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Do You Want to be a Cyborg, or a Transhuman?

Nikki Olson

Ethical Technology

January 05, 2013

The words “cyborg” and “transhuman” are frequently used interchangeably, but to what extent, and in what ways, do the concepts have the same referents? And which is the preferable concept to identify with when contemplating one’s own future?

The word “cyborg” first appeared in 1960, in the article “Cyborgs and Space” by Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline. Clynes and Kline describe a cyborg as an organism deliberately modified for the expansion of unconscious self-regulatory control functions, to the end of adapting to new environments. Expansion is by means of cybernetic techniques, and “cyborg” (coined by Clynes) is short for “cybernetic organism,” or “cybernetically controlled organism.” Clynes and Kline were interested in the application of cyborgs to space exploration, and in their 1961 paper “Drugs, Space, and Cybernetics: Evolution to Cyborgs,” propose various chemical and electronic means of building control systems that will cooperate with the body’s own autonomic controls to enable survival across varied environmental conditions.

The concept is proposed as an improvement upon “external,” or, “unintegrated” measures of adaptation, such as oxygen tanks for deep sea diving, where the organism must be consciously concerned with supporting vital systems. The cyborg, by contrast, having integrated the adaptive element into its homeostatic system, is free from conscious maintenance of vital functions, and has greater freedom in exploring foreign environments. Clynes and Kline write:

“If man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continuously be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine. The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel.”

It wasn’t long after Clynes and Kline’s publication that the scientific community adopted the concept, and medical specialists began referring to patients with prosthetics and implants as “cyborgs.” In 1977 Merriam Webster defined a cyborg as, "a person whose physiological functioning is aided by, or dependent on, a mechanical or electronic device."(note: dropped reference to enhancement) The concept was also utilized in post-modernist academia, the most famous of which being Donna Haraway’s seminal feminist work of 1985, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” And of course, the cyborg concept has a rich history in literature and film, where the notion existed long before the word itself. The concept of the cyborg is thought to have first appeared amidst industrialization, in 1818, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The genesis of the concept in film has been attributed to Fritz Lang's “Metropolis” of 1927. Similar, though more sophisticated instantiations of the concept in the arts persist to this day. The cyborg of fiction often serves as a metaphor, or template for exploration and narrative on the dangers of advanced technology, to man and to society. Brenda E. Basher writes, “Cyborgs frequently serve as a counterpoint to humanness which, by contrast with it, reveals being human as a desirable or (more rarely) an undesirable trait.” Wired UK identifies 5 living cyborgs, which include both elective cyborgs, as well as those that became cyborgs through the process of medical treatment for disability.

Many, though not all current dictionary definitions of the cyborg make reference to enhancement. The Oxford dictionary defines a cyborg as “A fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines a cyborg as: “An organism, often a human, that has certain physiological processes enhanced or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices, especially when they are integrated with the nervous system.” Alternatively, utilizes a definition making no reference to enhancement.

There are a growing number of present day theorists, writers and speakers who, in making use of the word, deliberately negate the necessity of technology built into or attached to the body. Andy Clarke serves as an example here. In his book “Natural Born Cyborgs” he writes:

“The cyborg is a potent cultural icon of the late twentieth century. It conjures images of human-machine hybrids and the physical merging of flesh and electronic circuitry. My goal is to hijack that image and to reshape it, revealing it as a disguised vision of (oddly) our own biological nature. For what is special about human brains, and what best explains the distinctive features of human intelligence, is precisely their ability to enter into deep and complex relationships with non-biological constructs, props, and aids. This ability, however, does not depend on physical wire-and-implant mergers, so much as on our openness to information-processing mergers.”

It is quite common now to encounter claims such as “We are all cyborgs,” or, “We have always been cyborgs.” Amber Case, who identifies herself as a “cyborg anthrologist” serves as another example of someone “broadening” the definition of cyborg. Her argument can be found in her TED talk “We are all cyborgs now.” Interestingly, this latest trend in which the word is used, where in which unintegrated use of technology can serve to make someone a cyborg, describes the phenomenon Clynes and Kline, in their 1960s definition, were seeking to eliminate by proposing integration of technology into the non-conscious functioning of the individual.

At present, the Cyborg is a messy concept. There is considerable variability in how it is envisioned and defined, it is used in contradictory ways, and suffers a great deal of conceptual inflation. By way of current usage, one would be hard pressed to identify the essential characteristics of the concept: characteristics that distinguish it from any other concept. Perhaps the only essential characteristic, and the common denomenator between all usages of the word, is of a system (either a person, or a person using a tool) that has both biological and non-biological components.

The word “transhuman” came into use in the second half of the 20th century. In terms of etymology, FM 2030 is credited with first use of the word “transhuman,” which he used as a short hand for “transitional human.” A more rigorous definition was established in the 1980s, primarily through the work of Natasha Vita-More, and Max More’s development of the Transhumanist philosophy. The word “transhuman,” as a noun, does not exist in Merriam Webster, Oxford, Collins, or the American Heritage Dictionary, which is interesting given the word has been in use for over 40 years. Nick Bostrom, on the topic, puts forth in The Transhumanist FAQ the following definition: “Transhuman refers to an intermediary form between the human and the posthuman”, where posthuman is then defined as “a being whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards.”

Mirroring that of the cyborg, many today are promoting a broadened definition of the transhuman, with a growing number claiming, “we have always been transhuman”. There are also many who claim, “we have recently become transhuman,” citing vaccines as granting “super-immunity” (as well as enabling longevity), and tools such as the Internet yielding cognitive enhancement.

Where the threshold of enhancement to becoming transhuman lies is a point of contention. Bostrom writes:

“One might ask, given that our current use of e.g. medicine and information technology enable us to routinely do many things that would have astonished humans living in ancient times, whether we are not already transhuman? The question is a provocative one, but ultimately not very meaningful; the concept of the transhuman is too vague for there to be a definite answer.”

In spite of such arguments, and the imprecision of the concept, most seem to prefer to restrict use of the word to instances where technological enhancement is of a more significant degree. Max More on the topic puts forth:

“I tend to reserve that term for something that really makes a fundamental change in the human condition. And for the human condition, if that’s not to be arbitrary, I think that has to mean defined by our genes… or implanting devices, or doing some of the reengineering of the body or brain that will allow us to have perception and cognitive and emotional ranges beyond that of any human being, then we can talk about transhuman. So wearing contact lenses, doesn’t make me transhuman, but it’s all part of the same process of augmenting ourselves” (8:13-9:19).

So what are the essential differences between the two concepts?

In spite of variability in use of the two words, there are a few essential differences that can be found.

One essential difference is that a cyborg must be a hybrid, a hybrid of biological and non-biological, where as hybridity is neither necessary nor sufficient of the transhuman. Genetic engineering, for instance, could result in physical or mental functioning well beyond human limitations, while the enhanced individual remains wholly organic in nature. It is possible, then, to be transhuman without being a cyborg (any kind of cyborg). This is a non-trivial point, as it indicates the concept of the transhuman places emphasis on the purpose of modification, over and above the nature of the modification. Or, the transhuman is not bound to implementation detail, but rather, bound to a particular direction: towards improvement.

Natasha Vita-More has made an important distinction between the transhuman and the cyborg. Vita-More addressed the topic in her PhD dissertation, and refers to Clynes’ cyborg as a “cousin” of the transhuman. Despite being closely related, however, she states:

“It’s a different concept. The cyborg is not self-directing evolution. And it’s not self-directed enhancement. And there’s no mention in cyborg theory about psychology, about philosophy, about living longer in the future. Where as the transhuman, by it’s very definition, it’s about human transition. And altering our biology for living longer. And improving, or elevating the human performance, both in our physiology and in our cognition.” (14:25-17:03)

Vita-More’s analysis, I think, gets at the most important difference between the two concepts. In contrast with the cyborg, the transhuman is closely associated with a well-defined and coherent philosophy, in particular, a philosophy regarding the future. Transhumanist philosophy takes as primary values that of progress/improvement, and accordingly, the concept of the transhuman has a teleology, a purpose, as well as a necessity of enhancement.

The distinction in philosophy helps to explain many of the subtle discrepancies in aesthetics and connotation, especially when contrasted with the cyborg of fiction. For instance, Transhumanism’s valuing of intelligence and self-directed evolution give the transhuman an aesthetic of increased complexity and volition. And from the transhumanist’s explicit valuing of life and disvaluing of death, the transhuman gains association with health and wellness – associations scarcely evoked by the notion of the cyborg.

Thus, while the terms are often used interchangeably, and the concepts yield a great deal of overlap, they are certainly distinct in many important ways.

With coming future enhancement technologies, many will choose to merge with machines. Brain chips to expand memory capacity, as well as implants enabling infrared and echolocation capacity, are some of the imagined possibilities discussed by future tech enthusiasts. Ray Kurzweil believes we will be able to use nanobots in the blood stream, designed to create a super-immune system, optimize nutrition, and more. Technology of the future will likely make possible the creation of implants that can expand human perceptual experience, intelligence, strength, health and longevity. Though if a modification does not yield enhancement beyond human capacity, and fundamentally, the modified does not fit the concept “transhuman”. Being transhuman requires that a modification make an improvement and that such improvement not be at the cost of some other aspect of functioning. It is a concept that refers to improvement in a fundamental and holistic sense; it is a transcension.

I think it’s quite clear, that if one is part-biological, part-artificial, it’s better to be a transhuman than to be a cyborg.


Nikki Olson, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a transhumanist writer/researcher authoring unique articles on transhumanist culture and advancing technology. Involved in Singularity research for 4 years as a full-time research assistant, she worked on an upcoming book about the Singularity, aided in the development of the University of Alberta course "Technology and the Future of Medicine", and produced educational material for the Lifeboat Foundation. She attained a bachelor’s degree in 2007 at University of Alberta, Canada, in Philosophy and Sociology. Her interests lie in scarcity reducing technology, biotechnology, DIY, augmentation technologies, artificial intelligence, and transhumanist philosophy.


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