The topic for this mailout was triggered while sitting at a (fantastic) conference in Leiden, listening to Neil Harbisson, the first officially certified cyborg. Born colourblind, he started experimenting with ways that would allow him to perceive colour in different ways, eventually hitting on translating colour into different frequencies, hence making colours audible. In order to make his way of perceiving colour a permanent aspect of his being, he developed a chip and software that would allow the sounds to be transmitted directly into his brain, resulting eventually in a permanent implant in 2003. Watch this The Guardian video to hear Neil share his story.
It made me wonder, how far would I be willing to go, what kind of modifications would I be happy to accept or even proactively seek?
There are some no-brainers. Protheses to replace lost limbs have been around quite some time – who cannot conjure the image of a wooden-legged pirate. A step up from that is supporting inert limbs with technology: exoskeletondesigned to enable those with lower limb disabilities to walk upright with the aid of crutches such as ReWork, or exoskeletons that augment human strength such as a machine called the “Body Extender” which can lift 50kg (7st 12lb) in each extended hand or an exoskeleton for soldiers to enable them to carry loads of 90kg.
Thinking further it dawned on me that we are all modifying our bodies. It might be because we would like to maintain or improve our health: fillings in our teeth, removing damaged body parts (tumours), supporting failing body parts (glasses, hearing aids) or even replacing damaged or lost body parts (teeth, prothesis). Or we might to enhance our beauty (perhaps some times forgetting that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder!) by using make-up, wearing high heals or dying our hair (interesting, the beauty enhancement thing seems to be far more widely spread amongst females than males…).
Of course, what Neil did goes a step further: making technology part of his body, of who he is – which is how he himself describes how he feels about his antenna.
Here another exciting example restoring faculties that were considered impossible to regain: a freak-accident left 19-year old Ian Burkhart quadriplegic (ie unable to control or move his hands and legs) – when diving into a wave he’d hit a sandbank and broke his neck. About 5 years later, he regained control of his right hand an fingers, thanks to a computer chip implanted in his brain and other technology that bypassed his spinal injury (for more background see this CNN article).
Many of the amazing developments arise from trying to help people regain abilities they have lost. Though some would like to go further than replacing what is missing or has been lost. Like an organisation called ‘Neuralink’, founded by a group of nine around and including Elon Musk whose ambition is to not only restore, but to enhance and give people neural augmentation.
Yet how does and will integrating technology into our bodies affect us? Do we remain who we are? Does it matter? Is not authenticity one of the most wanted traits of leaders in the 21st century? (Well, according to John Gerzema & Michael D’Antonio who have asked 64,000 people 13, Authenticity is one of the top 10 desirable traits for leaders in the 21st century).
If the examples so far were primarily about technically replacing or enhancing our abilities, particularly when it comes to enhancing or altering our mental abilities there are of course also drugs. We drink coffee to energise us and stop us from falling asleep. Drugs are taken to enhance our sense and increase our performance – while doping is not allowed during sports contests, these drugs exist and are being used outside that particular context. There seems to be a pill for everything. Too hyper? Take a pill. Too depressed? Take a pill. Want to loose weight? Take a pill. Want to stop drinking? Take a pill. Did you know that in the US 25% of kids and teens take prescription drugs on a regular basis?
Here too new path are created. How about using drugs to alleviate the burden humans place on our planet? Drugs to help you avoid eating, eyes engineered to be like those of cats to reduce the amount of energy required for light? You can read more about it here. Or manipulation, from gene-editing to avoid genetically determined diseases such as sickle-cell anaemiB to “Genome Surgery” which is more about engineering the perfect baby.
How do we deal with the possibilities we have created? Are we aware of the impact these changes have on us? Let me just remind you that the iPhone was introduced just over 10 years ago. Before its introduction, if I had asked you whether you’d like to spend time on work related things after hours, and during holidays, if you wanted to make yourself available 24/7/365 I assume that most of you would have considered me a little crazy. Yet today, is this not what most of us are doing? Who does not answer email after working hours, and during holidays? Is this because we made a decision that this is what we want? Or did this behaviour sneak up on us and only slowly are we becoming aware of the implications?
How do you feel about the proposal of a speaker at the DLD Conference in Munich who suggested that robots and data should take over government? He proposed that the strategy would be developed by humans yet tactics ad execution would be undertaken by robots. Perhaps robots spending our taxes would yield better results than the civil servants? At any rate, here is an interesting presentation on using data-driven government decision making.
Interestingly, it seems that those closest to the edge of technology development in Silicon Valley are the first to put on the breaks. According to an Bloomsberg article these people introduce digital-free zones in their private – and professional – lives. And for good reasons. We do not need pills or computer chips to alter our brains, the mere use of digital media, constantly, 24/7 will do this already. Have a look at the informative (and somewhat scary) video of Nicolas Carr, whose books include The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010).
It is not only people who understand more about technology and its implication, such as Stephen Hawking, have warned, “I fear that AI may replace humans altogether. If people design computer viruses, someone will design AI that improves and replicates itself. This will be a new form of life that outperforms humans.” According to a study by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world, American adults are also more concerned than excited by the potential of human enhancements.
Is this the to-be-expected resistance to change, comparable to the one experienced when steam trains were introduced and people were warned it would ‘dislocate their internal organs’? Is it discomfort and fear about the unknown? Or is it more than that?
Are the proponents driven by the pursuit to enhance and perfect humans? Does perfection mean doing all that is possible?
What defines perfection ?
Are we all we can be?
What is the cost of being all that we can be?
There certainly are many reasons, and implications …
It seems to me that one question, if not the biggest, of the 21stcentury is: what does it mean to be human?