Printed: 2019-08-18

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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“Cyber-Humans: Our Future with Machines” – Interview with Prof. Woodrow Barfield

Hank Pellissier

Ethical Technology

March 27, 2016

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


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