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Updated on January 15, 2009

Are You Ready to Get 'borged?

Cybernetics: The perfect harmony between man and machine, encapsulated within a word that sounds so utterly ominous when it slides across the tongue. Cyborg. Images of half-men forced to depend upon plastic and steel in order to survive flit through our minds at it's mention- names like Robocop, Ziggurat-8, Darth Vader, Inspector Gadget, Ryan Laing, The Bionic Woman, and The Six Million Dollar Man, nearly all victims of some fatal injury that are brought back from the brink of death (or from death itself, in some cases!) to find themselves augmented, made stronger than they were before, better, faster, stronger... or so the saying goes.

But what is a Cyborg really like? What kind of harmony can today's scientists brew up between the organic tissues of humanity and the cold, unyielding artifice of the machine? Is the science still too crude to justify installation on a large scale, or are we well on our way to becoming the next hiveminded technocracy bent on efficiency and perfection like Star Trek's Borg? To answer that question, let's consider the two primary motivations we have as human beings for becoming "Cybridized."

The first is perhaps the most common- severe injury or some form of degenerative disorder raises it's ugly head, but hope for a new and better life is offered in the form of synthetic replacement components. We see this most commonly in prosthetics, from the common false leg to Claudia Mitchell's thought controlled arm and the C-LEG system, which incorporates a sensor network into artificial legs for the legless. We see it in pacemakers, insulin pumps, artificial hearts, silicon retinas, respirocytes (artificial red blood cells), and even in specialized hearing aid devices, like the surgically implanted bionic ear or cochlear implant. Using nerve endings carefully stimulated to grow and linking them to machines capable of reading the natural electric impulses that travel across the nervous tissue from the brain itself, doctors and researchers have managed to create dozens of prosthetic devices that fall firmly under the banner of Cybernetics.

But it gets better. Consider the fact that nerves naturally have the power not only to send electrical signals, but to receive them as well. We see a great example of this in the form of the aforementioned cochlear implant, which works by receiving sound and translating it into electrical impulses that are used to directly stimulate the auditory nerves, bypassing most, if not all of the parts of the ear most effected by normal forms of hearing loss.) Working with this knowledge, it becomes clear that it is not only theoretically possible to create completely functional prosthetic appendages with a full range of normal nerve-like tactile sensors, but it seems very likely that the next logical step in the design of artificial arms and legs manufactured for widespread use would take this form. Beyond even that, consider the advances science has made in mind/machine interface technologies like the Cyberkinetics BrainGate chip, which can actually allow a quadriplegic man the ability to access, read, and write emails, or the culture of rat brain cells that was connected to a neural interface and taught to fly a military aircraft almost as well as our boys in the Air Force. But working our way through this realm, we begin to tread on the ground of the second motivation for getting thoroughly ‘borged by the technology of tomorrow- power.

The second motivation is one that is primarily the domain of the scientist, the eager researcher keen on enhancing his own seemingly inefficient organic form and transforming himself into something more than human, if only for convenience's sake. This has taken the form of a number of different implantable devices, the most common being RFID tags, or subdermal microchips that transmit personal information VIA radio frequencies and can be configured to do everything from providing medical information (including allergies and blood type), bank and credit card information (for fast, easy, cardless transactions), the verification necessary to open electronic locks, and even GPS compatible signals that would allow the implantee to be tracked VIA satellite no matter where he or she went.

In a way, this is frightening. It reeks of Big Brother and the kind of technocratic totalitarian "Bold New World" government most people would like to avoid. Sure, while GPS tracking would be nice for tracking the movements of soldiers across a battlefield or for finding kidnapped children and escaped convicts, most private individuals would likely find the idea repulsive- imagine knowing that no matter where you go, someone, anyone, could be tracking your movements, from jealous lovers and spouses to men and women in the employ of the government. Moving beyond the GPS example, imagine getting phone calls or emails from strangers who just happened to read the personal information encoded on your RFID tag as you walked past on your way to work or school- bad dates and stalkers could glom onto you easier, and should you decide to change your phone number and email address, good luck re-encoding the chip without paying the doctor another visit- and RFID tags aren't covered by medical insurance.

Worst of all, though- imagine the future of identity theft. With your PIN number, bank account, credit cards, verification numbers, the digital keys to your car, your home, and a dozen other things riding on the radio frequencies rocketing off into the world from a chip embedded in your arm, stealing everything you own isn't exactly difficult. The currently available forms of RFID tags are totally devoid of encryption, so anybody and everybody with the right tech could pull up the information at will without the "tagged" individual ever being the wiser.

But these are just the basic, everyday leaps humanity has taken in the direction of merging with the machine for purposes other than simple prosthetics- Beyond these fledgling stages of RFID tags, there is a cardless future where one simple chip, accessible only by authorized devices and legitimate businesses, could be programmed as easily as passing one's arm over a scanner. Imagine having every supermarket savings card, every movie rental card, every "buy ten, get the eleventh free" card, every gift card and every "rewards" card programmed into a single personal subdermal microchip for easy use at the grocery store or anywhere else you happen to shop. Sure, they'd probably be getting the data concerning your shopping habits back in return, just like they do with the cards today, but at least you wouldn't have to fumble through your wallet and enter your phone number into a keypad every time the card eludes your grasp or spend hours leafing through a guide trying to find out what kind of savings various memberships give you.

Beyond RFID tags and a myriad array of impressive prosthetics, Cybernetics today is still little more than an exciting, tantalizingly close carrot leading the plodding horse of biotechnology down a rocky path of skepticism. The full neural interfaces, cyberbrains, replacement bodies, and mental harddrives of Science Fiction and the Cyberpunk subgenre are still as yet relegated to the dusty books of post-modern RPG's, the novels of writers like Neal Stevenson or William Gibson, and films like Matrix and Johnny Mnemonic. Sure it may all turn out to be a pipedream in the end, and the doubters who claim researchers pursuing these goals are grasping at straws may end up being right when it comes right down to it, but for now the technology hasn't been discounted. Who knows, in another ten or twenty years, when leaps in Nanotechnology have made society more receptive to the idea of the common human cyborg, we'll take the first big step down the path to becoming transhumans, post-human organisms as much flesh as machine, and maybe even begin our trek toward some darker, hive-minded sort of existence, one that might not be so different from that of the almost iconic Borg. (no puns intended.)


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      Theodore Fitzpatrick 6 years ago

      Excellent missive. Gradual Hearing Loss is sometimes a scary experience as millions of the elderly suffer from hearing loss every year. Thanks for taking the time to clarify this for us.

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      js 8 years ago

      i would be interested in trying something like that ive been interested for a while