them out before we cement our biases with technology.
In some cases, however, the transition to the cyborg could potentially reduce some inequalities. The dinner guests discussed the issue of gender and biological sex and how the cyborg solution could not only do away with sexism, but could render gender and biological sex entirely irrelevant.
For example, if babies could be grown outside the human body, there would be no more need for women to make a decision between motherhood and career. If robotics or muscular enhancements could make women as physically strong as men, there would be no more question of labor-intensive jobs being exclusive to men on the grounds of strength. In the future there might be very little meaningful differences between the sexes. There may be a day when we all just live in the cloud and we have no bodies at all, making biological sex completely irrelevant.
The question of gender touches more on our identities. Gender, not necessarily being tied to sex, is how we see ourselves. Regardless, societies around the world tend to designate roles for gender based on their sex. In most countries, women get the raw end of the deal. Their inequality spans the board, from wage gaps to complete and utter subservience to men. If the transition to cyborg could eliminate the physical differences between our bodies, could we do away with sexism?
On the other hand, if we kept our physical bodies but altered our personality traits, could we accomplish the same thing? It’s true that women and men have structural differences in their brains, but do these differences account for the differences in gender identity that societies bestow us? Are men truly more aggressive and women more compassionate? If this is true, altering our brains could certainly bridge that gap, trading one trait for another until our personalities are all but indistinguishable between the sexes. While this may (or may not) create the equality we desire, the tradeoff may be a boring, bland porridge of humanity, with each person becoming all but indistinguishable from another.
Before we go tinkering with our sex and gender, we should perhaps first change our perceptions about gender. Is the male trait of aggressiveness truly better for managing world politics than the female one of compassion? All of these questions are not ones that should be answered in hindsight, but rather before we fundamentally alter ourselves with technology.
Because we cannot see into the future, we cannot know what a cyborg future will look like. Our ideas about the reality of the cyborg are limited only by our imaginations. However, it does seem certain that we will continue to merge with machines and technology. So the most important question right now is not if or how this will take place, but how we want it to take place.
As previously mentioned, our technology is being used to capture our data so that corporations can better predict our consumer desires and sell us more things. Considering how powerful this technology is (and how much more powerful it could become) this seems like a very short-sighted and frankly absurd way to make use of it. Shouldn’t we be using technology for something more meaningful?
A very interesting thought (although a highly ironic one) that was discussed at the Salon Dinner #6 is the idea of using technology to get back to nature. Our technology has so far taken us farther and farther away from nature and many of us now live in concrete jungles and use the aid of a technological device to guide us in our daily lives. While this technology can oftentimes be extremely useful, it can also be very distracting and alienating. Social media and the games we play on our devices are designed to keep our attention as long as possible with scrolling feeds, urgent red notifications that tell you when someone has interacted with your post, and incentives for contributing content. In short, our technology is inconsiderate.
One dinner guest noted that because our technology is designed to take up so much of our time, family bonds suffer. Parents and children alike stare at their screens and neglect each other’s company and interactions. Some of us aren’t even aware this is happening.
Instead of using technology to alienate us, the dinner guests suggested that we could use technology in the cyborg era to connect with each other and with nature. As our tools and later our technology have taken us farther away from nature, we’ve forgotten much of the knowledge we once possessed regarding the natural world and our place in it. If we could use technology to gain insight into the natural world, we may benefit as a species.
Or, suggested another guest, we could use technology not only to look outward but to look inward. We know so little about our own brains, but perhaps technology could give us a better insight. Instead of using technology to better understand our desires in order to become more prolific consumers, we could use it to aid us in making big life decisions.
Yuval Noah Harari, in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, says that a lot of our identity confusion stems from the fact that our technology has advanced much faster than our evolution can keep up with. With the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago, we diverged from our natural hunter-gatherer way of life and since then technology has altered our world so drastically that it would be impossible to ever go back. Evolution, on the other hand, takes millions of years to make any meaningful changes. Essentially, we all still have hunter-gatherer brains and bodies and we’re living in a world woefully unsuited to us. If you doubt it, think about the honey bee. The honey bee works relentlessly but never goes on strike, never asks for more honey, and never attempts to overthrow the queen – because they are acting as their evolution and biology dictates. You cannot say the same for humans.
One of the things that has resulted from this disparity between our biology and our reality is a feeling of alienation. When we were still hunter-gatherers, we lived in bands of a couple dozen people and we knew all of them very intimately. We still have hunter-gatherer brains suited to this type of community, but we now live in societies consisting of millions of people. Although we call these people our countrymen, we do not know most of them. In fact, our brains cannot intimately know more than 150 people. This creates the bizarre and ironic scenario of feeling lonely in a crowded room. Could technology, instead of alienating us further from each other, help us feel more connected to other humans?
Some people think that we are only truly cyborgs when our minds are all connected. If, for example, we all uploaded our consciousness’ into the cloud, would we feel that same level of connection we once had in small hunter-gather bands, but on a larger scale? If our bodies were irrelevant, would questions of gender, equality, identity, and privacy also become irrelevant? And if this were the case, how would we identify ourselves?
The futurologist at the table summed up this scenario, saying, “If our body is the hardware, then our soul is the software. And just as we have the same smartphone for many years, during those years we frequently update the software.”
Maybe being a cyborg would be like that.
As we creep ever steadily toward the era of the cyborg, we have many questions to ask and to answer. Not asking them may herald a day when we’re left even more unequipped to deal with our reality than we are presently. Ultimately, we should not fear intelligent technology, because as one guest pointed out, we may well become the AI as we merge with machines.
Join us at the next Salon Dinner to learn more about the important issues of our time and to participate in the conversations that will help shape our lives.
Text prepared by Ariana Crisafulli
Ariana Crisafulli is the Managing Editor of an expat magazine in Shanghai and a freelance writer. A California native, she has not called California “home” for three years. A year ago she moved to Shanghai where she acquired a position at a Shanghai-based magazine. She continues to write for the magazine as well as accepting freelance writing jobs. WeChat ID: arianacrisafulli