“Of course I get stopped by strangers,” Neil Harbisson laughs. “First, people thought it was a reading light, later a GoPro or some kind of selfie-stick. Some people have been fearful, others have said what I do is anti-human or ‘against God’. And others have just found it ridiculous or funny. The reactions have been very interesting to witness.”
And no wonder. The 37-year-old artist, who explores the intersection of humans and technology, has a self-designed antenna protruding from the top of his head. Remarkably, it extends the normal range of human senses and allows him—as someone profoundly colour-blind—to feel colour through sound vibrations in his skull. The tech has had several upgrades, adding infrared or wireless connectivity. And, just to be clear, Harbisson isn’t wearing his antenna—it’s osio-integrated, which is to say that the bone in his head has grown into the metal. It’s so much part of him that in the UK he’s become the first government-recognised cyborg.
Cyborg is a term science-fiction has spun into the dystopian visions of RoboCop, or the Borg in Star Trek. Part-man, part-machine and all rather uncanny—if not plain creepy. The term itself—a portmanteau of the words cybernetic and organism—was coined by scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960. Referring to the use of technology to restore said organism’s functionality or enhance it so that, for instance, humankind is suited for interstellar spaceflight. And what’s more, cyborg ideas are already being realised.
The last decade has seen many examples of the melding of tech and flesh. From ‘bio-hacking’, ‘body-modding’ or ‘trans-humanism’ as some in the field call it to ‘wearables’, to ‘prosthetics’, to ‘neural implants’. From experiments with RFID-enabled implants to artificial eyeballs that stream to the internet all they see; from carbon fibre, gadget-packed prostheses to exoskeletons that give artificial strength and earbuds which translate foreign languages in real time. And to Elon Musk’s brain-slash-computer interface Neuralink. BrainGate is an implant that enables paralysed people to search the internet with their minds; and in March 2021 it went wireless. This March, another experimental evolution that lets someone unable to speak or move to communicate.
Undoubtedly, there are those who find the pace of this technological progress unsettling and approach the integration of tech into our bodies as a possible intrusion. At least in ways beyond repairing the broken. A 2020 Opinium survey of 14,500 people across 16 countries found that almost two-thirds of people are ready to augment their body either temporarily or permanently. After all, some argue that to do so is merely an extension of a continuum we’ve long been on anyway.
Cyborg is a term science-fiction has spun into the dystopian visions RoboCop, or the Borg in Star Trek. Part-man, part-machine and all rather uncanny—if not plain creepy.
“The thing is that people don’t mind pacemakers, contact lenses, even just spectacles—all of which are technological fixes. This is because they’re restorative,” Amber Case, the author of Designing Calm Technology and a self-described cyborg anthropologist, argues. “What people don’t like is the idea of us getting laser vision that can destroy buildings. But we have to be aware of the differences between the aesthetics of the movies and the fears they play with and reality. Technology is neutral.”
Indeed, some (Case among them) suggest that from the very first time we used tools—the first time, for example, that a bow and arrow became an extension of our arms—we became proto-cyborgs, constantly upgrading our ‘mindware’ and our biological nature. After millennia of tinkering, this coupling is now going into overdrive.
“Look at how we live and we’re already cyborgs. Our smartphones are extensions of our brains that we offload so much information onto, and so many memories into. The only phone numbers I remember now are the ones from before smartphones,” Liviu Babitz, a technologist and the founder of wearables design company Cyborg Nest, adds. Take away these tools, and the argument goes, we’re stupider than someone from the early 20th century, with their greater attention span and mental agility. “We’ve long had this marriage with technology. Using technology is why we still exist today and really how far it’s physically integrated into us is the boring part of the discussion. It’s the effect that’s important.”
As Babitz stresses, while giving us super-powers may be a stretch, at least for some time, tech could extend our limited range of senses and so offers us new, utopian ways of seeing and experiencing the world that could lead to solutions to all sorts of problems. His company produces a device called Sentero—the first generation was semi-implanted. Later generations are wearable and give the user a sense of the Earth’s magnetic field, while also allowing them to feel the direction and heartbeat of another individual.
“Cyborg enhancements, whether or not they’re under the skin, need not always be solution-minded,” Moon Ribas, an artist and Harbisson’s colleague at non-profit organisation Cyborg Foundation, agrees. Ribas has experimented with a wearable that allows her to feel tectonic shifts in the Earth’s crust, and is now wearing a hacked, phone-connected ultrasound sensor during her pregnancy to give her partner the experience of a ‘digital pregnancy’. Harbisson, meanwhile, is developing a device that will allow him to feel the passage of time, and will trial the partially implanted prototype later this year. “Enhancements can be more poetic,” Ribas says. “People are coming round to the idea of using tech in more artistic ways.”
Well, some people are. Babitz may argue that “the question is not if we take this relationship with technology forward, but how”. Yet doing so, nonetheless, raises complex issues that will need to be addressed. Not least is our squeamishness around invasiveness. It’s no small wonder that the Opinium survey saw 86 percent worried about devices malfunctioning or permanent damage to the body.
Dr Patrick Kramer is the founder and ‘chief cyborg officer’ of Digiwell, Europe’s largest bio-hacking platform for the process of, as he puts it, “upgrading humans”. He argues that, with time, technology will not only get smaller but will move closer to the human body. Not just held in the hand but, by the end of this decade, being worn on the body as stick-ons or under the skin. “This is meant to expand our lives—and really having tech as part of our body makes sense in terms of it being always there, always on, and requiring the least time or management. We’re already effectively attached to our tech. The majority of modern people could put their phone away but don’t ever do so. It’s the last thing we touch at night and the first thing we reach for in the morning. And yet the skin is seen as some kind of holy barrier,” says Kramer, who has several subcutaneous implants himself. “Go 1mm below the skin and for many the whole mindset changes as to what technology is and what it’s for. They find it bizarre, while I find it a very natural way of using tech. We need to work on that mindset.”
Kramer argues that adoption of invasive cyborg tech will be slow and steady—with society gradually gaining experience and understanding its installation, impact and purpose. With the market driven by solutions for an expanding roster of medical problems, followed by the gaming, adult entertainment and military industries, much of the stuff we imagine belonging to some future world already exists, Amber Case suggests, thanks to advanced research projects by the military.
“But I really don’t see the ethical difference between using tech to help someone with a ‘deficiency’ and using it to help someone gain in some way, between using tech and it being part of us,” Kramer insists. “The idea that it will split society between haves and have-nots, well, that’s true today. Not everyone around the world can afford a smartphone. Besides, I really don’t expect anyone to gain super-human powers through tech. I think that idea is [rubbish]. I’d be the same person but without the need for door-keys or cash, for example. In the end, it’s my body and it should be my decision what I do with it.”
“Having tech as part of our body makes sense in terms of it being always there, always on, and requiring the least time or management. We’re already effectively attached to our tech [like a smartphone].”
Of course, things are rarely quite so clear-cut. Melding man and machine provokes profound and unresolved philosophical and legal questions, and not just about the potential discriminatory divisions between the haves and have-nots. If, for instance, more and more of ‘you’ is offloaded to silicon chips, at what point do ‘you’ cease to be human and become some kind of symbiont? At what point does enhancement of human potential become its replacement? If we invest so much in tech to the advancement of our society, why be limited to our biological selves? And maybe such enhancements are necessary if we want to see off a Terminator-style rise of the machines anyway?
Then there’s the issue of ownership and, by turns, of privacy. Tech may become literally part of you, but who owns that tech (or the data it creates) or insists on its latest, irritating upgrade, or limits its usage, or bows to governments wanting to track its activities? Is anyone liable for its damage? Where’s the line between using a machine and being one in part? Humans have rights but not machines—so where does that leave the technology that becomes part of us? Might we make our very selves vulnerable to being hacked? Not for nothing was the wi-fi capability of US vice-president Dick Cheney’s pacemaker disabled during his term of office.
“We take scary ideas of cyborgs from sci-fi, but you only have to look to the X-Men movies too to see how transhumanism will bring resentments to the fore,” Dr Ian Pearson, the founder of futurology consultancy Futurizon and pioneer of nanotech nervous system and IT interface Active Skin, notes. “Cyborgism will transform the nature of humanity. Do we want to go down that road without a great deal of conversation?”
Pearson argues that there will need to be checks and balances about how such tech is introduced, and protections for those who are not interested in it or who can’t access it. Not all of the gains will be able to go to the trans-humanists without the impact on the commons taken into account, “though in the distant future you can imagine people feeling forced to take the upgrades while others—Homo Sapiens Ludditus—refusing and gradually dying off,” he adds, ominously.
And in 2022, some are already enjoying their upgrades. More than that, they’d even feel a loss without it. “What started as an art project has become a life project. And I knew that when I stopped feeling the difference between the software [that drives my antenna] and my brain. I even felt a change in my sense of identity,” Neil Harbisson says. “The tech just became part of who I am, the vibrations in my head a sensation like any other, the antenna just another organ.”