What does it mean to be human? How much can we change ourselves before we lose that identity? In a recent episode of Popular Technology Radio the subject of human augmentation arose, and we queried, “What does it take to be considered a cyborg?” The answer may surprise you: any person with a mechanical body augmentation, including a pacemaker or prosthetic, mechanical limb, could be considered a cyborg. They are among us!
The subject has spawned many thought provoking works of fiction. In RoboCop (1987), a critically wounded police officer is rebuilt as a cyborg and returns to the force. In recent years, Transcendence (2014), chronicled a scientist combining his consciousness with an artificial intelligence. It’s not just the silver screen getting in on the cyborg-action. Gamers have been conducting corporate espionage as Adam Jensen in the dystopian future of the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011). In this story, affluent Sarif Industries has rebuilt Adam Jensen after an attack on their research labs made him a quadruple amputee.
While it may still seem like an advent of a distant dystopian future, ideas like these have already sparked efforts in the real world. The 2045 Initiative aspires to have a near-death human brain transplanted to a robotic “Avatar” by 2025; and a “hologram-like Avatar” hosting an individual’s consciousness by 2045. Founded by Dmitry Itskov and other prominent Russian scientists, the goal of the project is to create an environment that promotes “high spirituality, high culture, high ethics, high science, and high technologies” and attempt to “extend life, including to the point of immortality.” Although the legitimacy and possibility of this project remains to be seen, it does raise moral and fundamental human questions.
There is a lot to be gained from bionics. Nearly 185,000 limbs are amputated in the United States per year, be it from diabetes, accidents, or war. Bionics allows for these people to retain at least a semblance of a normal life, and in some cases provided a platform to improve it. After losing his legs in a climbing accident, Hugh Herr resolved himself to find a way to climb again and designed his own prosthetic limbs. Now, Herr is head of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT and is leading the way for more advanced limb replacements. With examples like this, it doesn’t seem too far of a stretch of the imagination to predict a future with trillion-dollar corporations based in bioengineering and bionic prosthetics.
There must be a dark side to all of this, right? How much is too much? Should it be acceptable to intentionally chop off limbs with the intention of replacing them with a shiny, new, technologically advanced and mechanically superior limbs? People already show a disenchantment with athletes using enhanced prosthetic limbs in competitions, like in the case of ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius. If a person replaces 75% of their body with bionic parts, are they still human? What if all consciousness is eventually found within the internet, is that our own or merely a program replicating what our consciousness would be like?
With the exponential rate of technological growth, these issues could be upon our door step sooner than we think. So that brings us back to the original question. What does it really mean to be human?