Are We Ready for Cyborgs? The Tech Is on Its Way

Are we ready for cyborgs? More specifically, people with implants that enhance beyond the superficially cosmetic and into the realms of evolved beings?

Jorge Pelegrín-Borondo (Universidad de La Rioja), Eva Reinares-Lara (Universidad Rey Juan Carlos) and Cristina Olarte-Pascual (Universidad de La Rioja), in cooperation with Professor Kiyoshi Murata, from Meiji University in Tokyo, believe society is ready for this melding of (hu)man and machine.

The Spanish academics’ report “Assessing the acceptance of technological implants (the cyborg): Evidences and challenges” has just been released in the scientific journal Computers in Human Behavior. The report shows a significant proportion of those surveyed are comfortable with the coming cyborg modifications. The group are also collaborating with other academics across the world, including Professor Kiyoshi Murata, for a comparative cross-cultural study roundtable at the 2017 ETHICOMP conference this summer in Turin, Italy.

Quick background: There are already the accepted medical examples: Cochlear implants, pacemakers, cardioverter defibrillators, catheters and heart valves, as well as those that incorporate technology into the body through sensory prostheses: exoskeletons, neuroprostheses, and deep brain stimulation. Then there’s the underground biohacking and transhumanism movement, with Amal Graafstra and his double RFID implants as a notable exponent (you can see him in demo mode here).

Unsurprisingly, tech giants are also looking into the cyborg field, experimenting in the lab and registering intriguing patents: Motorola is investigating a neck implant to improve cellular reception and Nokia might be developing a tattoo that vibrates.

We spoke to the report’s three authors via email recently. In a series of conversations, they explained the theory behind the report, ethical and evolutionary implications of “insideables,” and whether they’d go under the knife to achieve cyborg elite status.

How did the term “insideables” come about? Was it to distinguish from “wearables,” which are attached to, but not part of, the body?

We initially called them T3ICs (Technological Implants to Increase Innate Capacities). However, we later learned of the work of Lucien Engelen, director of the REshape Center for Health(care) Innovation, who used the term “insideables.”

What sort of surgically-inserted objects count as insideables?

Insideables are electronic devices implanted in the human body that interact with the user to increase innate human capacities, such as mental agility, memory, or physical strength, or to give us new ones, such as the ability to control machines remotely.

But this is over and beyond the current medical field, right?

Yes. It is important to distinguish between insideables and medical implants. Unlike medical implants, insideables are not implanted for medical reasons (although they may enhance our health).

Needless to say, there are anthropological, philosophical, and ethical questions surrounding the implantation of electronic devices to improve capacities as opposed to for therapeutic (health) reasons.

In your study you refer to “Cyborg Theory.” Can you explain what that means?

In the field of computational theory of the mind and in cyborg theory (“cyborg” refers to a blend of the human and the mechanical), the human body is viewed as a machine. The integration of this technology in the body could be seen as an evolutionary leap for the species, whereby reasonable people will improve their capacities as much as technology allows.

The Ministry of Economy and Competitivity (Spain) funded your study. Does that mean Spain is vying to become the center of cyborg theory and insideables manufacturing?

Initially, we received funding from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness to conduct the research. Unfortunately, as a result of the Spanish economic crisis, our work is no longer being funded. However, we believe in it, so we are investing our own time and money. At the academic level, there is considerable interest in our work, and several of our papers have been published in high-impact journals, such as Computers in Human Behavior, Psychology and Marketing, and Frontiers in Psychology. From a social and economic standpoint, it has to be remembered that we are dealing with a line of new products with a potentially huge global market. Quite likely, this technology will usher in a level of change on a par with those generated by the advent of the internet or computers.

As authors of the report, if you could have any insideable implanted, what would you choose and why?

Jorge Pelegrín-Borondo (Universidad de La Rioja): I would implant one of the devices whose market acceptance we are currently studying: a memory implant, specifically, one adapted to learning languages. That would give me access to a vast quantity of information about words in other languages. Of course, information and knowledge (i.e. knowing how to apply that information) are two different things.

Cristina Olarte-Pascual (Universidad de La Rioja): I would also choose a memory implant. I would like to be able to revisit all sorts of memories and nice times regardless of where I am, without the need for an external device like a smartphone. I also think they open up new possibilities for communication and interaction with other people.

Eva Reinares-Lara (Universidad Rey Juan Carlos): Personally, I am on the same page as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who has said that the intention to use technological implants on one’s children may be greater than the intention to use them on oneself. While he says he would like to “remain natural” himself, he says he would want his children to have them if, in a few years, the technology was giving other kids certain advantages.

Finally, your report highlights a potential divide between an “implanted elite” and the “masses without body mods.”

Yes, we believe these types of products could greatly exacerbate social differences. We could see the rise of a society consisting of an implanted elite alongside the non-implanted masses, who would be unable to achieve the same levels of development as their implanted counterparts. This will be the focus of our global comparative cross-cultural study roundtable for the 2017 ETHICOMP conference in June.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Sophia Stuart
Sophia Stuart
Sophia Stuart is an award-winning digital strategist and technology commentator for cinemathread, ELLE China, Esquire Mexico and Ziff Davis PCMag, covering artificial intelligence, brain-machine interfaces, cyborgs and robots at Caltech, DARPA, NASA and US Army Cyber Command. She also reports from Hollywood on science fiction films, has interviewed directors Drake Doremus, Spike Jonze and Ridley Scott, former FBI agents, military, space and espionage experts.
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