The human race, Version 2.0

With technology and product development moving at a rapid pace, it’s just a matter of time before we all become cyborgs in part or full

In the Star Wars films, Obi Wan-Kenobi destroys General Grievous, a cyborg, and later defeats Anakin Skywalker seriously maiming him, forcing him to become one of the most feared and popular cyborgs of all time: Darth Vader. While both these characters along with The Six Million Dollar Man were made cyborgs out of sheer necessity, what’s to stop a normal healthy man to become a cyborg if the technology and money permits? If we go along that path, then it could soon lead to thousands of cyborgs, who either want to be stronger or more powerful, or even to use technology itself in a more useful way.

But what’s a cyborg?

The word cyborg is a compressed form of ‘cybernetic organism.’ That means part man and part machine. This could also become part man part computer in future. The concept has been around in the science fiction writing of the early twentieth century and it entered mainstream TV and cinema much later on. While this has included artificial mechanical limbs embedded chips and devices, another interesting concept is the exocortex, which is a brain-computer interface. In theory, the exocortex would be a computer-like processing system that would co-exist with and enhance the power of the human brain. Neuromancer is a book that has talked about such a scenario. And it won’t be called hardware or software but ‘cyberware’ to mean the interface between man’s nervous system and a computer.

A cyborg in real life

Though there were many experiments before him, Steve Mann could probably be described as the first real-life cyborg. He is also the father of wearable computing, which is a staple for many futuristic science fiction stories. In 1981, Steve devised a backpack computer with seven microswitches for control. He attached a CRT camera viewfinder to a helmet. He later devised the EyeTap which is a camera cum display that can be embedded into the eye. EyeTap has lead to the term ‘computer mediated reality.’ You can view codes or read little notes even as you talk to people. A big plus here is that you could save all the images you see during your life and convert them to a CyborgLog, also called a glog.

Steve always walks around with his office lab, TV station (live images are transmitted to his website) all rolled into one. Steve was caught up in post-9/11 security and Canadian airport authorities forcibly removed his wearable devices leading to loss of tens of thousands of dollars and mental trauma. Doctors have also felt it’s better he does away with his implants to avoid brain damage. In 2001, a documentary movie called Cyberman was made. Steve has also tried putting electrodes on his skin to control his computer set-up or control its cursor with his brain waves.

There are others too…

Georgia Tech’s Thad Starner has also been wearing his own customized wearable computer from 1993. Carnegie Mellon University also came out with a wearable computer called VuMan 1. The US military’s Future Force warrior consists of a high-tech integrated system that will be part of the uniform of the soldier of tomorrow.

Then how about having a chip implanted inside your body? In 1997, Eduardo Kac, an artist in Brazil , implanted a microchip in his ankle. The nine-digit identification tag was registered in an Internet database.

But someone, who took the concept of the chip implant even further, is cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick, nicknamed Captain Cyborg. A year after Kac, he implanted an RFID transmitter (not a mere tag) under his skin. He used this to control lights, doors and other computerized devices. Then he implanted 100 electrodes into his nervous system and used them to make a robotic arm mimic his own hand movements. He then put an implant into his wife’s nervous system and tried to connect the two systems through the Internet to create a form of telepathy.

Going beyond mere experimentation

Cyberkinetics is a company which could well be at the forefront of the cyborg revolution if and when it takes place. They’ve developed a BrainGate chip that can use thought to power a computer. Sounds spooky or too futuristic? It’s neither. BrainGate will benefit a handful of disabled patients, the first being Matt Nagle. The chip was implanted into his brain and its electrodes can do a one-way communication with neurons. Nagle is paralyzed neck down and can now change TV channels and move a mouse cursor with just his thoughts.

He can also move a robotic arm thanks to that.

But the world’s first fully working bionic arm went to Campbell Aird, who had his arm amputated due to cancer. He got fitted with a 1.7 kg battery-powered artificial hand made of silicone and carbon fiber. Incidentally research work is on to have an artificial component of practically every part of the human body you can think of.

Some contend that we are all cyborgs to some extent. What happens when you put a pacemaker in your heart or plug in an MP3 player for hours on end? How many people clutch their mobiles 24 hours a day? And what of the hundreds of people who have already put RFID tags on their skin? Our lives are already integrated with the technology we use; it’s just a matter of time before the technology becomes embedded within our bodies.

Cyborgs in reel-life

Darth Vader in Star Wars: Maimed and burnt beyond treatment in a light saber fight with Obi Wan-Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker is turned into a mean looking all black cyborg by the evil Emperor.

Alex Murphy, aka Robocop: A maimed shot and brain-dead police officer is converted into a robotic cop or Robocop.

Steve Austin, aka The Six Million Dollar Man: The US government spends $6 million (a lot in 1974 when the TV show came out) on critically injured Astronaut Austin to make him stronger and faster with tremendous eyesight. Austin works as a secret agent thereafter.

Jaime Sommers, aka The Bionic Woman: A spin off of The Six Million Dollar man, the heroine meets with a sky diving accident and becomes a faster and stronger cyborg with super hearing.

Inspector Gadget: Is an inspector with various gadgets built into his body.

Cyborgs in Gaming

Cyberdemons (Doom), Master Chief (Halo-The jury’s out on whether this dude is actually a cyborg or not), Trans-Human arm of the Combine (Half-Life), The Strogg (Quake) and Cyborg Molotov (Empire Earth).

(This article appeared in the March 2006 edition of Living Digital magazine)

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