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A Scientist's Notebook
by Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malartre

A Cyborged World

Much thinking about both androids and cyborgs has projected upon them a political/social agenda--of revolutionaries.

The best cyborg movie, Blade Runner,achieved pathos about doomed cyborgs ("replicants") and showed a deep cyborg rage that could break open that future society.

More academically, University of California Professor Donna Haraway's essay "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" (1985) held that the prospect of augmented bodies could "dismantle the binary" in human culture--that is, the assigned sexual and gender roles. She felt that the new body changes and information technology could erase both gender and racial boundaries and the "structures of oppression" that have historically gone along with these.

Certainly the prospect of making labor less dependent upon motor muscles, with computing skills more important, seems to promise a more nearly equal footing for women in the workplace.

Perhaps the trend would go beyond that, to cyborg bodies with mixed male and female characteristics-—buff features, sinuous curves and sexually ambiguous design features, available to all at a reasonable price?

Experience has not been kind to this idea. Where biology has extended our reach, women have flocked to the technologies that extended their ability to bear children, and thereafter have lived conventional lives. Generally, homosexuals have used reproductive technologies to create their own nuclear families, not new constructions, Lesbian couples have used artificial insemination to bear children, but this is quite old tech. Haraway's "alternative societies" and homes with experimental modes of living have not emerged. Rather than Brave New Worlds, people have so far voted for the 'burbs. This may change in future, but so far there seem no signs of it.

Some feminists have seen the constraints of the body as aiding forms of "ideological containment," meaning that biology equals destiny in the social sphere especially.

But consider popular entertainment, often the surest way to discover what the public will accept. Cartoon superheroes are now equal opportunity bruisers. Women superheroes are common now, super-female in appearance just as the men are super-male. But they are united in holding that aggression, muscle strength, speed, the killer instinct and solution through destruction are always the right answers. This is hardly a signature of femininity.

Interestingly, the popular Japanese cartoon film Ghost in the Shell treats cyborgs as "shells" that can have mixed sexual characteristics, appearing female in some views and male in others. The subtext is that to become a "truly living" being the cyborg must display sexual traits, but can choose from either as the situation allows. Of course, to be both is to be, in the minds of many, either repulsive or to be neither.

Humans are no more sensitive than in matters of reproduction, and therefore sexuality. It seems unlikely that cyborgs or androids will carry forward a new agenda, but rather that augmentations will shore up the desire of people to fit into the norm, to not stand out more than they must. Few want to appear, either physically or socially, as a "freak."

It is one thing to stride down the street looking outlandish, perhaps with a half-ceramic head sporting a wearable computer, read by pixel-augmented lavender eyes . . . and quite another never to find a mate, because no one of the right sexual polarity has chosen your special style statement.

*     *     *

But could even odder kinkiness lurk in our augmented future?

What will happen in the psyche of a cyborg? Will changes and augmentations grow to the point where the machine swamps the human? Would a truly enhanced wearer begin to resent the puny humans who service his bionics?

We take our biological body for granted, for the most part unaware of how it shapes our thoughts. But we are united with the rest of humanity by the biological limits of our fleshy existence: birth, development, reproduction, aging, and death. We have two parents and cannot produce offspring on our own. We have to eat other organisms, thus we have to tend them. We have to breathe a certain mixture of gases, live within the same narrow range of temperatures. We need to sleep. We die at less than a hundred years of age. Our physical and mental capabilities are roughly the same, or at least within a familiar range. Certain substances will poison us, etc. This produces an extremely deep kinship with other humans, and to a lesser degree, other animals.

Dr. Anne Foerst, a theologian, works at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at M.I.T. with scientists building two robots with humanoid features--Cog, a humanoid torso with arms and a head, and Kismet, the M.I.T. face robot. You might say she is a robo-theologian. She agrees that our particularly human intelligence is strongly body-bound.

She says, "In order for a machine to really be intelligent, it has to be embodied. We say intelligence cannot be abstracted from the body. We feel that the body—the way it moves, grows, digests food, gets older, all have an influence on how a person thinks. That's why we've built Cog and Kismet to have humanoid features.

"Cog moves and experiences the world the way someone who can walk upright might. He experiences balance problems, friction problems, weight, gravity, all the stuff that we do, so that he can have a body feeling that is similar to ours."

*     *     *

But these are fixed, rather simple realizations of human expressiveness. What happens when this goes further?

Cyborgs will have different realities from ours. What if we were a brain encased in a metal body, unable to feel the touch of others or reproduce, but with a vastly extended life span? Would we lose sympathy for the mass of all-flesh humans? And how much machine could we be without losing our humanity?

Hollywood has taken on the fusion of man and machine often, in such films as Robocop, Terminator, and the TV series The Six-Million Dollar Manand The Bionic Woman.

In Robocop, a fatally wounded police officer, Murphy, is resurrected as a practically invulnerable cyborg. His memory erased, his human ethics are replaced by four directives to govern his behavior (an idea borrowed from Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics). At first he functions well as the invincible cop-machine envisioned by his corporate creators, but when his former partner recognizes him he starts on a quest to regain his humanity. The human/machine dichotomy theme is not explored in the earlier TV series. The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman are simply episodes of whiz-bang feats of strength, speed and visual or acoustic acuity by the bionically-enhanced humans. The Terminatorfilms expand the range of abilities and the second uses the earlier cyborg form as a good-guy opponent of the shape-changing bad guy, implying a gradation of humanity among them

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, humans encounter a collective intelligence, the Borg, functioning as a single mind with many mobile units. The analogy is roughly that of an ant colony acting as a single organism (although the concepts behind this TV creation can be altered by scriptwriter whim and change over time). The Borg scour the galaxy for organic bodies to add to the consciousness. To achieve mind control over humans, an electronic device is plugged into one side of the head, usurping the function of one eye, and converting an individual human into a cyborg. Because the main story line concerns the (horrific to humans) collective mind theme, there is no discussion of the implications of the man-machine fusion as such.

At one end of this continuum is the wholly artificial android of Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man." He longs to become human, undergoes a series of upgrades exchanging flesh for metal, and finally achieves mortality. This idea is the basis for a Star Trek: The Next Generation character, the android named Data. Of course, fiction shows a long history of characters like Pinocchio and the Tin Man (of Oz) who aspire to humanity and morality, but the man/machine clash is far stronger in modern works.

These stories share the comforting theme that as machines become more sophisticated, they will inevitably try to become more human-like. In Robocop, we sympathize with mostly-artificial Murphy when he takes off his helmet to reveal a face of flesh. He then goes on to defeat the entirely artificial robot that symbolizes his mechanical parts, thus affirming his kinship with the rest of humanity.

But that may not be how the future plays out.

*     *     *

A fresh angle on cyborgs appeared in Damon Knight's classic 1968 short story, "Masks." The point of view character is a cyborg in a new body, the focus of a whole research group, but displaying emotional problems. He refuses to reveal the cause of his troubles to those working on the cyborg project, but in a scene near the end, we enter his thoughts:

No more adrenal glands to pump adrenaline into his blood, so he could not feel fright or rage. They had released him from all that--love, hate, the whole sloppy mess--but they had forgotten there was still one emotion he could feel.

Sinescu, with the black bristles of his beard sprouting through his oily skin. A whitehead ripe in the crease beside his nostril. . . .

Babcock, with his broad pink nose shining with grease, crusts of white matter in the corners of his eyes. Food mortar between his teeth. Sam's wife, with raspberry-colored paste on her mouth. Face smeared with tears, a bright bubble in one nostril. And the damn dog, shiny nose, wet eyes. . . .

Note the repeated use of the nose, probably not our best feature, as inherently ugly. Later, in the story's last line, we feel how this cyborg wants to get away from all things organic and fleshy, to become wholly metallic, on the moon:
And he was there, and it was not far enough, not yet, for the Earth hung overhead like a rotten fruit, blue with mold, crawling, wrinkling, purulent and alive.

Will cyborgs then do the opposite of so many stories, and try to be non-human? We would term that a "disorder," but it could seem utterly natural to one who felt the cool, clean beauties of his new state; a fresh, new being of unknown impulses.

Of course, matters need not go so far to have major social effects. Cyborgs may feel themselves to be sufficiently different from flesh-and-blood humans that they will draw away, perhaps repelled, and form their own interest group. Mostly-metal cyborgs may have different concerns about their environment than humans. Cyborg politics will emerge.

This is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Groups representing the handicapped have become very active in recent years, in the US and Europe. As a result, wheelchair access to everything from public bathrooms to castles and beaches has become an important marketing consideration.

In the future, we can look for some separatist sentiment form 'borged people of similar attributes. They will quite naturally find the company of others comforting, an emotional necessity.

Brain transfers into titanium bodies are admittedly very far off, but what of those with significant mechanical or electronic parts? Neurological implants, perhaps, to correct stroke damage or catastrophic spinal cord injury. We are now entering the realm of the true cyborg, because in order to function, their implants would have to be permanent.

Wearers would feel instant sympathy with others bearing similar implants--sharing the color of a sunset as seen through cameras rather than eyes, for example. Wary of being considered as freaks by the rest of humanity, they would draw into their own group.

Already deaf activists celebrate their deafness, calling it part of normal human diversity, and not a handicap. They communicate via Ameslan (American Sign Language), which they insist is a true language, complete with grammar, and see the use of implants like cochlear implants as a threat to "deaf culture." In the fall of 2000, the movie Sound and Fury explored these issues on the screen.

How many implants would it take before a person stopped being human, and become a cyborg in the eyes of the world?

*     *     *

Maybe fewer than we imagine.

Steve Mann from M.I.T., who has worn an experimental personal computer (not even an implant) since the 1970s, noticed that people avoided social contact with him unless the device was small enough to be overlooked. His wearable computer, while allowing him access to everybody on the Internet, cut him off from the people next to him. He looked different. Even cell phones have this effect.

The old adage, "birds of a feather flock together," is also true of us. Will we hear calls for bans of cyborgs in restaurants--("People are trying to eat here!")? The "robot revolt" in Karel Capek's R.U.R. might result, not from overwork, but from perceived discrimination. Humans form associations of affinity: the distinction between 'them' and 'us' has been the basis for human culture from long before we made civilization.

Ironically, the final act by a mostly-machine cyborg's human soul might be to ally himself with others like him against fully biological humans.

*     *     *

Is there, then, some definition of personhood beyond the body?

In time, we will be able to fix problems closer and closer to the cortex, and even into the cortex itself--the seat of being.

The question these technologies may raise is how much of one's motor skills, memory and cognition one may lose to be treated as dead, 'socially dead' or 'sick enough to not require further medical treatment or feeding,' if those abilities can eventually be restored. . . .

Research is also being conducted on the creation of computer chip matrices into which nerves can grow, and which could permit two-way communication between neurons and computers... Such computer-brain interfaces raise the possibility that computer technology may also be developed to remediate neural capacities. These technologies are currently only being applied to peripheral nerves, and the control of prosthetic devices, but they may eventually be applied to cerebral tissue.

Ultimately, argues ethicist Robert Hughes, a true definition of personhood should transcend the purely physical. The 'social personhood' concept asserts that citizenship, rights and value adhere not to bodies, but to "subjective persons."

As he puts it, "Once we begin to remediate cerebral cortex injuries I believe we will be forced beyond a neo-cortical definition of death to one focused on the continuity of subjective self-awareness. Those who have a continuous sense of self-awareness, in whatever media, will be considered social persons, with attendant rights and obligations."

In this definition of death lie the seeds of the coming issues about advanced cyborgs. If society moves away from the body-as-person concept, and instead accepts social personhood, it could lead to far-reaching changes, including granting personhood status to uploaded human consciousness and brains maintained outside of bodies, or transplanted into synthetic bodies. That large-scale upheaval in social values is unlikely to be necessary very soon, but the entry of ethicists into the debate signals that it is no longer simply a story idea for fiction writers.

*     *     *

Is a brain in a metal body still human? Science fiction authors who have treated the issue opt for characters with deep psychological problems, but where's the story if they were boringly normal?

As such, it has been the subject of stories, novels (William Gibson's Neuromancer) and not a few "B" movies (Donovan's Brain). Damon Knight's story "Masks" explores what he terms total prosthesis, the transplant of a brain into a wholly artificial body--the extreme cyborg. Certainly this would bring unforeseen personality changes, because no psychologist doubts the necessity of bodies to our mental stability.

Take away the external world and we go crazy. People placed in immersion tanks, where they float weightless in warm saline solutions, insulated from light and sound, start imagining stimuli. With no signals coming in, their minds turn up the gain, trying to pull some signal out of the blankness. Soon enough, they hallucinate, seeing and feeling inputs that do not exist. Something like this leads people to see mirages in deserts, where the lack of discernible features calls the mind to summon up its inner resources.

It is no accident that religious mystics, like John the Baptist, go alone into the desert's featureless retreats for enlightenment. A cyborg whose body is distant and divorced from much of the customary human constellation of sensations and emotions, as in "Masks," will be hard to identify with,

No more adrenal glands to pump adrenaline into his blood, so he could not feel fright or rage. They had released him from all that--love, hate, the whole sloppy mess—

So transplanted people do not lose feelings, but rather, as discussed earlier, experience new ones. This seems probable for all stages of the cyborg, as new states of the human condition.

*     *     *

The ultimate promise of the cyborg is better people. Yet this may mean redefining personhood in ways that will seem radical to many. Not now, at the early stages, but eventually, perhaps in half a century, cyborgs may be a significant issue.

Public controversies frequently pit people talking statistics against those talking myth. As futurist Walter Truett Anderson puts it, "the rationalists with their hard disks full of economic or scientific information bump against invocations of Frankenstein and Gaia."

The old treatment modes--preventive, palliative, and curative--shall soon give way to a powerful fourth: substitutive. People find unremarkable an aging athlete with an artificial left shoulder, wired back together after a softball accident (that's me). Soon he or she may need a pacemaker, or even some of the odder additions people accept: artificial sphincters, prostheses, cochlear implants to restore hearing. Mechanical, they seem as natural to us now as eyeglasses and tooth fillings.

Anderson predicts that the next major augmentation will probably be organ transplants with artificial assists, both through drugs and via in-body cyborg devices. This will bring, he says, a wholly "new chapter in the history of animal husbandry--and indeed in the history of life on Earth--because there has never been an animal able to exchange entire organs with those of other species."

Human-human transplants are commonplace, with new anti-rejection drugs and better surgery spurring their survival. In the last five years costs have been cut nearly in half, so that a kidney transplant now costs $50,000, and a liver $200,000. But with transplant numbers rising at 50% every six years, donors are scarce. Pigs have organs the right size for humans, and such "transgenic" animals will be used instead, possibly with artificial devices to help. Genetically engineered with human proteins to cloak offending pig molecules, pig organs will fend off our defenses, reducing the rejection problems. The key development is information at the molecular level.

Where should we let it drive us? No moral anchors here seem trusty. Invoking Nature with its implied supremacy ignores that many cultures have fundamentally differing ideas of even what Nature is, much less how it should work.

Other cultural guidelines--religious doctrine, scientific objectivity, fashion--are similarly mutable and local, necessary perhaps but not sufficient as guides. Anderson's "blessing and scourge of our time" is the dizzying multitude of our options. Cultures must clash when the questions are greater than regional.

Who will win, in this future? Radical, enraged cyborgs, or "human fundamentalists?"

The nature of technodreams is to force us to ask ever more fundamental questions.

===THE END===

copyright © 2001 Abbenford Associates

Comments on this column welcome at, or Physics Dept., Univ. Calif., Irvine, CA 92717 This column was based in part on the PBS TV show and book Beyond Human by Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malartre.

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