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September 1, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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So you want to be a cyborg

What do you think about when you see the word cyborg? Do you think of Robocop, defender of Detroit, and the better, stronger, faster Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman? Or do you imagine Frankenstein’s monster, and machines from dark dystopian futures: the T-1000 Terminator, Daleks and Cybermen, Sonic’s nemesis Doctor Robotnik? Do you think cyborgs would be a force for good in the world, or the folly of people’s reliance on machines that would ultimately result in our downfall and subjugation by our robot masters? Would you sign up to be a cyborg?

It’s a question worth contemplating, because cyborgs aren’t restricted to the realm of science fiction. They’re here.

The term cyborg, from ‘cybernetic organism,’ was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in a 1960 article (‘Cyborgs and Space’, Astronautics), and refers to an organism with both natural and artificial parts. If we take this definition quite literally, there are millions of cyborgs wandering around the Earth, and there have been for hundreds, if not thousands, of years: people with prosthetic limbs, breast implants, and even people with fillings in their teeth are all biological organisms with synthetic parts.

So, let’s be stricter in our definition and consider only artificial parts which actually do something: mechanical and/or electronic parts which interact with the body’s systems. Well, then we have devices like pacemakers, which can take the place of a defective sinoatrial node (the heart’s natural pacemaker, which coordinates the electrical impulses which cause the heart to regularly contract) and regulate heartbeat via electrical impulses delivered by electrical conductors called electrodes. The history of the development of artificial pacemakers dates from the late nineteenth century; widespread medicinal use of pacemakers began in the 1960s – around the time of Clynes and Kline’s article.

But, you protest, surely you’re just being a bit clever with the meaning of the word cyborg! What about human/machine hybrids where the artificial part actually interacts with the part of us which we most often identify with and recognise as ‘us’: the brain? Well then let’s consider cochlear implants, which have been widely available in developed countries for about a decade, and can let profoundly deaf people hear. Sounds like speech are picked up by an external microphone and converted into digital signals, which are transmitted to the implant and translated into electrical signals. An array of electrodes in the cochlea stimulates sensory hearing cells, which send an electrical impulse along the auditory nerve. The impulse travels to the auditory cortex of the brain, where it is perceived as sound.

There even exist cyborgs which look like the cyborgs of our fiction. Dr Andrew Schwartz and his team at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine recently published an account in Nature of their experiments in which they implanted electrodes into the primary motor cortices of monkeys’ brains – the area of the brain responsible for planning and executing movement – which transmitted the electrical movements to computers, which translated the impulses to move a robotic arm. The monkeys were able to consciously control the robotic arms to grab marshmallows and pieces of fruit, and take the food to their mouths.

It is important to consider as a society what we consider acceptable and unacceptable uses of artificial accessories to the human body, and what it means to be human. Because we won’t just wake up one day in a sci-ficyborg world; synthetic adjuncts to the human body will continue to develop in application and sophistication as science and technology continue to innovate.

Should these technologies be purely therapeutic? For example, future applications of Dr Shwartz’s research, like robotic prosthetics for people who’ve lost the command of parts of their bodies due to accident or disease? Or should we also embrace technology designed to ‘improve’ the human condition; to make us, like Steve Austin, better, stronger, faster? Many transhumanists, who are interested in the development of the human mind and body using technological means, believe the eventual transcendence of humanity through such means would be the peak of awesomeness; others find the idea horrific and even terrifying. What kind of impact will such development have on human society? Will the digital divide become a divide between two classes of humanity – those with enhancements and those who cannot afford them? Like the Red Queen’s race in Alice in Wonderland will we all be racing just to stay in the same place?

Whether you’d be first in line for a memory-enhancing chip to the hippocampus, or whether you shudder at the thought, it’s important to debate the ethical issues that come with the development of these new cyborg technologies. Because otherwise who will banish the Daleks into the void if the Doctor isn’t here to save us?

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