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Professor Kevin Warwick
courtesy of Kevin Warwick

Becoming cyborgs: exploring the future of the human body


TextEllen Atlanta

What happens when the lines blur between the digital and the natural, when what’s synthetic becomes real, when science meets science fiction?

“Humans as we know them won’t exist in the next 50-100 years,” says Professor Kevin Warwick, British engineer, recipient of two higher doctorates, nine honorary doctorates, and one of the world’s first cyborgs. “I definitely see a future in which we’re all adapted with cyborg abilities in some way.” Human potential is evolving, and discussion around the idea of cyborgs is being met with increasing fervour by the wider public. The term cyborg has many nuanced meanings, but most often refers to those whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations, largely due to the integration of human and machine – where technology becomes one with the human body.

Professor Warwick has been experimenting on himself since 1998, dedicating his own body (and risking his life) in order to push the limits of technology and human potential. His work has evolved from the implantation of microchips within his body, a practice that’s becoming increasingly used much like a contactless card, allowing people to access buildings or pay for their lunch with just the touch of a hand, to work focusing on integrating the brain with technology. His BrainGate implant allowed him to control a robotic hand on the other side of the Atlantic, and feel it too. “Someone who has had their hand or leg amputated, could have an artificial limb which they then control as if it’s part of their body, and they wouldn’t notice any difference as far as the brain is concerned,” he says. “But the key thing is, it doesn’t have to be a leg or an arm, it could be a building, it could be a car – your body doesn’t need to have legs and arms like it does now. As soon as you have the interface between your nervous system and wires, any technology can be your body, and it can be wherever you want it to be.”

As part of his experiments, Professor Warwick also created an additional sense within his brain – ultrasonic. This bat-like ability allowed him to sense small movements at a few metres distance. Due to the success of his research, Professor Warwick believes extra sensory abilities will become commonplace within the next 100 years. “I was looking to see if our brains could expand, which of course they can - it was no problem at all. We also experimented with infrared, which gives you a remote sense of heat, because humans can’t detect heat from a distance. I think almost anything is possible – UV, X-ray – we can extend our abilities to start sensing whatever we like.”

Professor Warwick then moved on to a bigger project – connecting his nervous system with that of his wife. Electrodes were implanted into his spouse, allowing them to communicate – when she opened and closed her hand, his brain received a pulse. “It was like a telegraphic communication from nervous system to nervous system, which when we do it brain to brain, will become almost like a telepathy,” he says. “We have the technology to do it now, it’s just bloody dangerous to connect two brains, so I’m a bit scared.”

Unlike some of Professor Warwick’s endeavours, most cyborg experimentation isn’t done solely to push human bodies to the limits. For the most part, the technology is used by those who have suffered an injury or amputation. The majority of those in the field work towards eradicating these disabilities – through spinal cord injuries or loss of limbs.

“This idea of becoming a cyborg for an amputee is just about regaining functionality that they either were born without or they lost, and that the world around them is designed to be used in,” says Oliver Armitage, founder of Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems (CBAS). Alongside his co-founder, Armitage has created a cybernetic system that allows his patients to regain control and feeling with bionic limbs. Their interface acts as a USB port connecting directly to the nervous system, and allowing different prosthetic limbs to be attached, depending on the needs of the patient.

“We do this because there's real medical need now for those people, but I’m also excited by the fact that in the process, you also create technology which could allow people to add to themselves if they wanted to. If they need a limb for climbing, they can have a climbing limb. There’s no limits on what a person can choose to have put on the end of our interface.”

Dr Robert Gaunt, Assistant Professor in the Department of BioEngineering at the University of Pittsburgh, has worked with ‘cyborg’ patients, and was part of the team that allowed a paralysed man to have a ‘natural’ sense of touch restored using a mind-controlled robotic arm, for the very first time. His focus is simple, to work on eradicating disability and create a world where losing a limb or losing functionality, no longer has to define the way you live.

“I think in a short time frame, far less than 100 years, it’s possible that people who have some of the more serious disabilities from strokes, or spinal cord injuries or amputation, won’t have a problem anymore. If you lose your arm in an accident, you could go to the doctor that day and you get a new arm, and it would work almost as well as an arm does.”

Despite his incredible work, Dr Gaunt is hesitant to make any outlandish predictions for the future. “Nature has set a high bar. For example, it is very difficult to replicate hand function and there are no hand robots that come anywhere close to replicating human hands,” he says. “Will we get there? Almost certainly. But we have to be careful about what we promise, especially with the medical use of these technologies. We’re still in the early stages and it’s unfair to get peoples’ hopes up.”                                                                                                                                                 

However, Dr Gaunt, and many others, argue that the cyborg future others are predicting, is already occurring now. “You could argue that everybody with a pacemaker is a cyborg,” he says. “They have a machine in their bodies that is keeping them alive. I’ve heard of people who have prosthetic arms and one of their jobs in the family is to reach into the bonfire and grab the marshmallow when it falls in. They can stick their hand in the fire with no consequences. You can call them new ‘superhuman abilities’ if you like, but people are already able to do things that you and I couldn’t do if we had all our ‘normal’ parts.”

But it doesn’t have to be about becoming superheroes, upgrading the human body or even treating disability. Cyborg artist and activist Moon Ribas argues that it’s simply about creating different perceptions of reality and finding more ways to experience the beauty of the world we live in. For the past five years, Ribas has had two implants underneath her skin on the top of her feet, that are connected to online seismographs. Whenever there’s an earthquake above two on the Richter scale, anywhere on the planet, she feels vibrations inside her body, which she then uses to inform the choreography of her dance performances. The feelings vary in intensity depending on the strength of the earthquake, and sometimes occur every eight minutes. Ribas calls this her ‘seismic sense’.

“I feel like I have two heart beats now – the heart beat and the earth beat,” she says. “I identify myself as a cyborg, but maybe it’s a bit different, because I was never interested in science fiction or anything like that, and it actually makes me feel closer to nature. I was studying movement research, and I wanted to perceive movement in a different way."

The idea of using cyborg augmentation not to enhance, but to facilitate different perceptions of reality, offers a less divisive view of the future. “It’s not about upgrading or getting better,” says Ribas. “Being better or worse is very subjective. A blind person is not worse than someone who can see, they just have a different perception of reality, some of their other senses might be heightened. Some groups within the cyborg community are very much about improving humans, but I feel very uncomfortable with these terms. It’s not necessarily about becoming superheroes.”

In 2010, Ribas founded The Cyborg Foundation alongside fellow cyborg artist Neil Harbisson with three main aims – to help humans become cyborgs, to promote cyborg art, and to defend cyborg rights. “Cyborg is an identity, but you don’t need technology in your body to identify as one,” she says. “We’ve come up with three ways of identifying as a cyborg. There’s psychological cyborgs, which is the feeling that you are united with technology. We could argue that we’re all psychological cyborgs, because when your mobile phone is running out of battery, you say, ‘I’m running out of battery’ – you talk about technology as if it was a part of you. The second is biological cyborgs, which is the physical union between humans and technology (a robotic arm). And finally, there’s neurological cyborgs, which is the modification of the mind due to technology (a bionic arm that you can control or feel with your mind).”

Although she is a great proponent of cyborg adaptations and extra sensory abilities, she doesn’t think they will become a mainstay in human life. “I imagine a future in which it will be more normal for people to be cyborgs and have extra senses, but I don’t think everyone will have them. I find that difficult to imagine. We imagine a world that will be more diverse. Now we accept that there is more than two genders, so maybe in the future there will be people who unite with technology and people who don’t.” That said, Ribas does accept that the limits to what could be possible in the future are almost non-existent. “As long as it doesn’t harm other people. What we try to encourage, is that everyone can decide how they want to perceive reality, and what senses they’d like. That is the exciting thing, we can decide how we want to be and how we want to perceive.”

Whether we’re using cyborg enhancements to regain functionality, push our limits or create new sensory experiences - the future of the human body will be ours to design, creating an entirely new mode of self-expression. The relationship we each have with our soft bodies will change, as will our notions and experiences of what is beautiful. In our highly personalised cyborg future, we’ll have more of a say in how we look, how we operate and what we perceive, than ever before. Although research and testing is largely still in the early stages, our lives, bodies and minds are becoming increasingly infused with technology. The means and the methods exist, and a cyborg population is already in our midst. Perhaps within our lifetimes, the line between the digital and the natural will blur almost completely. The only limits are your imagination.

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