Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Are We Already Cyborgs?

I wear clothes to enhance my thermal control, shoes to enhance my ability to cross hard ground and glasses to extend my vision, does this make me a cyborg?

Definition of a Cyborg

Collins online dictionary defines cyborg as:
(in science fiction) a living being whose powers are enhanced by computer implants or mechanical body parts

Oxford online dictionary has it as:
A fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body.

I think the definition boils down to this:
A person whose physical abilities are extended by electronic or mechanical parts added to the body.

I've cut out the 'science fiction' and 'fictional' bits because I think the definitions are out of date.

What makes a human a Cyborg?

Do you think of clothes as tools?  They are tools because they help us do things our bodies alone cannot.   I live in a part of the world where, without body insulation tools, I would freeze to death in the winter, or have to fly south (on rainy days that’s appealing, if expensive).  I am wearing a wool and cotton protective exoskeleton as I type this.  Now that makes jeans and jumpers sound cool.  Clothes are not implants so like spectacles probably don't make us cyborgs.

I began writing a story with characters having the equivalent of cell phones implanted in their heads.  I thought it a natural extension of today’s technology.  Then I added a camera with zoom and infra-red feeding images to an in-vision display for good measure.  I was describing characters having normal interactions, but they had the equivalent of ‘texting’ brain-to-brain, could see in total darkness and could have Internet data streaming through their vision at any time.  Am I writing about cyborgs?   

I probably am, but they are not the mechanical scary things often portrayed in fiction, say the Borg from Star Trek or the Daleks in Dr Who who are cyborgs too:  they have a living creature inside them.

Back to real humanity, which is sadly scary, deadly and ruthless even when not technically enhanced.

I thought “yes”, my characters are cyborgs, but am I?  I have fillings in my teeth, aren’t those implants?  They enhance my chewing for sure.  Are earrings, nose rings and naval rings implants?  One could say those are adornments.  The question becomes:  are adornments enhancements?  Note to the reader: I wear a ring; no earrings, nose-rings or naval rings.

What I am saying is that humans already have mechanical implants for medical reasons and decoration.

Medical Implants

Fillings and false teeth are a start.  There is a whole swath of medical implants from heart valves, insulin pumps, plates to repair damaged skulls, artificial hip joints to cochlear implants for improving hearing.

More visible are replacements for lost limbs, even glass-eyes are an implant to enhance appearance.  I know of people who’ve had the lenses in their eyes replaced and others who have had their natural lenses laser etched.

Imagine a person who had every conceivable surgical repair and mechanical replacement.  Would that make them a cyborg?  Does it take just one to make us part machine?

You could argue these are forced by need, not choice, but that is not what the definition says.  It is about extending human capabilities.  If I lost a limb, gaining a mechanical replacement would extend my capability.  

Do we become cyborgs when we choose to have our bodies changed rather than fixed?  My eyes are usable.  If later they weren’t and someone offered me a surgical fix, I could choose that replacement.

Implants by Choice

Tattoos are a body enhancement and one done by choice.  A person decides their fairly plain, by animal standards, skin, could be improved with geometric patterns, picture or words of meaning.  Those are permanent modifications implanted under the skin.  Not electrical or mechanical so that wouldn’t make them a cyborg; however, there are others go for mechanical body modifications.

There have been more than a few people who have had extreme tattoos or body modifications.  If you are not squeamish simply search for ‘extreme body modifications’ on the Internet.  WARNING: some of them are disturbing indeed. 

Amongst those images you will see humans with stretched necks and lip extensions, not done for modern fashion but ancient fashion.
The women of the Kayan Tribe in Northern Thailand use rings to stretch their necks beyond the norm.  That is a mechanical enhancement if ever there was one and a permanent change to the body too.

Modern cosmetic surgery is a misnomer, we have been doing it for centuries; however do silicone 'enchancements' make us cyborgs?  That's another Internet search "ancient costmetic surgery". Be surprised.

We are Cyborgs.  We are Humans.

I think we are cyborgs.  I think we have been for centuries.  I don't think we are the fictional machines like the Borg or even RoboCop.  I think we're nearer the Six Million Dollar Man an ordinary man repaired and enhanced.  OK my fillings don't give me super-strength, but they give me a capability I wouldn't have without them.

When we absorb modern technology within us, say built-in Wi-Fi, we are following a path well trodden by our ancestors.  These will enhance us and change us, but it does not make us less human.
I’m looking forward to eyes with a zoom facility and will continue to be as harmless as I have always been.

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