Who hasn’t felt awed and impressed as they watched Iron Man suit up in the latest Avengers movie? Or scared but impressed by Doctor Octopus’s tentacles? As anyone who’s watched the Terminator movies can say, being a cyborg is a fascinating concept that catches the imagination of most people. The idea of humans exceeding natural limits with the help of technology is a fascinating concept.
What is a Cyborg?
Let us look at a few popular definitions quoted online.
- A human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices
- A combination of man and machine popularized in science fiction novels
- Essentially machines that are controlled by a sentient brain, but with bodies made of inorganic mechanical parts.
Too many definitions? Notice the common theme: nature and technology intertwining to make something more.
For clarity, let’s go with the definition given by the people who first used the term “cyborg”. Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined it in 1960 when making suggestions for equipment to help in humans living in outer space.
A cyborg is a cybernetic organism (i.e., an organism that is a self-regulating integration of artificial and natural systems).
So a cyborg is basically a living organism that is enhanced somehow by artificial additions i.e. technology.
This means that someone from the ancient past can consider a person who uses glasses/contact lenses as a cyborg because the glasses/lenses are additions to the person that gives them abilities that were not there before.
However, in the modern case of cyborgs, we mostly consider cyborgs to involve some form of electronic technology, that significantly enhances their abilities or adds new ones. With this in mind, let us look into their history.
History and Evolution
Cyborgs have existed in human imagination well before they actually existed in reality. Greek stories featured many bronze and gold statues that could come to life when needed by their creators. Golems of Jewish lore were humanoid objects which could be commanded to obey humans. However, all these are closer to robots than to cyborgs.
The first proper cyborgs, that is part-robot and part-human, featured in science fiction from the 19th century. The science fiction writer Edgar Allan Poe mentions a person with sufficient prosthetic extensions added on which would make him a cyborg, way back in a novel in 1843. Even before that, in 1818, Mary Shelley’s cult classic novel Frankenstein featured a part-human monster that could be considered a crude version of a cyborg.
And movies are full of instances of them. Starting with the famous T-800 from Terminator, Iron Man from Marvel Comics, and Cyborg from DC, Darth Vader, and Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars franchise, we have countless examples.
The evolution of cyborgs in real life is also very interesting. Most early cyborgization attempts started off as a way to restore a bodily function in people who were deprived of them (such as by prosthetics). Thus, the earliest cyborgs in the looser definition of the terms could be the first humans to use spectacles or simple, non-electronic prostheses.
However, in the more familiar electronic sense of the term, the earliest cyborgs were people who had implants attached to them. For instance, the people who had pacemakers implanted in them to help with smooth functioning of the heart were actual cyborgs in this sense of the term.
Cochlear implants started in the 1950s and 60s to provide a sense of hearing for those with inner ear damage. Such people are also cyborgs in this sense. Operations to restore vision brought similar results in this era. In the same period, experiments on animals showed that some degree of cyborgization could be achieved in animals too.
The development of intelligent prosthetics is also a part of cyborg development. The most advanced kinds of these can directly be controlled by neural impulses from the brain, and enable people to return to almost normal functioning of the body.
Implants of microchips to measure bodily vitals (heartbeat, pulse, blood sugar, etc) also is a part of cyborgization. Of late, there are even less invasive technologies such as patches to attach on the skin that perform similar roles. They also help store this data elsewhere in a digital form.
The first medically popularized cyborg was a Vietnam War veteran, Johnny Ray. He was suffering from Locked-In Syndrome, and could not communicate with the world in any way except moving his eyes. After his operation, he managed to be able to provide limited communication by a computer attached to his brain. Sadly, he did not survive long after his operation in 1997.
Real Life Cyborgs
Here are a few famous real life cyborgs
No list of real-life cyborgs can’t fail to include Neil Harbisson, a color-blind artist from Britain who has an antenna implanted into his skull. This antenna enables him to observe colors in the form of vibrations to his head. It also lets him listen to music and take in other electromagnetic signals.
Interestingly, his antenna lets him sense not only visible light but also other forms of electromagnetic radiation – such as UV rays and infrared. As a result, his cyborg implants have extended his human sensory capabilities.
He also has another device, the Solar Crown, that lets him keep track of the progress of time as a point of heat traveling around his head. As such, it is a time-sensing organ.
He is the co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation, which aims to defend cyborg rights and support research into the processes of cyborgization. The first legally recognized cyborg, he is a persistent crusader for the rights of cyborgs and cyborg identity.
Moon Ribas, the other founder of the Cyborg Foundation, is also an artist and cyborg activist. She has an implant called Seismic Sensor in her elbow that lets her sense earthquakes anywhere around the world, with the help of the internet. For a duration of time, she also wore a set of glasses (Kaleidoscopic Vision) that enabled her to see only colour and not shapes. This gave her sensory perception that was uniquely different from normal humans.
Nigel Ackland is a person who became a cyborg via prosthetics. He needed a prosthetic arm for the loss of his arm caused by a car accident. The attached bionic forearm is controlled by muscles of his upper arm and can perform many sophisticated movements.
Another person to have undergone cyborgization due to health-related issues is Jens Naumann. He lost vision in both his eyes by the age of 20, and for the next 17 years had no perception of light at all. A series of experiments and operations performed on him in 2002 by Dr. William Dobelle enabled him to actually regain a rudimentary form of sight. The apparatus worked by connecting up his visual cortex in his brain to cameras attached near his eyes. Sadly, the death of Dr. Dobelle led to the discontinuation of this project.
Naumann has also worked on sensory substitution technology. In this process, the sense of hearing is used to make up for the loss of eyesight, in a technological way. A video camera records visual data and transmits it to a connected user as audio. Thus, the person can recognize objects by the sound associated with them.
Types of Cyborgs
One way to categorize cyborgs is based on how permanent the cyborgization is.
- In the simplest case, the technological add-ons can be put on and removed with ease. In this case, cyborgization has no permanent effect and is similar to putting on and taking off of clothes.
An example of this is the use of intelligent prosthetics by people who have lost limbs. Or, for a fictional example, Tony Stark’s Iron Man suits are all examples of temporary cyborgization.
- The next level is long-term but reversible cyborgization. In this case, the extensions to the body are not as easily removable as the previous case. However, they could potentially be removed with surgical intervention if needed.
An example is the implanting of a pacemaker, which is a pretty long-term measure. We do know it is possible to surgically replace pacemakers, so the effect is not irreversible.
- The final kind is irreversible cyborgization. In this case, the changes made to the human/organism are permanent and cannot be undone (without causing severe damage at least).
An example could be a device surgically inserted so crucially that it cannot be removed without endangering the user. On a more fundamental level, editing the human genome for getting desired results is part of what could be considered irreversible cyborgization.
Another way of classifying cyborgs is based on the purpose of cyborgization. All the examples we’ve seen so far show us that there are broadly two kinds of cyborgs in this sense, though the distinction can get blurry.
- One kind is a person becoming a cyborg for therapeutic purposes, i.e. to help deal with some form of health problems. The cyborgs who have intelligent prosthetics to live with the loss of bodily function are an example of this. Their use of cyborgization can be said to serve the purpose of regaining a lost function as opposed to creating a new one.
- The other category is those who have become cyborgs for the sake of body enhancement, to extend their body beyond human limits. In this case, the cyborg is adding to the capabilities of their body instead of just restoring what is lost. Moon Ribas’ use of Seismic Sense, as seen earlier in this article, is an example of this.
Of course, as mentioned before, the line between the two is thin. Is Neil Harbisson’s antenna therapeutic, because it restores full-color vision for him? Or is it enhancing, since it enables him to “see” beyond the usual spectrum? Questions such as this are part of the current debate on cyborgs, which will be discussed in the following section.
Legal and ethical questions
The extent of modification that is a part of being a cyborg raises many questions, ethical and legal.
As we have seen in the former section, the purpose of cyborgization is important. Should cyborgization be limited to only medical and therapeutic uses such as prosthetics? Is becoming a cyborg just to enhance the limits of an otherwise healthy body valid? Then again, there are cases like Neil Harbisson which fall right in between both the categories.
If we allow humans to become cyborgs in order to increase their bodily functions or gain new abilities, how much is all right, and how much is too much? Who should decide what is right, anyway?
Modification raises philosophical questions too. Will too much modification make us lose our humanity? How “human” is a cyborg who (hypothetically) has 90% mechanical or electronic parts? Is it important to fuss about the definition of what is human?
Another is the problem of access. With the amount of inequality in today’s world, it is likely that access to cyborgization will only be available for the better-off sections of society. As a result, there is a great danger of a rise in inequality, with the richer sections becoming more powerful due to their access to cyborgization.
A troubling question that turns up is equal treatment. Once cyborgs become very prevalent, their abilities will likely be different and even surpass normal humans. Will cyborgs get preferential treatment over humans? Do cyborgs and humans even require equal treatment? The previous issue is tied to this. If the powerful ones in society become cyborgs and get even more powerful, how can the traditionally worse-off sections of society expect improvement?
There is also the fear of opening a Pandora’s box. Many aspects of cyborgization deal with Artificial Intelligence (AI). If AI gets powerful enough, there is a threat of cyborgs being taken over by them. Even if not, some feel that this kind of power could be too much for humans to wield.
The legal questions too are plenty. Who makes laws on cyborgization? To what extent can a person choose their path to becoming a cyborg? What restrictions can be imposed on being a cyborg? What about laws to deal with the problems discussed above? Some even fear that cyborgization could be manipulated as a tool for surveillance, by implanting people with devices that track them personally.
With the development of technology, cyborgs will become more and more prominent in daily life. With this happening, the futuristic vision of transhumanism could become true. Transhumanism is a philosophy that says that humans should go beyond the boundaries of being “just human”, for the greater benefit of mankind.
There are many aspects of transhumanism, such as social, political, cultural, and technological ones. Cyborgization is strongly related to parts of it. This could be in the form of intelligent prosthetics making life easier for those with loss of somebody’s function. It could also be with the addition of new devices that take our senses beyond the normal level.
Even more ambitious goals of transhumanism exist. Some speak of humans achieving immortality with the help of technology extending their lifetime. People could become permanent memories, by uploading their lives to some form of cloud storage. Editing the human genome, as we considered in the previous section, while strictly not cyborgization, could be cyborg-assisted and shape our future.
But the story doesn’t end here. With even more advanced technology, we as a species could literally evolve into something new, as hinted in many famous science fiction books such as Origin by Dan Brown. A new species formed by the fusion of nature and technology. The possibilities are scary but are exciting at the same time.
However unnerving the future might look, one thing we should remember is that scientific progress does not pause because of our fears. As history shows us, new scientific developments are usually met with fear and skepticism, for they might cause sudden drastic changes. For instance, locomotives (and the railway system) were considered hazardous when first introduced. So was nuclear power (with due reasons) when it was discovered.
What is important is that we as humans do not shy away from the possible danger of progress. Rather, we should examine the pros and cons scientifically, with all the concerned individuals involved. Then we will be able to arrive at a solution or roadmap that is beneficial to humanity.
This is the challenge ahead of us for the future of cyborgs. We must address the issue rationally before matters are taken out of our hands by the pace of technological development. Hopefully, these ideas become a matter of serious debate in the field of cyborgs for constructive development in the future.
Sources for further reading:
1. Cyborgs – Study Guide
2. The Ethics of Experimentation: Ethical Cybernetic Enhancements
3. Cyborgs: The truth about human augmentation