Man or machine?

Revolutions in cyborg technology raise important philosophical questions.

It’s the year 2001 and let’s say you’re at a lecture, meeting, or even the movies. You are engrossed in the environment when all of a sudden your concentration is broken as you hear the first dozen notes from Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Someone in the room yourself included) has forgotten to turn off their cell phone. This situation is an annoyance that has happened to almost everyone. Now imagine that it is the year 2051 and you’re at a lecture, meeting or the movies. The high-pitched, and yet familiar ditty that you hear might not be the result of a person forgetting to switch off their cell phone. Instead, the person might have forgotten to switch off their implant.

This future scenario is not my latest screenplay idea, but rather a scientific possibility. According to Newsweek, some researchers state that in 50 years cyborgs will be possible. In the traditional sense, cyborgs are humans with electrical and mechanical devices grafted into their biological systems. This definition is rapidly changing as the boundaries and limits of technology grow. The line in the sand dividing man and machine is less apparent than it once was.

There is a popular saying that someday people will have bar codes engraved onto their foreheads. Someday might not be that far away if current trends in the cybernetic field continue. Kevin Warwick, a professor in the department of cybernetics at the University of Reading, England, made a major stride in cyborg technology in 1998. Warwick became the test subject of his own experiment when he had a silicon chip surgically implanted in his left arm. The experiment was designed to test whether or not the chip could communicate with an outside computer. What made the experiment so dangerous was that the glass tube that held the chip might have broken, which would have almost surely killed Warwick.

Newsweek reports, ‚over the next nine days, the computer would recognize him as he arrived at the main entrance, and its voice box would greet him. It opened his lab door for him. It turned on the lights.’ The test was a success and remains one of the great leaps in cybernetic technology. For his next experiment, Warwick plans on testing an implant’s ability to send signals between a computer and his nervous system. He comments that, ‚The opportunity for me to become a cyborg is extremely exciting. I can’t wait to get on with it.’

Warwick’s e

xperiments are another step in the natural technological progression of cybernetics. Machines are installed into our bodies all of the time. Pacemakers and insulin pumps are two of the most common and effective machines in humans. The difference between the implants currently in use and the ones that Warwick develops, is that Warwick’s implants transmit information to another source – such as a computer, or a door lock, or another person.

Not only are humans becoming more and more robotic, but robots are becoming more and more human. Examples of ’emotional’ robots can be found at any toy store. A few years ago, the Tamagotchi craze hit the world. Japanese engineers had developed a small virtual pet that you could carry around in your pocket. It would beep when it needed to be fed or played with. The virtual pet broke out of its shell in many incarnations. I still have nightmares about my sister’s Furby.

But why stop at pets? Virtual dolls are now taking their first stand in the toy industry. My Real Baby by Hasbro, uses sensors to detect light and motion, and can respond to environmental conditions accordingly. Codeveloper iRobot tells Newsweek that she ‚knows’ when she’s being hugged, rocked, or even burped, and that she requires ‚nurture.’ If Barbie wants to stay competitive, it looks like she’ll have to get some implants of her own (and not just the silicone kind).

Concerns regarding the fine line between man and machine have been overshadowed in the last decade by another equally important issue: genetic capabilities. Genetic splicing, gene therapy and cloning have raised many questions concerning the direction of science. Movies like ‚Gattaca’ and ‚Jurassic Park’ have frightened the public (with just cause) about the destructive effects of genetic engineering. A certain level of public awareness exists with genetics issues, which does not exist when it comes to cyborg and robotic technology.

George Orwell’s book ‚1984’ serves as a universal example of society gone awry. Orwell’s future is a society of little privacy, where ‚Big Brother’ watches your every move. The implantation of chips that transmit information to computers would literally make my skin crawl. Even if the government does not keep a database following our movement, health and thoughts, there are other entities that would gladly like to get their hands on such information.

Imagine watching television during a commercial break and viewing commercials that are sent to your home specifically based on your health readout. For example, you feel a little hungry and, ZAP, a fast food commercial is sent over the satellite. Instead of advertisers telling us how we should feel, how we feel will tell advertisers what to show us. All right, so this might be an extreme scenario, but with TiVo and other commercial editing devices on the market, advertisers have to do something to fight back.

There are more unsettling consequences regarding the misuse of cybernetics than a lack of privacy. A lack of individuality is equally possible. If there are chips in our bodies that regulate hormones, blood flow, and cell development, are we still human?

What if those chips connect us to others, allowing for constant communication with others, without ever having to dial a number? Are we still human then? Imagine a world of limitless knowledge, of complete openness, where the Internet can be accessed by closing our eyes, where all is one and one is all.

Are we individuals? Or are we something from a Star Trek series? The philosophical questions are endless, but one thing is certain: engineers and scientists need to stop answering those questions for the rest of us. The cloning of Dolly the lamb opened the door for the world to begin discussion of genetic engineering do’s and don’ts. The same needs to happen in the field of cybernetics while there are still individuals in the world to discuss the topic.

By David Rigsby, UCLA


engrossed pogrążony, zatopiony
to graft przeszczepić
engraved wygrawerowany
to make a stride zrobić duży krok naprzód
pace maker stymulator serca
incarnation wcielenie
hug uścisk
to burp czkać
to nurture wychowywać
overshadowed przyćmiony
capabilities potencjał; zdolności
to go awry iść na opak, nie udawać się
sth makes sb’s skin crawl coś przyprawia o gęsią skórkę
entity jednostka
to fight back powstrzymywać, stosować kontratak
misuse nadużycie