Future Tense

Are Cyborg Humans (and Animals) Still True Life Forms? A Future Tense Panel Recap.

Cyborgs have arrived on Earth, but there’s no reason to worry.  They’re nothing like the cold machine-men from The Terminator. Cybernetic technologies that integrate with the human body is something you could soon be able to try for yourself—in fact, you might even want to.

Cyborgs and bionic life forms were the topic of conversation on Saturday at Future Tense’s segment of Emerge2013: The Future of Truth, a conference held at Arizona State University. (ASU is a partner with Slate and the New America Foundation in Future Tense.) Devices already exist to extend our senses beyond their natural limits, and advancements in neuroscience and robotics have demonstrated the possibility of wiring robotic devices straight into the human brain. Looking into the future, humans could use technology to tailor their own experiences, desires, and abilities. But what does this mean for how we find and share common truths?

To work through this question, Future Tense brought together Neil Harbisson, a cyborg and founder of the Cyborg Foundation, science journalist Emily Anthes, and Slate staff writer Will Oremus.

Harbisson is one of the world’s first cyborgs. He was born without the ability to see any colors, which complicates situations in which  color is the main source of information. He points to the London Tube map, or the flags of Italy, France, and Ireland, as things that are mostly meaningless without color. His technological solution is the Eyeborg, a small black device that hangs above his forehead. It captures light frequencies in front of him, translates them into sound, and sends the sounds to his brain. The result is a new sense—one that allows him to hear color.

If you were expecting something more extreme from cyborgs, consider what’s happening with bionic animals. Emily Anthes, author of the forthcoming Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, looked at some of the technology currently used on animals that could be transferred to humans in the future. One of the most striking examples comes from the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, where researchers have learned how to drive a rat by remote control. There’s also a DARPA project that essentially turned a flying beetle into drone. It’s easy to imagine nefarious uses for these technologies, and they bring up tricky ethical dilemmas: If we can enhance an animal’s intellect, are we morally obligated to do so? But much of this research can help develop therapeutic technology for paralyzed humans.

“The union between cybernetics and humans is not as scary as it was imagined in the 20th century,” Harbisson said. As biotechnology becomes more common, people may come to realize how it can help them. Harbisson’s foundation is working to develop devices that can help other people visualize sound or otherwise enhance senses. One woman he has worked with has an “eye” in the back of her head to perceive motion behind her. Harbisson himself has already extended his Eyeborg to pick up frequencies in the infrared and ultraviolet spectrums—in fact, he has a unique ability to say his favorite color is infrared—but one problem arises. He’s not able to put into words exactly what he’s sensing.

Without a common language to express an experience, it’s hard to explain what’s going on, and to tell a story about it later. Anthes said it’s scary to think about a future in which we don’t know one another’s abilities, and if these abilities become radically different and individualized, finding truth in experience could become incredibly difficult. On the other hand, Harbisson said, his device picks up absolute color in front of him, whereas a human eye might color correct something slightly yellow or blue to look white. With that in mind, a group of people wearing an Eyeborg could ensure they’re all seeing something as it is, rather than how their eyes view it, bringing a new level of truth into a shared experience.

Of course, the questions like this that arise are no reason to shy away from cybernetic technologies. If the technology can continue to enhance lives—by letting the colorblind sense color, or letting a quadriplegic sip a cup of coffee—then it’s reasonable to expect we’ll see more cyborgs in the future. And at that point, we might just consider cybernetics just another part of the human condition.