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“Cyber-Humans: Our Future with Machines” – Interview with Prof. Woodrow Barfield
Hank Pellissier   Mar 27, 2016   Ethical Technology  

Dr Woodrow (Woody) Barfield has published over 350 articles and publications in the areas of computer science, engineering and law. He was head of the Sensory Engineering Laboratory as an Industrial and Systems Engineering Professor at the University of Washington, and he holds both JD and LLM degrees in intellectual property law and policy.  His research revolves around the design and use of wearable computers and augmented reality systems.

Dr. Barfield latest book is Cyber-Humans: Our Future With Machines, published by Copernicus. I interviewed him via email on the topics of that his book addressed.

What time-line do you see cyborgs happening in the future?  At what point will humans be more “cyber” than “human”?

There are several ways to think about the question. A few people have predicted that by the end of the century the majority (all?) of our biological parts could be artificial and perform better than the original. But actually, many of us are cyborgs now which I think raises many ethical, legal, and social issues. Generally, the definition of a cyborg is a person whose physiological and mental functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device. So if you have a heart pacer or cochlear implant, you are a cyborg. I would like to add to the above definition in the following way: given that prosthetics and other cyborg technologies are becoming part of the human body and can be modeled with control theory, I extend the definition of a cyborg to include the concept of: (1) closed-loop feedback, and (2) that the technology being integrated into the human body has computational ability.

Further, I think that in the twenty-first century the use of devices worn on the body or implanted within the body, will provide people functionality which will “enhance” or “go beyond” current human abilities. I’m somewhat of a “Kurzweilian,” thus I think that under the law of accelerating returns, “cyborg” technology will continue to improve exponentially and eventually will be implanted into the human brain allowing us to connect to the internet and control technology by thought alone. Here I should point out the groundbreaking work of Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University on brain-computer interfaces, the work of Theodore Berger on the design of an artificial hippocampus at the University of Southern California, Steve Mann’s work at the University of Toronto, and Kevin Warwick’s early proof-of-concept study to implant a sensor into his body.

In my view, one will become more cyborg than human when their brain which controls emotions, language, cognition, etc., is significantly enhanced with technology. Possibly, if we think of the brain as a computer with say petaflop (or beyond) computing abilities, then when a significant amount of the computing that is done by the brain is performed by cyborg technology, I would say we are more cyborg than human. So to me, it isn’t the amount of biological parts (liver, kidney, etc.) which are replaced that is the defining concept of when we become more cyborg than human, but the amount of information processing currently done by the brain that is either replaced or enhanced with cyborg technology.

What dangers do you see in this development? What advantages do you envision?

While some, such as robotics and computer vision expert Hans Moravec views our artificially intelligent inventions (such as robots) as the next logical step in evolution, and nothing to fear, in my view the greatest “danger” is that our technological progeny may differ so much from people today in terms of values, morals, and ethics, that our future descendants may have lost the very essence of what it means to be human. That is, the values, goals, and morals of our technological progeny, may not be “human-centered” but alien to us.

However, I think it’s hard to predict the direction that humans with mental functions that are significantly enhanced with “cyborg technology” and networked with other brains will take, therefore, the unpredictability, the unknown(s) associated with our cyborg future, is a potential danger and combined with artificial intelligence a possible existential threat. But the advantages of becoming a cyborg could be tremendous- bodies with upgradeable parts that are not susceptible to injury, aging, and disease, and by implanting nanobots in the brain, as Ray Kurzweil claims could be possible around mid-century, we could multiply our intelligence a billion-fold by linking wirelessly from our neocortex to a synthetic neocortex in the cloud.

Interestingly, the extension of our brain into predominantly nonbiological thinking could be the next step in the evolution of humans—just as learning to make and use tools was for our prehistoric ancestors. On this last point, when I lecture on the topic of cyber humans, I point out that humans as tool users, are now becoming the technology, not just designing the technology that historically was external to our body.

What combination of flesh-and-machine do you see as most desirable, for humans to aspire to, in the next 30 years?

There are two areas of “flesh-and-machine” combinations I envision as desirable by mid- to late-century. The first is to continue development of prosthesis based on medical necessity, that is, to return the body to “normal” functioning after injury or disease. However, as an engineer while I look at the human body as a miracle of nanotechnology, I also view the body as a “machine” with physical limitations and subject to injury, disease, and system failure. By creating prosthesis that are superior to our natural parts, we will be able to update our body not only to restore function, but to enhance function.

Second, a combination of flesh-and-machine that leads to “enhancements of the mind” will likely be possible around mid-century- this will allow people to increase their information processing abilities. Here I point out DARPAs numerous “brain” projects and President Obama’s initiative to discover the neuro-circuitry and workings of the brain. DARPA’s programs which will lead to desirable human-machine combinations include: the HAPTIX program which aims to create fully implantable, modular and reconfigurable neural-interface microsystems that communicate wirelessly with external modules, such as a prosthesis interface link to deliver naturalistic sensations to amputees; and the NESD program which aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide increased signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the brain and the digital world.

Further, DARPA’s RAM program aims to develop and test a wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical device which could facilitate the formation of new memories and retrieval of existing ones in individuals who have lost these capacities as a result of traumatic brain injury or neurological disease. These are just a sample of the technologies under development which will lead to desirable flesh-and-machine combination in the next 30 years. 

What government policies do you recommend to achieve these goals?

Firstly, I recommend that the government and industry keep funding programs to achieve the general goal of enhancing the human body with technology. For example, the National Science Foundation funds research on Cyber-Human Systems including robots and wearables, and person-embedded sensors and computers. I also recommend adopting a policy of open source software development instead of proprietary platforms so that third parties can hack cyborg technology and thus make improvements to the technology in ways not originally planned by the government or industry. But cyborg technologies will have to be regulated not the least of which is to ensure safety. 

Currently, the FDA regulates much of what can be considered “cyborg technologies” as medical devices, and the FCC regulates the use of spectrum for medical devices, and so on. But in addition to regulations by government agencies, I think regulations by technical societies, and laws and statutes promulgated by legislators, will also play a role. Additionally, intellectual property law will have a major role to play in our cyborg future, especially who owns the property created by enhanced minds, the person, the hardware manufacturer, or the software designer, to list just a few. I favor government policies which encourage the development of cyborg technologies, but thinking about artificial intelligence and the role it could have with neuroprosthesis, there needs to be debate and policy as to what direction the future direction of humanity should take. 

What nations do you think will be fastest in developing the Cyber-Human?

Unfortunately, “cyborg enhanced” soldiers are one direction of research being pursued in the U.S. and other countries, so I envision the U.S., China, Russia, Great Britain, and Germany making advances in the area of cyborg enhanced soldiers. However, since Japan and South Korea are very “robot oriented” societies, both nations will play a significant role in our technological future as well. And generally, nations with the resources to put into developing state-of-the-art medical technology will be first in developing cyber-humans. Cyber humans will also lead to economic advantages in the workforce, so I see the technology to create humans that are smarter and “more abled” than current people as a major development this century.

Do you think it will be very expensive to become Cyber-Human, and only the very wealthy will achieve it?

Of course, at least initially, most of the technology that will be implanted within the body will be expensive. Based on medical necessity, patients with debilitating disease or injury will be first to receive much of the technology in proof-of-concept studies; for example, brain-computer interfaces for those “locked-in” their own body is one example. But once cyborg technology becomes a consumer product, then as with the smart phone and other information technologies, the price-performance of cyborg technologies will dramatically decrease and there will be a proliferation of the technology into the general population. I see a motivation to become enhanced with cyborg technologies occurring when the technology has advanced to the point where a person that is not technologically enhanced is at a disadvantage to those that are.

How likely is it that people will chose to become enhanced with technology especially if not done for medical necessity? Just consider that according to statistics released by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, a few years ago 14.6 million cosmetic plastic surgery procedures were performed in the United States. These procedures are not done for medical necessity, and could result in severe side-affects. There is also a DIY grinder movement, the goal of which is to self-enhance the body with technology; much of which is off-the-shelf and cheap. For example, some grinders place a magnet in their finger to detect magnetic fields or an RFID chip in their body to communicate to external devices. So, generally, I envision the proliferation of cyborg technologies into the human body following the stages for technology adoption as shown for that of other information technologies that are now part of society.

Do you think people, with the Cyber option, will still want to eat, sleep, have sex, work?

To answer this question, I have to also discuss AI and robotics. At some point in this century, I think AI will surpass humans in general intelligence, until then, cybernetically enhanced people will continue to gain in abilities and surpass those people that remain free from cyborg technologies. During this time period, eating, sleeping, and having sex will still be a basic human need and therefore cyborg enhanced people will engage in these activities. However, if people become more machine than biology, some of our basic needs may no longer be operating, then our bodies may be powered by nonbiological sources, we may not need REM sleep, etc. As to work, some argue that to compete with AI and robotics, we need to cybernetically enhance our bodies to have similar capabilities, else we could get left behind.

How will society change?

Along with advances in cyborg technology\AI integrated into our bodies we are entering an age of acceleration in science, engineering, and business. I agree with Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis that up till now, the models underlying society were largely based on a linear model of change, thus many people expect that technology and society in the next few decades will just be a linear extrapolation of technology that exists now. But due to the exponential growth of technology, especially information technologies, this model needs to be redefined.

What will be the effect on organizations when cyborg enhanced people with superior skills to those non-enhanced enter society? Clearly, organizations will have to be able to adopt and redefine themselves at a faster and faster pace. And the models we have underlying society at every level are going to be challenged, whether you’re talking about the role of schools, or religious institutions, the law, or business in general. In fact, people with body modifications that are members of the Church of Body Modification, have already been involved in employment disputes, resulting in litigation. And in employment law, a person with a disability corrected by cyborg technology may have superior abilities than people without the enhancement, but still under the law they are considered disabled.  So, many societal institutions will have to adopt to cyborg enhanced people entering society; therefore, I believe there should be much debate concerning the future direction of humanity with respect to advances in cyborg technologies.


Dr. Barfield’s book is available here

Hank Pellissier
Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Managing Director and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.


Thanks for a great article.  Really informative and helpful.

I’m wondering how you would view the emotional lives of humans in regards to our cyborg future.  Is it a manifestation of our consciousness that will go away in the future?  Meaning, while I understand the acceleration of intelligence via machines and more advanced physical body parts, etc, how do you see the evolution of human emotion? More importantly, how would you like to see it evolve? 

Thanks again.

John, thanks for the interesting and thought provoking question. I think we can talk about the “evolution of emotions” as occurring over the millennium based on Darwinian principles, and alternatively, we can think about whether emotions will continue to evolve as a function of technology/AI integrated into the brain. In the first case, our human emotions “may” continue to evolve slowly over a period of thousands of years, in contrast, for cyborgs, emotions “may” evolve under the law of accelerating returns over a period of decades. It’s interesting to note that different emotions evolved at different times in the evolution of our species and that they are mediated by different centers of the brain. For example, primal emotions, such as fear, are associated with ancient parts of the brain, filial emotions evolved among early mammals, and social emotions likely evolved among social primates. But what about technology? In 2000, researchers such as MIT’s Rosalind Picard (author of Affective Computing) argued that if we want computers to be genuinely intelligent and to interact naturally with us, we must give computers the ability to recognize, understand, even to have and express emotions; today much more is being done in this area (I argue in my book that “they” are becoming more like us, and “we” are becoming more like them; see also, The Oxford Handbook of Affective Computing). Additionally, we are creating AI systems that can discern our emotional state by examining our expression via facial features, speech, postures and gestures. So some forms of AI/technology seem headed towards the ability to detect and possibly experience human-like emotions (major philosophical debate here!). If people become more “cyborg,” would they be losing emotions or would they experience new emotions? According to Martine Rothblatt, author of Virtually Human: The Promise and the Peril of Digital Immortality, one way to create a cyborg is by uploading one’s “mindfile” to an artificial body, then the memory of our subjective experience of emotions would also by uploaded, and the cyborg would at least have the memories of emotions stored in their mind. But I have a timeline in mind, if Kurzweil is correct and around the middle of the century AI exceeds humans in general intelligence, until that time, humans enhanced with technology will still be more biology than technology and thus still experience “human emotions.” I think that as we develop neuroprosthesis, such as an artificial hippocampus (which is involved with short- and long-term memory), we will be able to transfer “emotional experiences” from one brain to another, but this is only peripheral to your question on the evolution of emotions for cyborgs. I personally think that some human emotions will be considered counterproductive to a higher form of intelligence, and be “programmed out” of the repertoire of acceptable behavior; the interesting point here is the ease in which emotions may be manipulated, essentially as a software module which could be downloaded to a cyborg-enhanced mind. Of course this conjures up the vision of a dystopian future, where our emotions are controlled by any party with access to the technology integrated into our mind. Could this be possible? Consider the work of Olds and Milner on the “pleasure centers of the brain.” Discoveries made in the 1950s initially suggested that rodents could not stop electrically stimulating parts of their brain, which was theorized to produce great pleasure; similar results were shown for human patients. So clearly, technologies “of the mind” can be used to influence our emotional state. In the future, I see the possibility of experiencing a range of emotions (like pleasure) through the use of neuroprosthesis, and the possibility that emotions will “evolve” more as commercial experiences/products than evolving due to evolutionary pressure. While I think there should be debate as to whether emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness should decrease in intensity or possibly disappear, I can’t but think, if they did, we would be less human as a result. It seems to me it would be a boring life to always be experiencing happiness or to have no emotions. As many argue, society needs to determine which direction we should take as we become more enhanced with technology. So, I think emotions could change/evolve once they become digital (with upgrades associated with different emotions), hopefully in such a way that future cyborgs (enhanced with AI) would still look at the universe with awe and wonder and want to explore it.

If you don’t want your body parts to report constantly to the manufacturer and the FBI, you’d better insist that all their software be free/libre, rather than proprietary.  See

A few decades from now, we may be able to fabricate the chips for ourselves, in which case it will be time to insist on free hardware designs for the same reason.  See

The term “open source” is a way of talking about free software while avoiding the ethical issues.  If you recognize that there’s more at stake than just encouraging technical progress, I suggest you show this by saying “free/libre software” rather than “open source”.  See

If we want to think clearly about copyright law, we had better avoid thinking it is similar to patent law.  That means, let’s not use that misguided overgeneralization, “intellectual property”, to think about either of them.  See

RMS- Yes, agree, “intellectual property” is a broad term, and the subject matter of intellectual property (patent, copyright, trademark, trade secret) differs as a function of the type of IP being discussed. Further, the range of IP rights may differ as a function of the jurisdiction. So for example, in the context of a neuroprosthetic device, under current legal schemes, copyright associated with the devices software offers one set of rights, patent law associated with the hardware, another. I agree with your points about free software and free hardware design (in the context of chips and other “cyborg” technologies such as sensors) in that I would like people to have the ability to “run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve” (borrowing heavily from the GNU site, the device/software) the [cyborg] technology integrated into the human body.  Such ideas are especially important as who controls technology that may be integrated into the human body may mean the difference between freedom and oppression. So free/libre software versus open source is a good point- as is the point expressed at the GNU site that the software/hardware be free as a matter of liberty (and not price). And finally, yes, in the context of my discussion, I think more is at stake than “just” encouraging technical progress (in fact, much more), as many policy issues are associated with “technological progress,” especially the development of technology that may determine the future direction of humanity. And finally, I would like to see the public fully engaged in the important debate about our technological future.

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