With rapidly evolving technology, it is inevitable that the future of humanity lies in machines. Traditionally, there has been a divide in the type of progress for humans to achieve an advanced state of being. On one hand, there are people who advocate the development of artificial intelligence technologies to imbue human cognitive abilities on robots. An alternate approach is one parallel to many science fictions fantasizes–the creation of cyborgs or human-machine hybrids. The creation of cyborg technology has already been set in motion and this article will examine its evolution and benefits. The research in this field has also achieved some momentous milestones. The basis of connecting the human cognitive processes to a computer chip has already been achieved in multiple ways.
The most famous example is of Project Cyborg 1.0 conducted in the University of Reading by Professor Kevin Warwick and his colleagues in the department of cybernetics.1 Warwick was actually the subject of the first study that required him to undergo an operation to surgically implant a silicon chip transponder in his forearm. This surgery, conducted on 24th August 1998, enabled a computer to monitor Warwick’s activities in the premises of a university. The computer and Warwick extension were able to “operate doors, heaters, and other computers without lifting a finger.”1 The next major experiment was also conducted by Warwick and was entitled Project Cyborg 2.0.
In March 2002, Warwick underwent another surgery that implanted a “one hundred electrode array” into his wrist.1 Not only was this second implantable to control more advanced machines such as an electric wheelchair and an artificial hand, it was also able to communicate with a similar implant in Warwick’s wife, Irene’s, hand. The implant that connected to Irene’s nervous system was able to send signals, through a computer, to the implant in Warwick’s wrist and thus create an artificial sensation–“a sudden shock down his left index finger.”2 In the most general terms, their nervous systems were speaking to each other. An independently run project in 1996 by physician Phillip Kennedy resulted in the creation of the first-ever human cyborg Johnny Ray.
Before conducting human trials, Kennedy had developed a device called Neurotrophic Electrode that could amplify neural signals. This device was basically a “tiny glass cone…filled with a mix of nerve growth factors, and two fine gold wires,” which, when inserted into the skull, allowed neural cells to grow through the implant and thus establish a solid electric connection.3When this same process was applied to Ray, a victim of stroke who could no longer operate any part of his body except for some muscles in his face, Kennedy was successful in connecting Ray’s neural signals to the computer. He could basically control the mouse with his brain and was thus able to spell out his thoughts.3 As with the previous instance, the development of cyborg technologies has grave medical applications.
One of the main advantages, according to neuroscientist Lee Miller of Northwestern University is the possibility of “helping the paralyzed walk, reach, and grasp.” The signals emitted by the electrodes could be routed to the paralyzed limb and thus enable it to move again.3 Another comparable technology is that which allows the very same types of electrodes to control mechanized devices. This could allow for the creation of more advanced prosthetic limbs whose behaviour closely matched that of a regular human limb.4 To take it even further, more severely affected individuals with greater brain and motor damage could have the opportunity to reinvent their lives. Beyond the medical applications, cyborg technology will pave the way to more advanced human beings. One of the popular beliefs of the contemporary world is the idea that robots will eventually outsmart the humans and take control of the world. Stephen Hawking attests this fear and suggests that humans need to mechanize as fast as possible “so that artificial brains contribute to human intelligence rather than opposing it.”2 Kennedy supports this path of development as it would create an entirely new species of human with unlimited memory, unlimited calculation ability, and instant wireless communication ability.
This type of human would have unsurpassable intelligence, he claims. Just like his colleagues, Warwick envisions a world in which everything could be remotely controlled by the brain and humans could link themselves to external machines or even each other.2 With the rise of computers and cell phones, the transition to cyborg is already half complete as humans rely on these machines to the point that they become mere extensions of their bodies.5 The research being conducted now, though, is working to weave machines into human lives even more permanently. This new technology will create more advanced forms of homo sapiens and thus facilitate the rise of the cyborgs.
- Warwick, Kevin. The University of Reading, “Professor Kevin Warwick.” Accessed November 19, 2012. http://www.kevinwarwick.com/index.asp.
- Stonehouse, David. “The cyborg evolution.” The Sydney Morning Herald, , sec. Technology, March 22, 2003.
- Baker, Sherry. “The Rise of the Cyborgs.” Discover Magazine, September 26, 2008.
- Espingardeiro, Antonio. “When Will We Become Cyborgs?.” Automaton (blog), March 24, 2010.
- Case, Amber. “We are all cyborgs now.” TED Talks. Recorded January 2011. TED Conferences, LLC. Web.
- Image credit (Creative Commons): Carlosramirex. “Neil Harbisson Cyborg.” Wikimedia Commons, 2011.