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When will we all be cyborgs?

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AFW Article Cover (Cyborgs) (1)

When will we all be cyborgs?

Superhuman hearing and a ground shaking sixth sense – can biohacking help us transcend our bodies and connect us to the earth?

Welcome to A Future World – Dazed's network, community, and platform focusing on the intersection of science, technology and pop culture. Throughout April, we're featuring conversations and mission statements from the people paving new pathways for our planet: activists, inventors, fashion pioneers, technologists, AI scientists, and global youth movements, alongside in-depth editorial exploring the new realities for our future world.

“The moment I attached it, the change was profound,” says Scott Cohen. “You start to have an awareness. It’s hard to explain – how do you explain colour to someone who hasn’t seen it? It’s something you just feel.” He’s describing the moment, in 2016, when he installed the NorthSense, a small plastic cube attached to his chest that gave him the ability to sense magnetic north. 

I had a similar experience two years earlier, in the South London studio of sound artist Daniel Jones. I stood and listened to a steady beeping coming from somewhere in the building. As I went from room to room, the beeping got louder and louder, until I found what I was looking for: the Wi-Fi router. With Jones’ custom upgrade to my hearing aids, I was able to sense the signals from his Wi-Fi router, chiming through the walls. I could have found it with my eyes closed. I was the first person who could hear Wi-Fi.

But who, of the two of us, was the cyborg

As our century enters its twenties, we’re at a turning point for bodies. New cyborgs are hatching among us all the time, and as people push the limits of what their bodies can do with the help of technological upgrades, the definition of what constitutes the human body is becoming more and more expansive.

Biohacking is also, for the most part, unregulated. Right now, people are free to modify their bodies in whatever direction their imagination leads them. And, beyond these individual anecdotes, it’s only a matter of time before it goes mainstream. RFID microchip implants are a staple of tech bros and body modders. When he’s not firing rockets at the sky, Elon Musk is working on a neural lace that he says will allow us to interact with computers via our thoughts. As the possibilities open up, it’s up to all of us to decide what it means to be Human 2.0.  

“It gave me a new sense, a sense that often other species have, like birds and sharks” – Scott Cohen 

Before I could hear Wi-Fi, I was already what some might call a cyborg. I’ve been wearing hearing aids since my twenties, and became fascinated with how the onboard algorithms pick and choose which sounds to amplify – suppressing traffic noise, for example, and boosting voices – giving me a heavily edited version of the world. 

The latest hearing aids can stream voice calls and music from a smartphone, just like AirPods. So with a bit of hacking, Jones managed to create an app that would gather information about nearby Wi-Fi networks – their strength, location, ID – and turn it into ghostly ambient noise. This was then streamed to my ears on top of the normal audio they deliver. It was, in essence, a simple upgrade.

In contrast to an artist like Jones, Cohen describes himself as “a normal business guy”, albeit one who is fascinated with notions of transhumanism. In 2016 he co-founded Cyborg Nest to build the navigational prosthetic NorthSense. The device vibrated softly whenever he faced north, a little tap on the breastbone to let him know which way he was oriented: “It gave me a new sense, a sense that often other species have, like birds and sharks,” says Cohen.

While nature gives us “just enough to survive”, says Cohen, we’re no longer bound by biological evolution. “If we’re spending so much time, energy and money to make our homes, phones, and cars smarter, why not invest the same amount of time and energy and money into making ourselves smarter?”, he emphasises. 

“If we’re spending so much time, energy and money to make our homes, phones, and cars smarter, why not invest the same amount of time and energy and money into making ourselves smarter?” – Scott Cohen

Cohen kept his implant for a number of years, even though the sensory augment was a painful and uncomfortable experience. “This was definitely brutal body hacking, I would not recommend it,” he says. After his body rejected the piercings multiple times, Cohen finally relented and removed the implant. Doing so left him with a sense of a physical loss, as well as an emotional one: “Nothing felt right for a long time, because I was now missing something that had become part of me.”

“I was more scared to take the implants out than put them in,” concurs Moon Ribas. For seven years, the Catalan artist had a set of implants in her feet that would vibrate in response to tectonic activity around the world. A dancer and choreographer, her signature piece is Waiting for Earthquakes, an improvisational performance that communicates this seismic activity as it happens. (Ribas recently replaced the implants with a “soft robotics seismic garment” that she can shed between performances.) 

Her long-time collaborator Neil Harbisson is another self-described cyborg. (Born colourblind, Harbisson has an antenna grafted to his skull which converts colour into sound, transmitted to his ears via bone conduction. This allows him to perceive colour, although in a way unlike anyone else.) In 2010, the pair co-founded the Cyborg Foundation to advance the field of sensory augmentation. A few years later, they launched a list of cyborg civil rights at South by Southwest, asserting the right to, and sanctity of, cybernetic enhancements. 

“There was more to it than art – I wanted to experience reality in another way,” says Ribas. We experience one particular reality, defined by the way our bodies are built to sense the surrounding environment, she explains. “Change your senses, and you will change your reality.” 

“Change your senses, and you will change your reality” – Moon Ribas 

For Ribas, sensory augmentation is a chance to move away from a human-centric point of view by adopting senses that other living creatures might possess. If we better understand what it feels like to be a bird or a bat, we might consider their perspective more in our decision-making. It might also deepen our understanding of the world. “There are realities that exist but we can’t access,” says Ribas. “This is a way to explore your own planet.”

That notion of tapping into the invisible environment is what gave my Wi-Fi hearing project its name, Phantom Terrains. It was cool to walk through London, listening to the crackle and beep of Wi-Fi networks leaching out of apartments, offices, cafés, museums, Underground stations, bus stops – even if, much like Cohen’s experience, it wasn’t exactly comfortable. 

I could, of course, have listened to my Wi-Fi app on a pair of headphones, just as Cohen could have just used a compass to find north, and Ribas could have received text alerts from an online seismograph. But there is a difference between knowing and feeling. 

“A sense is something that is always on, you don’t choose it,” says Cohen. “You don’t take your ears off and put them away at night. You’re always hearing whether you’re aware of it or not.” 

Ultimately my goal was not to hear Wi-Fi, but to demonstrate that my hearing could be modified in ways of my own design, to expand my senses instead of just replicating normal human ears. If I have to listen to an editorialised version of the world for the rest of my life, why not make it an interesting one?

If I have to listen to an editorialised version of the world for the rest of my life, why not make it an interesting one?

But before we all sign up for Musk’s neural lace and leap into a cybernetic life, there are things to consider, says Britt H. Young. As the California-based writer and human geographer who – sometimes – uses a bionic hand, explains: “For the most part, the gap between public perception and reality is extraordinary”.

Young recently wrote an article for Input magazine declaring “I have one of the most advanced prosthetic arms in the world — and I hate it”. The problem with so many of the viral videos showing off bionic prosthetics, she says, is that they are tailored to an able-bodied audience’s view of what’s important. Shiny carbon fibre shells and fragile articulated fingers are more about appealing to normalcy than offering a practical tool. “Personally, the prosthetic hands that are most useful are those that look least like a hand,” says Young. 

There’s also the problem of ownership: bionic limbs typically run on proprietary software, and can’t be customised to function in the way the user wants. You know how irritating it is when your phone updates to a new layout? Think how you’d feel if it happened to your own body. 

Cyborgs should also take care in what terms and conditions they’re signing up for, says Young: “Now and in the future, we have to be hypervigilant of who owns what intellectual property. Think twice before you abandon the last frontier of your privacy and self-ownership.”

In truth, the world might not yet be ready for cyborgs. Ribas was criticised by people who thought she could predict earthquakes and was failing to warn them; both her and Harbisson have received numerous death threats from those who feel what they are doing is unnatural. “Religious people say God made us perfect,” says Ribas. “But transforming oneself is a very natural thing to do. And also a freedom: deciding who you want to be, and how you want to be.” 

“Religious people say God made us perfect, but transforming oneself is a very natural thing to do. And also a freedom: deciding who you want to be, and how you want to be” – Moon Ribas

Cyborgism is more than an artistic endeavour or a tech folly, but an identity, offering the chance to reinvent your physical self in whatever way you see fit. This is hardly new: in 1985, feminist philosopher Donna Haraway published A Cyborg Manifesto, exhorting readers to transcend the constraints of gender and biological essentialism to find togetherness in an altogether post-human world where we form our own identities.

“I do identify as a cyborg,” says Cohen, “I’m trying to enhance my body, to have a deeper sense of what’s going on around me. Why stop at five senses? Wouldn’t more make our connection to the environment and other people deeper, making us more human, not less?” Having parted ways with Cyborg Nest, he’s now working on a new version of the NorthSense, an implantable he promises will be more comfortable and consumer-friendly. Such an implant could be a platform for all kinds of extra senses – radiation, air pressure, whatever your imagination holds. “We walk through a soup of sensory information that our biology doesn’t allow us to sense,” he says. “All we have to do is get a signal to the brain, and the brain then decides what it means. I think the possibilities are limitless.”

Ribas, too, is now working on another sensory upgrade, something less with mass production in mind, but more, it sounds like, as a way of connecting with her own experience. “After a while of not having another sense, I missed it,” she says of her new idea, an implant which can reflect her experience of living by the ocean in Mataró.. “I want to connect to the sea. The biggest part of the planet is water, and we know so little about it...”

My own time spent hearing Wi-Fi didn’t last long: I felt I’d made my point, and the app drained my phone battery in a couple of hours anyway (battery life is a perennial issue for cyborgs). I’ve made peace with the fact my ears work differently to other people’s – although I won’t rule out upgrading myself in the future.