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
Gregory Stock devotes a section of Redesigning Humans to this
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
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.
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
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