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?

For more info on: a) becoming a cyborg: http://www.cyborgfoundation.com/ b) stopping the cyborgs: https://stopthecyborgs.org/.

To hear from Harbisson himself: https://www.ted.com/talks/neil_harbisson_i_listen_to_color

— Megan Woodruff

Other Sources:

http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/02/tech/innovation/cyborg-neil-harbisson-implant-antenna/

http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/leisure/.premium-1.658072

http://io9.gizmodo.com/the-first-person-in-the-world-to-become-a-government-re-1474975237

http://www.popsci.com/my-boring-cyborg-implant

 

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§ 2 Responses to The Cyborgs: Coming Soon to a Society Near You

  • Emmie Kline says:

    My dad often makes the joke that my siblings and I might as well get our phones surgically implanted in our hands. We roll our eyes at this stupid dad joke, but he’s not wrong; I think that our constant reliance on assistive technologies such as computers and cellphones does make us cyborgs to a certain extent, as we have discussed in class a few times before. These devices give us constant access to information as well as offer opportunities for communication, entertainment, and much more.
    Getting these technologies surgically implanted is now a reality in many cases, as shown by Harbisson. In my opinion, it’s one thing if a person utilizes technology to assist them in their day-to-day activities, as Harbisson uses his antennae to perceive color. I know that tablets and other technologies are becoming increasingly common as tools for improving communication for those with Autism, and this is a beautiful way to utilize all that we have access to. However, I’m also of the opinion that we have to draw the line somewhere. If you’re implanting technology somewhat needlessly, such as adding tones that allow the perception of infrared and UV wavelengths, I think that’s where we officially become what many think of as cyborg.
    I think the concept of becoming a cyborg has definite implications for the future. It will become a socioeconomic issue before long; only those with the financial capability to become cyborgs will do so, giving them additional advantages over those who cannot afford such technology, perpetuating the socioeconomic cycle. I think this implication particularly could divide the world we live in.

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  • gsbendik says:

    I agree with much of what Emmie said. I see the draw of having the most convenient way possible of accessing your technological devices–think about the Apple watch. Why does anyone need their texts on their wrist when they have them in their hand? Convenience, and because the possession of the newest technology has become such demarcation of being “cool” and of demonstrating wealth. It’s like having a nice car or a big house. I know some kids who are embarrassed not to have iPhones or at least feel the need to say as a disclaimer before taking out their phone, “My iPhone 7 broke so I have this for now.” Having or not having technology should not be a source of shame and yet, it’s proven to be in this day and age, perpetuating the stigma attached to being of a lower socioeconomic class and further separating the classes from one another. Even as a simple example, if all the kids are playing an iPhone game together or are all in the same GroupMe and you’re a child who does not have that technology, you’re immediately ostracized from your peers. Consequences could go for a mother or father who cannot afford a laptop computer and is not provided one by their employer, being unable to work from home if their child needs them. Introducing more cyborg technology might sound “cool” and “inevitable” to some, but social responsibility should not be something to roll your eyes at or to say you’ll deal with later.

    Cyborg technology could definitely do some great things for those in need and I do think that should be celebrated. However, just like we are wary of government intervention, the rising ocean tide, or any other powerful force, we need to be wary of the implications of technology in our lives and the lives of others.

    Liked by 1 person

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