So Why Are We So Scared of Cyborgs?
Consider this: 79% of smartphone users have their phone on or near them for 22 hours a day (IDC). My cell phone is practically glued to my left hand, and yours is too. Increasingly, we view the device, and the access it brings, as an extension of ourselves. I don’t have to remember the pythagorean theorem or the capital of Turkey; Google’s got my back. My 5x3 inch pocket-sized external brain makes me smarter, more worldly, and more connected.
With a cell phone, we’re basically cyborgs.
And yet, we’re collectively terrified of cyborgs. As artificial intelligence continues to improve, and technology in general speeds along at an accelerating rate, many headlines these days prey on fears of a robot-controlled future.
Take this one from The Guardian:
Or this one from CNN:
While it may bait clicks, robot fear-mongering misses the point entirely — it will not be us vs. them, because they will become us, and vice versa.
Our interdependence with our cell phones is just one example of how the line between robot and human will continue to blend until a point when the two are indistinguishable. I’m willing to bet on a future where “cyborgs” will become the norm and “artificial intelligence” will simply be known as “intelligence”.
To drive the point home, let’s look backward at the invention of writing. According to Wikipedia (see? Google has my back), writing was “conceived and developed independently in ancient Sumer (in Mesopotamia), around 3100 BC, and in Mesoamerica by 300 BC”. Before then, all knowledge had to be stored in someone’s single brain. After writing took hold, knowledge could be transferred and held outside of oneself — voilà, the first “external brain” was created.
I like to picture Max the Mesopotamian teen spending all of her Saturday afternoon poring over intricately carved hunks of rock, reading tales of ancient Gods and gory battles, while Mesopotamian mom looks on in fear that Max has been lost to technology.
Now picture Max the Mesopotamian teen looking up to see a 13 year old from today who shows Max how to snap a selfie and duck-face while wearing the dog ears filter. Max would be terrified, no?
Yet, we know that the 13 year old today is no less human than Max. Each form of technology is just an aid.
The same logic will hold for future iterations of humans, and we should only be afraid if we’re not being updated to the latest model. Updating is part of the adaptation process — it’s beyond just making friends with machines, or regulating them, it’s integrating with them that will dictate our future success.
In the next 5–10 years, we will witness our integration with of a lot of next-gen cyborgs. Here are a couple that I’m most excited about:
Companies like Ekso Bionics and ReWalk Robotics are creating artificial supporting structures that enable human bodies to act in super-human ways. While Terminator-esque military applications do exist, the more exciting use cases will impact our industries and our health. In an industrial application, any manual job that requires heavy lifting — in plant floors, logging etc — could be made more efficient by the introduction of an exoskeleton suit. In healthcare, all the possible walking aids out there like crutches, walkers, canes, and wheelchairs could one day soon be replaced by exoskeletons.
While brain-computer-interfaces (BCIs) have roots as far back as 1924, we’re starting to see the rise of super advanced devices that collaborate with the human brain to augment our functionality. Kernel is one such company with an ambitious goal: “to expand the bounds of human intelligence” through neuroprosthetics; brain augmentations that can improve mental function and treat disorders. Neuralink — helmed by real-life Tony Stark, Elon Musk — is racing Kernel to that future through its vision for “high bandwidth and safe brain machine interfaces”. In Tim Urban’s words, they are creating “wizard hats for the brain”.
If brain-implanted chips feel a little too sci-fi for you, look no further than CNTRL-labs, a New York based startup that, according to investor Josh Wolf, “uses state-of-the-art signal detection and machine learning to read your neurons” through pulses in a small wrist-band — no surgery required.
As cyborgs become the norm and the lines blur, we will continue to grapple with the notion of what makes us human. I seek comfort in my favorite Kurt Vonnegut short story called “Unready to Wear”. In the futuristic tale, all of the characters no longer inhabit bodies, but rather little blue light-filled orbs that zip and zoom around in concert with one another. Once a year, in a cheeky ode to their ancestors, the people march in a “body parade” where fleshy suits are rented out on hangers and donned through the streets while people bemoan the creaky, clumsy limbs they’ve been lucky enough to leave behind.
Like Vonnegut’s characters, it’s not our flesh that makes us human — it’s the same essence that binds Max the Mesopotamian teen to today’s cell-phone toting 13 year old — whatever is contained in that little blue orb. Call it a consciousness or a soul, but either way, I’m not afraid of the rise of robots or becoming a cyborg myself. I am only afraid of the alternative — what happens if humans don’t adapt? Wouldn’t it be much scarier to end up as the last analog objects in an increasingly digital universe?
Please note: Views are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer