Thanks to movies like Terminator, Universal Soldier and Blade Runner, the popular image of a cyborg is that of a futuristic, evil killing machine. The reality, however, is quite different, says Dr. Chris Hables Gray, a cyborg expert and professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In fact, he says cyborgs are everywhere; technically speaking, anyone who’s had a vaccination can be considered a cyborg.
While he defines a cyborg as “any system that is an intimate interconnection of both organic and machine elements,” Hables Gray said there are different levels of what he calls “cyborgization.” Further, for almost everyone, it’s not a question of if you’re a cyborg, but rather what kind of cyborg you might be. While most of us may already be a cyborg to a moderate level, someone with a prosthesis would be considered a higher level of cyborg.
But sometimes for all of the benefits, there’s a price to pay.
“My grandmother had a pacemaker and she lived an extra 20 years (because of it),” Chris said. “When she had a stroke and lost the ability to feed herself, the connection between her brain and heart would have made her heart stop. Instead, the pacemaker was there and she lived in a coma much longer than she would have wanted. That was the cost she paid for cyborgization.”
Hables Gray also pointed out that “cyborg” is a technological term as well as a science fiction term. The term was presented in the 1960’s and used by NASA as part of a conference on modifying humans to live in space; however, systems that serve as an intimate integration between the ‘evolved’ and the ‘invented’ pre-date that time, he said.
While humans have never been modified to live in space, Hables Gray noted the growing popularity of the idea of a “mundane cyborg,” where a person’s use of powerful technology goes in and out of a cyborg relationship. As our use of things like the Internet, drones, and surveillance systems continues to increase, he believes mundane cyborg systems will continue to proliferate.
“Even if you’re a militant, hippie, Californian and you’re already vaccinated, you still live in cyborg society. Your relationship to complicated machine systems is very intimate and ongoing, unless you’re totally out in the woods,” he said. “Understand that you live in this deep web of machine systems and that cyborgization goes beyond being vaccinated.”
Beyond mundane cyborgs, Hables Gray said the cutting edge, and also the danger, of where cyborg techno-science is taking us is in optogenetics. A relatively new research area that uses light to innovate the brain, the use of photons in optogenetics offers a smaller, faster alternative to stimulating the brain with electrons. To date, researchers have devised ways to implant a memory in a rat with light, and then use a different light course and turn that memory off, he added.
“What we’re going (sic) to see in the next 20 years is that technology (will) help people that have been injured to get the body to talk to the brain better (and it) may deal with post traumatic stress,” Chris said. “You can see the temptations to modify people’s brains so they’re much happier are going to be relatively great. We’re going to see an incredible improvement in the ability to intervene in, and to read and write to, the human brain with machine systems.”
While the potential for medical cyborgization is significant, Hables Gray is also wary of the perils of mind control. The possibility of having memories implanted and removed at the flip of a switch and seeing one’s aggression and libido centers controlled remotely, he believes, is the most significant danger of optogenetics in cyborg development.
The ominous possibilities aside, Chris believes that, in the future, mundane cyborgs will have the most significant impact on humans. Surveillance and drone use will increase, as will sousveillance, the wearable or personal computer-driven concept theorized by University of Toronto researcher Steve Mann in which events are recorded by active participants, rather than by fixed surveillance devices.
While he used the potential increase in police brutality captured by drones and sousveillance as an example, Hables Gray believes that increased surveillance by mundane cyborgs will have a variety of implications on the future, not all of which may be beneficial to the human race.
“We are going to be watched a lot by a lot of different systems. It’s going to be very complicated,” Hables Gray said. “We have to manage ourselves as cyborgs and that includes managing the earth as a cyborg earth. If we’re going to (sic) continue to be politically driven by profit, where we maximize the short term profits of a few people, this will doom humanity.”