The Cyborgs: Coming Soon to a Society Near You
February 26, 2017 § 2 Comments
Neil Harbisson can hear color. Previously color-blind, his ability to do so rests in an antenna that was implanted in his head and has fused with his skull. This antenna contains a web camera that captures the colors around him and communicates with a computer chip that is implanted under his skin. For each of the 360 different colors that the web camera can perceive, an audible tone with a specific frequency is emitted. Harbisson has learned to differentiate each of these tones as different colors.
Though his ability to hear color may seem novel, Harbisson is not alone; he is one of many self-proclaimed cyborgs. More than just emotionally attached to their wearable or mobile devices, these cyborgs have embraced technology as a physical extension of their bodies. Moon Ribas, a 29-year-old in New York, has a sensor attached to her elbow that allows her to feel every earthquake on the planet. Other individuals have implanted hand chips that allow them to unlock their car doors or homes.
These cyborgs, beyond pushing the boundaries of biotechnology, force us to reconsider our conceptions of the human condition. Are the cyborgs human? Post-human? Do we recognize their implanted technology as a foreign object that happens to reside in a biological host, or as a true extension of their human bodies? In 2004, Harbisson successfully petitioned the UK government to accept his unique cyborg status by getting his passport photo approved despite initial backlash against its inclusion of his antenna. Should such recognized cyborg citizens receive treatment different from that given to human citizens?
Moving past the issue of classification, cyborgs also add a new dimension to discussions on technological regulation. Harbisson’s original auditory-color antenna arguably served the same function as a cochlear implant; it augmented his brain activity so that he could overcome a perceptive disability. However, after experiencing his newfound ability to perceive color, Harbisson took his antenna’s capabilities further. He added different frequency tones that allow him to perceive ultraviolet and infrared light and gave five people the ability to send him messages directly through his implanted chip.
With Harbisson’s step toward technology-assisted super-human abilities, the necessity for restrictions on cyborgism seems imminent. Imagine cyborg college students with implants that allow their friends to funnel them the correct answers during exams, or cyborg antennas that record everything a person sees and post it all online. Individuals who fear that technological implants will infringe upon the rights of non-cyborg humans have already started to unite in anti-cyborg movements, including a blog titled “Stop The Cyborgs”.
Though some restrictions on technological implants may be warranted, cyborgism seems to me to be the next logical (dare I say inevitable) step in the Western relationship with technology. Many of my friends would barely last a day without using some form of computing technology; would implanting this technology in their bodies really be that different? Perhaps encouraging humans to experiment with their sensory systems will drastically alter our perception of the world. And maybe offloading the computation of simple calculations or working memory tasks to computer chips will allow us to achieve unprecedented expertise in areas that require deeper creative or critical thinking.
Furthermore, it seems that the human brain is more than willing to elevate its relationship with technology. It took Harbisson’s brain only five months to “rewire” and adjust to the new form of perception that was being transmitted to it. If the human brain can learn to accept technology as a natural part of the body’s perceptive system, why shouldn’t human society?
To hear from Harbisson himself: https://www.ted.com/talks/neil_harbisson_i_listen_to_color
— Megan Woodruff