They’re hidden in plain sight. They’re shopping at our grocery stores, eating at our restaurants, going to our movie theaters, and walking in our parks. They’re our friends, family members, neighbors, and teachers.
Humans without pulses.
Humans who control bionic limbs with their minds.
Humans with additional senses, who can pick up on magnetic fields with their own hands.
Grandmas with hip replacements.
These are the modern-day cyborgs, and their numbers are only growing. And with advancements in medical technology, technology becoming a more and more integrated part of daily life, and increasing interest in cybernetic enhancements, we may soon join their ranks.
CYBORGS: MORE THAN JUST ROBOCOP
When we think ‘cyborg,’ the image that comes to mind is something like Robocop, a human-robot fusion whose human body has been all but completely replaced with mechanical parts, creating an ultra-strong, ultra-fast robotic superhero (or villain.)
But what is a cyborg, really?
Cyborg stands for cybernetic organism, meaning a being made up of both organic and mechatronic body parts. By that definition, cyborgs aren’t just the creatures of a dystopian sci-fi future dreamed up in the 1960s. They’re already already a part of everyday life, and our fusion with technology is happening quietly and subtly than we could have imagined.
CYBORGS BY MEDICAL NECESSITY
The first cyborgs weren’t tech fanatics trying to further fuse with their smartphones, nor were they special cyborg military units transforming themselves into fighting machines. They were medical patients, overcoming the limitations of their biological parts with new, enhanced mechanical parts.
Things like knee replacements, hip replacements, and basic prosthetics have been around for a long time. But in recent years, medical devices have become much more advanced and impressive, crossing the line into cyborg territory.
Take, for example, the artificial heart. Prototypes of artificial hearts have been around since the 70s, but until very recently, they were only used as very temporary devices while people awaited heart transplants. That’s because the heart’s pumping mechanism caused very fast wear and tear on the devices, making longer term use impossible.
That was until the idea for a flow-through heart came along. In 2011, doctors from the Texas Heart Institute installed the first continuous flow artificial heart in a man named Craig Lewis. After the installation, Lewis’ wife was shocked to listen for his pulse and hear nothing but a mechanical hum. Her husband had become, in a sense, a cyborg.
The most visible cyborgs among us are those with prosthetic limbs. Until now, prosthetics have been relatively rudimentary. A prosthetic leg could create a sturdy support system that allowed people to walk or even run, but we couldn’t breach the mind-body connection required to actually physically control the prosthetic.
That all changed this year. Johnny Matheny of Florida is now the first man to sport a prosthetic arm controlled by neural activity in his brain. The arm was installed in December, and he will be spending until the end of the year testing the arm out in order to understand the capabilities of this new technology.
The arm was developed by scientists at Johns Hopkins University, with significant funding by DARPA (the US military’s advanced research agency.) This connection suggests that soon we might be seeing prosthetic limbs being used for more than just bringing medical patients back to normal function.
THE CYBERNETICALLY ENHANCED
While cyborg super-soldiers don’t exist yet (that we’re aware of), outside the medical community, there is a growing community of bio-hackers who have taken their bodies into their own hands and started experimenting with enhancements.
One relatively common hack is the addition of a tiny magnet underneath the skin of a finger on the non-dominant hand, allowing pioneering cyborgs to move beyond the five senses they were born with and pick up on magnetic fields. And while sensing magnetic fields may not seem particularly useful in day to day life, this simple enhancement (which is usually done in a tattoo parlour) has the potential for much more.
For example, you could build an electronic device that picked up on information and transmitted it to you by vibrating the implant in particular ways. The magnetic implant becomes not so much a sensor for magnetic fields, but for whatever sense you want- infrared light, changes to your blood sugar levels, or even price movement in the cryptocurrency markets.
The body is tuned to pick up on vibrations, and with enough time, additional senses can become like second nature. There have been successful experiments done where deaf people have been able to ‘hear’ through the vibrations of tiny electrodes placed under the tongue. Now imagine if that technology was used to transmit different information so that you could, say, ‘feel’ the notifications of your smartphone.
Perhaps that’s not so different from vibrating wearable devices already on the market.
“WE ARE ALREADY CYBORGS”
Elon Musk says, “We are already cyborgs.” With our near-constant attachment to our phones, our intuitive reactions when we hear the ping of a notification, and our instantaneous ability to search the web for whatever information we need, one could say that humans in the information age already have senses and brain power augmented by machines.
To the brain, the vibration of a phone in your pocket isn’t all too different from the buzz of a magnetic implant in your finger. And as that phone moves from a device in our pocket, to a wearable on our wrist, to an interactive device that could interface directly with our brain through the developing technology of neural lace, that line will go from blurred to officially crossed.
The cyborgs are already among us, and they are taking over.