Against Cyborgs

Against Cyborgs

Against Cyborgs

Hi, I'm Tim Tyler - and today I will be discussing the liklihood of cyborgs being an important phenomenon in the future.

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism - a creature with both organic and mechanical components.

To start with, here's Nick Bostrom, to introduce the basic idea:

[Footage of Nick Bostrom]

Cyborgs are a well-known concept in popular culture - and you are probably already familiar with the basic idea.

The idea has the support of a number of futurists. Here's Rodney Brooks:

[Footage of Rodney Brooks]

Ray Kurzweil also seems to be keen on the idea:

[Footage of Ray Kurzweil]

However, the concept has many serious problems. To open the case for the prosecution, here's Nick Bostrom:

[Footage of Nick Bostrom]

My position is broadly similar to Nick's. Man and machine mix poorly once you go under the skin - and there is normally little functional benefit for healthy individuals that cannot be obtained by other means.

Gregory Stock devotes a section of Redesigning Humans to this issue:

As I see it, an actual brain-computer link would bring us almost nothing that our sensesófed by tiny external devices such as miniature speakers to whisper in our ears and fiber optic eyeglass projectors to throw images onto our retinasócould not. We learn about the world through our senses. We are wired to respond emotionally to them. This is why our immediate future will almost certainly focus on augmenting and titilating our senses, not on carving some new high-bandwith superhighway into our brains.

We have no reason to veer away from our current path of miniaturizing and refining cell phones, video displays, and other devices that feed our senses. A global-positioning-system brain implant to guide you to your destination would seem seductive only if you could not buy a miniature ear speaker to whisper you directions. Not only could you stow away this and other such gear when you wanted a break, you could upgrade without brain surgery.

The benefits seem relatively minor - compared to what can be done by keeping machines outside the body and interfacing with them through conventional sensory-motor channels. While the problems seem enormous - surgery, infection, immune system problems, inaccessibility for maintenance or repair, a damp and hostile environment, no external cables or power supply - and so on.

I like to look at things from the perspective of the machines - so what would a machine think about being inside a human? If it could tap into the brain, it would get more intimate access to human sensory and motor channels. However, it would miss its power supply, its broadband internet connection. Also, it would have little access to external machine sensors and actuators - being limited to sensing and affecting the inside of the body. At least it wouldn't be at much risk of being upgraded.

So, if implants are unlikely, what will happen? Currently man interfaces to machines without implanting them into his body. Existing human sensory channels are preprocessed by machines - and human motor output is then post-processed by more machines. This results in what some people call Fyborgs - an abbreviation for functional cyborgs. There is a man-machine symbiosis without surgery or implantation.

What will we see inside the body? Drugs and nutrients, obviously. The digestive tract may see machine-related activity. However, from my point of view, the digestive tract is outside the body. In other words, a human is a donut - topologically speaking - with the hole representing the digestive system.

What about the bloodstream? In hospitals the vascular system of patients is frequently given a port to the outside world - to facilitate the delivery of drugs that need to act quickly, or would be destroyed by the digestive tract. It's possible - but a permanent port has to compete with hypodermic needles for delivery - and with finger-pricking for sampling. It seems like considerable hassle - but maybe one day people will want an frequent influx of something that they can't get into themselves any other way - and so will do it.

What about things like RNA interference and gene therapy? Again, these things may prove possible - but they will be the topic of another video.

What about further into the future? Ray Kurzweil's vision didn't really involve surgery and mechanical implants - rather he skipped many decades into the future and sketched out a vision involving advanced molecular nanotechnology. The problem with this vision is that Ray apparently ignored what was happening in the meantime in the rest of the biosphere. The nanotechnology that can splice into the optic nerve - or the human visual cortex - and feed it a convincing virtual reality simulation without causing permanent brain damage is really pretty advanced. By the time we can do something as impressive as that, we will be able to do a great many other things - and those other things will probably have relatively left few biological human beings around. Those that remain will probably be in museums of natural history - and are extremely unlikely to be running the show.

OK - so how about if we don't go that far. The intimate embrace between humans and machines will probably intensify as time passes. Surely at some stage, we will want to stimulate our brains using more than just our external senses.

I don't forsee this happening. Mentally ill folks may use implants to fix themselves - but for healthy folk, by the time we have the skills and knowledge required to do something useful to the working of the brain reasonably safely and effectively, I expect the human brain will have become obsolete.

Why cyborgs?

To close, I'd like to offer a somewhat psychoanalytic perspective on the cyborg phenomenon. Humans can see the machines coming over the horizon - and they don't want to wind up fighting the battle with them which they see so frequently portrayed in the movies. So: they seek to join forces with them - and the cyborg path looks like one possible way to do that.

Stephen Hawking - himself no stranger to the embrace of machines - makes this point explicitly:

In contrast with our intellect, computers double their performance every 18 months [...] So the danger is real that they could develop intelligence and take over the world. [...] We must develop as quickly as possible technologies that make possible a direct connection between brain and computer, so that artificial brains contribute to human intelligence rather than opposing it.

Of course Stephen Hawking would say that - he has his own motivations for encouraging the construction of brain-computer interfaces.

However, as such action plans go, I am sceptical about whether this one would be effective at halting, or even slowing down, the march of the machines. The problem with machines is that they show the promise of surpassing us on all fronts. When that happens, our days are likely to be numbered. An intimite brain computer interface would probably just allow the machines to suck all human knowledge out of us faster - thereby accelerating the point where humans reach their sell-by date. A mere interface is not much of dependency for the machines - they can just unplug themselves when they are ready.

So, even if cyborgs were technically realistic, they probably wouldn't have the effect that originally generated interest in them.


  1. Stephen Hawking - Hawking's Take on Machine Intelligence;

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