Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Cyborg Century

"A human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices".

My friend became a cyborg recently, and it happened rather quickly - he now sports an artificial hip joint made out of titanium - a kind of bullet proof replacement. My mother has been a cyborg for a few years now, ever since she had ocular lens implants after cataract removal. This procedure left her with 20/20 vision in one eye at the age of eighty. I have a few metallic tooth fillings, but I'm not sure if that qualifies me as a cyborg. Thwarting tooth decay doesn't seem to have the same cachet as replacing a joint or correcting near blindness in terms of functional utility to the human organism. In that sense I admit to some cyborg envy, but am fortunate to have my original parts for now. By definition you can become a cyborg without implants or replacing various organs. For example visual devices such as the EyeTap form a wearable computer that allows real time electronic interactions with your environment and the internet as you go about your daily activities. Thus you have both endogenous and exogenous cyborgs, and their hybrid counterparts. This century will likely witness the rise of the cyborg in ever more sophisticated forms beyond replacement of dysfunctional body parts or visual accessories. It's not difficult to foresee some future apocalyptic battlefield where genetically enhanced soldiers run amok. They might wear an exoskeleton that amplifies their strength dramatically and protects them from injury. Their nervous systems might be directly wired to weaponry for instant response and direct control of multiple weapons. There are military scientists working on this technology right now at DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency). Hopefully these super cyborgs won't rebel and form their own military elite under a new flag.

At the moment, since most cyborgs are still essentially like the rest of us they probably aren't banding together in secret societies or plotting to take over the world. Then again, my friend with the new hip did give me an odd look the other day when I asked him if he felt like a "new man" - has the hip replacement triggered his cyborg initiation? The present disjointed, heterogeneous cyborg population may not be compelled to form alliances with others based on diverse technological enhancements many of which will not be externally visible. Will this new cyborg society require modified political, legal and ethical constructs? If the technology is expensive this could create a wealthy elite cyborg class with only a few citizens able to afford the best implants and devices. An organization called the World Transhumanist Association with members from across the globe is already formally dealing with these issues. Of course, no discussion on cyborg technology would be complete without mentioning the ingenious, eccentric inventor/engineer Steve Mann. He may be the first exogenous cyborg pop star by virtue of his wearable computer visual accessory called the EyeTap that has gained him some notoriety in public places. This device allows the user to interact with the web, receive e-mail, record video, and perform other computer functions that raise the question why life as a cyborg is better.

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