Science Fiction has created Cyborgs with which many of us are familiar: ‘Data’ from Star Trek, The Terminator, Robocop – the list goes on. The quest for each of these characters to become greater than the sum of their parts by developing a consciousness, mirrors a human desire to overcome the physical limitations that make our consciousness finite. However, now current science has developed wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs controlled by thought, and magnetic implants that give people infrared and sonar capabilities, this wish is no longer the realm of science fiction, but science fact.
What is a Cyborg?
One technical description of a Cyborg is “an organism to which exogenous parts have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments”. In this sense, as Amber Case has asserted, we are all Cyborgs. Each time we use a calculator, look at our mobile phone or computer, put on a pair of glasses, or shoes – we are Cyborgs. We apply scuba diving instruments to allow us to breathe underwater, and a pen and paper to elucidate thoughts. In all of this, we are using technology to extend our capabilities. This has been a process human beings have partaken in throughout their existence.
In the 1960’s, the wireless telecommunication devices on Star Trek called ‘Communicators’ were a Science Fiction extension of the telephone – which were later realised in the mobile phone. Today, Cybernetics (the science of Cyborgs) and the transhumanism movement are closing the ground between fantasy and reality too.
The Cyborgs Walking Among Us
Here are the real stories of developments in the field of Cybernetics that will blow your mind.
The Wheelchair Controlled by the Mind
(Toyota EEG Wheelchair being tested)
John Qiang Gan, Professor in Intelligent Systems & Robotics, and his team at the University of Essex are developing the RoboChair. Wheelchairs are usually controlled by head, hand or other manual controls – the Robochair is controlled by the users mind. By creating a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) it is possible for software to read electric signals (EEG) from the user’s brain to control the speed and direction of the chair. In essence, the person in the wheelchair thinks a command and the wheelchair follows it. This is a potentially huge win for paralysed people in terms of increasing their mobility. Parallel projects are also being pursued by Toyota and The Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne, among others.
Creating Additional Senses
Pioneer of cybernetic technology and self-proclaimed “World’s first Cyborg” Professor Kevin Warwick, is looking at how implants in the body can extend capabilities. He and his team of students have implanted magnetic devices in themselves to add sensory capabilities. One Phd student, pictured above, linked his magnets to an ultrasonic detector in his baseball cap enabling him to sense how near or far objects are from him without using any other senses. The magnetic vibrations increase or decrease based on whether things are nearer to or farther away from him. Another student now has infrared capability. He can now remotely sense how hot objects are, by linking his magnetic implant to an infrared sensor.
This work has been developed after an earlier study by Warwick made a shocking finding. Warwick attached nerves in his wrist to electrodes which carried signals out of his arm through the elbow, aiming to control external devices with his own nerve impulses. He discovered during this process that not only could he impact electronic devices, but that impulses and feedback from the devices could impact him – in this instance, ultrasonic sound which is normally out of the range of human senses. These developments essentially place the technology which humans have developed outside of themselves, inside us.
These technologies promise a future where human beings could not only move beyond the five senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and sound – but those existing senses could be simulated for those without them.
Prosthetic Limbs Controlled by Thought
The inability to issue brain signals to limbs, or the absence of a limb through birth, disease or accident can severely limit a person’s mobility and independence. So, imagine there was a way of using technology to overcome this hurdle – imagine you could control a paralysed or prosthetic limb by thought, using it as one would use a regular limb? You no longer have to.
In 2001, 54 year old Jesse Sullivan (pictured above) was electrocuted so severely that he lost both his arms. A research team at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago have since turned him into a real life ‘bionic man’. The team created robotic prosthetic limbs which are attached to Sullivan’s nervous system through nerves in his chest. This means that the robotic arms pick up messages to move in the same way that his original arms did, via electronic impulses from his brain – by thinking.
There are also projects running across the world to recover this control of bodily function for those who retain their limbs, but are no longer able to use them. Stroke, trauma and a host of other maladies can lead to paralysis of working limbs. But the Brain-Computer Interface technology which powers the RoboChair, can also ultimately be developed to control other robots. The BrainGate2 clinical trial, led by John Donaghue, Director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science in the US, has developed just such technology. According to leading science journal Nature,
“Neurosurgeons implanted tiny recording devices containing almost 100 hair-thin electrodes in the motor cortex of their brains, to record the neuronal signals associated with intention to move.”
The test subjects, referred to as Dave and Cathy, had both suffered strokes which had left them with tetraplegia (paralysis of four limbs) and unable to speak. During the trial, both were able to operate a robotic arm with their thoughts, performing previously impossible tasks such as lifting a cup to their lips and drinking.
Science Bursting out of the Laboratory
In some ways, it seems that the currently standard science setting – an academic, state or privately owned research facility – might not be where the most cutting edge cybernetic technology is being created. The Biohacking movement is about opening up science, allowing diverse groups to participate in the development of biotechnology through open source software. It is in some ways an effort to reclaim science as a popular endeavour, rather than a hermetically sealed profession. Science is bursting out of the laboratory and back into the sheds, garages and community spaces.
As far back as 1980, Australian artist Stelarc added a third arm to his body, attached to the elbow of his right arm. This robotic arm picked up the signals from movements in his other muscles. He was able to control the arm enough to write and draw with three arms at the same time.
Film Maker Rob Spence lost his right eye in a shooting accident as a 13 year old. He later chose to replace his cosmetic eye with a camera developed by Kosta Grammatis, in his living room. The camera relays footage wirelessly to a remote server. The camera has the shape and appearance of an eyeball, and allows Spence to create a watertight seal when he closes his eyelid.
Biohacker Rich Lee turned his ear into an invisible headphone in June this year. By implanting a small magnetic device in his tragus (hard bit of flesh just outside the ear) and building a device which he wears around his neck like a necklace, Lee “creates a magnetic field causing the implant to vibrate and produce sound,” Gizmodo reports. He can use this device to listen to music anytime he wants without applying headphones, but has far more ambitious plans. He is soon to be declared legally blind and plans to link his implant to an “ultrasonic rangefinder,” meaning he could give himself sonar capabilities, to sense how far away from him the things around him are.
Where do we go from Here?
There is understandable trepidation about the development of cybernetic technologies. There is the religious/naturalist style of argument that elevates a deity or nature itself above the realm of humankind. This argument says that we as human beings have no role in messing with God/Nature’s plans. I have no truck with this argument. Put simply, it assumes a plan which, even if it existed, we would have already superseded when we fashioned a stone into a bowl. Unless a person argues that we use no tool outside of our own natural, naked bodies to enhance our existence on earth – then they have already accepted the repudiation of this argument.
The second cause for concern however, I do consider legitimate. That is context, the context in which the science is being developed. This is one of gross political, social and economic inequality within and between nations – and an increasingly intrusive, surveillance state. Inside this context, there are fundamental and rational ethical concerns not about the science itself, but about its later application. It is already the case that while one man above has three arms, others are left with none, as they cannot afford to replace their limbs. We already see China, Iran, the US and the UK engaging in mass surveillance of citizens, without warrant or suspicion of a crime, through their various cyber spy programmes. If government agencies are using existing technology to surveil citizens, is it not reasonable to expect they will use emerging and future technologies also? These questions are not unreasonable. Questions of equal access to and potential abuse of such extraordinary science is not only reasonable but essential. The field of transhumanism and Cybernetics itself wrestles with these questions. But, neither can nor should scientific progress be paused while we figure out how to do politics and economics properly.
So, it’s a matter of case by case review and moving forward with these concerns, asking questions of ethics throughout. And with movements such as biohacking democratising the scientific space, in the same way open source technology is opening up many other areas of science, technology and even democracy – it could be that science and technology will create the tools by which a fairer society could be made. So, bring on the Cyborgs. Bring on the Biohackers. But bring your conscience along for the ride.
I’ll leave you with this rather creepy but fascinating video of a Japanese robot that can sing and dance…
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