Today I’d like to address the use of technology to select or modify human abilities and characteristics with a view to overcoming the limitations of the human body. In Spanish, it’s known as human perfection, while in English, it’s known as human augmentation. I believe it to be a topic that deserves attention and, with that in mind, I’ll begin by defining the concept and other related aspects, such as directed evolution, transhumanism, post-humanization, singularity, etc.
In this context, we’re talking about getting around the human body’s current limitations via technological or biological means.
An intellectual movement that promotes human augmentation by developing sophisticated technologies.
A cyborg (from the abbreviation of a cybernetic organism) is a fusion of a human being and technological, mechanical, or electronic components, such as microchips, mechanically-enhanced artificial organisms, technologically advanced prosthetic body parts, etc.
Don’t fear the concept of “singularity” as described by Ray Kurzweil (inventor, futurist, writer, philosopher, scientist specialized in AI, and current Director of Engineering at Google). There are other definitions, although this one is indeed the most widely accepted.
Singularity is a futuristic concept that contemplates the definitive union between human and artificial intelligence. Our mind will be located in the cloud, allowing us access to vast computational power which will in turn massively boost human knowledge (calculation speed, memory capacity, data management, intercommunication with other humans, etc.)
As you can see, these terms are all related, and we’re going to take a closer look at each one. To get to grips with the topic, I’d recommend you start with augmentation, as it provides a nice overview of the subject. For a beginner, starting with singularity, for example, would be like “starting a house from the roof down” – in other words, it’s better to work up to it!
As things are today, we already have indications of cyborgism within current medical science. You don’t have to go far to find a person with a pacemaker or hearing aid that would already meet the criteria to be defined as a cyborg and, what’s more, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid at the idea. That’s not the case with augmentation. In this page, cyborgs are a subcategory of augmentation.
The key difference here is in the use of the technology. In general medical practice, the technology is used to improve the wellbeing of the cyborg/patient. With augmentation, however, we’re implanting artificial gadgets because we just can’t resist it; we want to see how we can improve humans and not because of an organic lack or need. Supporters of human augmentation defend the idea that technological innovation should go beyond just recovering lost capabilities and instead grant human beings with possibilities that would have been impossible by any other means. And that’s where the debate begins…
What’s being developed? Who is doing what?
Advocates of augmentation maintain that improving the human condition is a positive thing, and we should do so by using technological or biological methodologies that interact with the human body. For example, robotic prosthesis, exoskeletons, or neural implants are increasingly more common in people with motor or sensory disabilities, or people missing a limb. Research into neural implants and computer-brain interfacing is revolutionizing the world of medicine, and new discoveries are being made daily.
A BCI (brain-computer interface) is defined as the technology that allows direct communication between a brain and an external device that allows neural activity to be stored and processed. This connection can take the form of methods that are:
- Invasive: for example, the implantation and use of technology directly within the brain, such as electrodes that have been placed there surgically.
- Partially invasive: for example, external recorders that detect signals from devices that have been superficially implanted. A good example is an electrocorticography (ECoG), which records brain activity via a mesh of surgically embedded electrodes.
- Non-invasive: this involves sensors or external electrodes like the ones used in electroencephalography.
A recent study from the University of Stanford highlighted how patients who have paralysis could successfully move a cursor on a screen by simply imagining the corresponding hand movement. In order to demonstrate this, they implanted electrodes in the cortical motor of each patient. These electrodes recorded the signals that were generated and transmitted them to a computer which decoded them and applied them to the cursor.
Musk y Neuralink
Elon Musk is a man who needs no introduction but, just in case, we’ll leave you a few clues…#TeslaMotors, #SpaceX, #SolarCity, #Hyperloop, #IhateZuckerberg…
Neuralink is one of his latest ventures and, according to Mr. Musk, cognitive developments like telepathic communication, additional memory, and night vision are within our grasp thanks to “neuroprosthetics”.
Neuroprosthetics, once implanted, will adapt to the brain and provide new digital capacities. Obviously, the key lies in the vague concept of “adapting” to the brain. What does adapting actually mean? We still don’t know!
In short, Elon Musk wants to use a type of technology called a neural maze which operates in humans via artificial intelligence and converts us into a type of cyberborg. Important! Don’t confuse “cyberborg” with “cyborg”. The latter is a simple version; mechanical, robotic, electronic, tweaked, while a cyberborg is a new cybernetic organism whose brain is directly wired up to the internet, AI, and Big Data. In other words, a cyberborg is the premium version of the cyborg.
So much for the theory. In practice, of the more than 80 billion neurons in our brains, how many do you think we’ve been able to reach with current prosthetics? The answer will surprise you – it’s only 100.
This last data comes from Kernal, a company founded by Bryan Johnson, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who’s not quite as famous as Elon, but is nonetheless his most direct competitor.
The young investor argues that what he most needs now is more bandwidth. This would allow the technological implant, prosthesis, and cerebral neurological structure to communicate directly.
Chasing this goal would not “just” allow us to perfect human intelligence, it would also help researchers and doctors to better understand various neurological illnesses and disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, and anxiety.
Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab
The bandwidth issue also worries professor Panagiotis Artemiadis from Arizona State University. In his Human-Oriented Robotics and Control (HORC) lab, he’s trying to obtain more bandwidth by using a 128-electrode electroencephalogram that allows a subject to control a swarm of drones with their brain. “We can already decodify basic concepts like making a fist or moving an elbow, but we want to decodify more complex concepts”, explains Artemiadis. The project, logically, has attracted the attention of the United States Air Forces, which has jumped at the chance to invest $860,000 in the development of mind-controlled drones.
Elsewhere, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, who has built brain-controlled exoskeletons and a brain-to-brain interface that allowed a rat in Brazil to use the senses of another rat in the US, agrees with Artemiadis. There’s no danger that humans will be rendered obsolete until machines can perfectly replicate the human brain, something he believes to be impossible.
“The idea that digital machines no matter how hyper-connected, how powerful, will one day surpass human capacity is total baloney,” he told the Guardian.
Nicolelis maintains that, in contrast to believers like Musk, or Singularity proponents like Kurzweil, the brain is not computable because human conscience is the result of millions of non-linear and unpredictable interactions among billions of cells.
“The brain is not computable and no engineering can reproduce it.”
That said, Nicolelis does recognize that digital automation will lead to “serious unemployment” among people who carry out certain “routine tasks” that can easily be replicated by machines, but also predicts that humans will regain final control.
Licina and the biohackers
Biohacking is a scientific trend that might just revolutionize science as we know it. It requires close communication between the hacker and the technological instrument – their body.
On the surface, the word itself is a little shocking: biohacking? Biology + hacking. Two words sum up a new scientific practice where those taking part convert their own organisms into bona fide makeshift labs, with the aim of expanding their mental and physical capacities.
Starting from the idea that a human organism is a machine that, of course, can be improved, biohackers experiment in various ways, from sequencing their own genome to implanting subdermal electronic devices and even experimenting with themselves in physical trials, like being exposed to chemical elements.
In the last instance, a group of researchers from the Science for the Masses (SfM) group, from California, used e6 chlorine (Ce6) to temporarily achieve night vision without needing any super-cool wearable.
In this case, the guinea pig was Gabriel Licina, who, after various previous experiments on animals, was the first to agree to test the chemical compound in his own eyes. The result was glasses-free night vision up to a distance of 50 meters.
The interesting thing about biohacking is that proponents believe that rather than neural hardware, like implanted chips, being the only way to improve the brain, there are biological tricks and hacks that achieve the same effect. According to John Cryan, we shouldn’t worry too much about cables and microchips. “When we talk about improving the brain, it’s vital to think below the neck. Neuroscience needs to understand the importance of peripheral signals: the immune system, the intestinal hormones or the microbiota.”
Arguments and counterarguments: what about the criticisms? Why shouldn’t we do it, or why we should?
Here’s a list of possible negative arguments and possible solutions put forward by different experts.
Argument 1: human augmentation is unnatural and should not, therefore, be allowed.
“It’s a myth that human augmentation is anything new,” says Amal Graafstra, the microchip implant pioneer. “Since the first humans picked up sticks and rocks and started using tools, we’ve been augmenting ourselves. The tools have simply gotten smaller and less cumbersome to use. “That has always been the trend, and that will continue to be the trend. From rudimentary objects like rocks and sticks, through forged steel and circuit boards, and onward to gene therapies…”
There will always be opposition to transhuman aspirations, claiming that it is unnatural. In my opinion, it’s patently ridiculous, as it assumes that “humanity” is something that precisely resembles the person talking about it, or that it is something unique and immutable.
Neil Harbisson has an antenna implanted in his head that allows him to “hear colors” and is the world’s first official cyborg. He is color blind due to a rare genetic condition that renders him completely daltonic. He totally rejects the idea of unnaturalness.
“Some might think that we might become less human if we modify ourselves but I believe there is nothing more human than doing that. Humans create humans and humans create technology. Merging humans with technology can only make us more human. I strongly disagree with those who think that our union with technology will alienate ourselves from reality, from nature or from other livings. In my case, becoming technology doesn’t make me feel closer to machines, or to robots, but quite the opposite”.
(link a cyborgs)
The first cyborg in the world, neil harbisson.
Argument 2: social inequality
These advances will not be within everyone’s reach, and this will create a society where people with fewer resources will have a disadvantage in comparison to a privileged elite.
Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Head of Engineering, among many other things, stated that “As with all technological advances, the technology is still imperfect and the price is exorbitant; it’s true that only the rich can afford these technologies at the early point. But after a while, when the technology really works, the price always drops. Smartphones are a clear example of this. Can we really say that smartphones are currently limited to the wealthy?”
Personally, I agree completely with Kurzweil’s theory. Millennials haven’t lived it, but anyone over the age of 25 will remember the first smartphones. Badly made, gigantic and only good for making calls, they weighed about 2kgs, and you had to carry a battery separately in a backpack. They were also very, very expensive. Just like Kurzweil says, it was an imperfect luxury product accessible only by the richest in society.
Argument 3: augmentation will lead to a monolithic society where we lose our individuality as everyone augments in the same way.
The transhumanist writer Gennady Stolyarov II, best known for his book Death is Wrong, foresees another result. Rather than “relentlessly optimizing ourselves to a model of perfection”, he foresees an “explosion of diversity”. “Different people would choose to augment themselves in different ways, stretching their abilities in different directions. We will not see a monolithic hierarchy of some augmented humans at the top, while the non-augmented humans get relegated to the bottom,” he reasons. “Rather, widespread acceptance of emerging technologies would create a future where a thousand augmented flowers will bloom.”
There is another counter-argument based on a futurist prediction which, until now, seems to be mainly suggested by Elon Musk.
“Humans will have to become cyborg hybrids to keep up”.
As AI becomes more sophisticated, it will result in a significant loss of jobs. Massive unemployment will probably be the result. “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better,” he stated at the World Government Summit in Dubai.
“If humans want to continue to add value to the economy, they must augment their capabilities through a “merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence”. If we fail to do this, we’ll risk becoming “house cats” to artificial intelligence.”
From this, we can deduce a double challenge: limiting the abilities of the adversary and increasing our own.
Now is a good time to remind you that Elon Musk is a well-known critic of the dangers of uncontrolled advances towards artificial intelligence. For him, Terminator is pretty likely. In fact, he had a public disagreement with Mark Zuckerberg on the subject – Zuckerberg is at the other end of the extreme on the subject and seems to get pretty frustrated with people’s fear of artificial intelligence.
The impact of industrial and technological advances in the jobs market is a classic example of human problems adapting to new social and labor scenarios. We’ve already seen it, in both the agricultural and industrial revolutions. It’s the same old story – radical changes entail temporary waves of unemployment and forced social adaptation. That said, I think we can all agree that, in the end, they changed humanity for the better.
A Medical Student’s Doubts
In my mind, these are the most realistic and interesting criticisms:
What happens with the “real” implementation of these ideas? In other words, the real medical impact.
- Infection: implanting things is a great way to get an infection, especially in a brain. This is an aspect that deserves real care.
- Rejection: what materials do we implant? Think about cardiac valves, a serious subject when we think about the lifelong consequences. Problems just aren’t an option.
- Long-term effects: what happens when these objects have spent a longer time in our bodies? I’m thinking of tissues getting irritated – what effects might these materials, agents, and stimuli have? Imagine a permanent intracranial source of magnetic or electric waves, for example.
- Knowledge: do we understand the human body and its biology well enough to be able to augment it technologically without damaging what we have? I’m particularly skeptical about anything that we’re implanting in the brain.
A Personal Experience
When I did my internship on the neurology floor of Bellvitge University Hospital, Spain, it didn’t do much to resolve my doubts. Don’t take it personally, Bellvitge colleagues, but I came to the conclusion that by and large the state of the medicine was disappointing.
I’m not going to focus on the wonderful things that we know how to do (and I believe them to be the exception), but the primary function of the neurologist, in most cases, seems to be to follow the evolution and worsening of the patient, taking notes, and making them more comfortable (if we’re lucky).
Shouting: ANTONIO, WHAT IS YOUR NAME? No reply.
ANTOOOOONIO, LOOK AT THE DOOR” Blank look.
ANTONIO, DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE? Nothing.
Make a note in the file and move onto the next person. That’s more or less how the days go by.
Once the brain has been injured, there’s nothing we can do. It’s very frustrating that the role we play is limited to evaluating the damage. Curing or fixing are out of the question. How can we contemplate controlling the brain if we can’t even reverse the damage caused by a stroke?
The idea is an old one. Even people who don’t like science fiction know that. Most have seen a movie that involves transhumanism, even if the film doesn’t tackle it directly.
Overcoming limitations inherent in the human condition has always been great material for movie scripts, although they’re usually pretty controversial and come at the topic from a pessimistic viewpoint.
Even in techno-enthusiast takes on it, like in Star Trek, genetic manipulation is treated as a danger that threatens humanity. A recurring theme is the creation of two castes, a superior, augmented one, and an inferior non-augmented one.
One of the most important elements in futuristic science fiction is robotics. The references we see don’t limit themselves to the creation of humanoid servants – the use of mechanical parts which, when used as a prosthesis, offer superhuman abilities, is also a popular take on the subject.
There are more than enough examples on both the small and big screen. In The Nuclear Man (1974), astronaut Steve Austin suffers a terrible accident and various limbs, and vital organs are replaced with cybernetic alternatives, transforming him into a super-being. In the Star Wars saga (1977), we see Luke Skywalker and his father Anakin (who later becomes Darth Vader) lose limbs and get robotic replacements. In Gattica (1997), we see a dystopian society with the “perfect” humans at the top, and the “normal” plebs inhabiting the lowest levels of an immutable pyramid.
In recent years, we’ve also seen new visions, such as Transcendence (2014), a futurist story of a professor who has dedicated his life to the creation of an artificial intelligence that’s able to process and store all the information and knowledge of the entire planet. After being attacked, he’s forced to transfer his own conscience to a supercomputer, allowing him to increase his knowledge and transform the world into a better place to live. It’s a technological take, but features highly philosophical dialogues such as the following:
Audience member: “So, you want to create a god…?”
Professor: “That’s a very good question, but isn’t that what man has always done?”
Personally, I love it! I’m completely in favor and delighted by the idea. I’m most concerned about the fact that I’m not sure if the control of our own biology is yet at a point where we can safely manipulate it. There’s still a breach between what we can do technologically, and what we know how to do biologically.