Category Archives: Cybernetics
Will we all be cyborgs in the year 2099?
“We are an equal opportunity employer and do not discriminate against otherwise qualified applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, veteran status, disability, cybernetic augmentation or lack thereof, or any other basis prohibited by federal, state or local law.”
Most of us are accustomed to seeing this equal opportunity clause when we’re filling out job applications — so much so, in fact, that our eyes tend to skim right over it. Chances are, you’ve seen it so often that you completely ignored the first paragraph. But if you go back and read it carefully, you can see what the equal opportunity clause might someday look like.
Yes, you read it right. Get ready to work alongside cyborgs at the office, the shop and the warehouse. Get ready to send your kids off to be taught and babysat by cyborgs. Get ready to engage in water cooler banter with cyborgs, collaborate with cyborgs, attend power meetings with cyborgs and carpool with cyborgs. Get ready to watch laughably sterile corporate videos at your workplace on how to prevent cyborg-discrimination and what to do if you suspect that it’s occurring.
Because inevitably the next major labor rights movement — here in the US and elsewhere around the world — will involve cyborgs in the workplace. To protect them from being denied employment as a result of their modifications, new anti-discrimination laws will need to be passed. Cybernetic implants such as what cyborg-activist Neil Harbisson wears on a regular basis are out of the ordinary, draw attention to their wearers and therefore might alarm potential employers.
Employers might worry, understandably so, that the technology will be used for ulterior purposes other than what the wearer alleges it’s for, lead to workplace rivalries and disputes, create distraction or drive away clients. Let’s be honest here. Not many employers would be too keen on having someone who wears as much hardware as real-life cyborg Steve Mann does work the cash register.
Steve Mann, an inventor and professor at the University of Toronto, is the perfect example of why such laws will be necessary. In July 2012, Mann was physically assaulted in a Paris McDonald’s by one of its employees presumably because the assailant didn’t appreciate his odd appearance. Cyber-hate crimes such as this will surely become more common in the workplace and elsewhere.
Baseline humans who choose to remain cyber-free, or who can’t afford the technology, will also need to be protected, for the opposite reasons. Because they lack whatever skills or enhancements cybernetic humans are granted through wearable or surgically-embedded technology, employers might hesitate to hire them for or promote them to important positions. Let’s say you manage a group of market research analysts. Who would you be more tempted to bring onto your team: a brilliant baseline Harvard graduate? Or a cyborg who has undergone a procedure that boosts his brain’s calculating power to supercomputer levels?
To establish workable, enforceable anti-cyborg-discrimination laws and policies, many questions will first need to be answered.
The most obvious question: what is a cyborg exactly? Generally speaking, a cyborg is a human who has been modified or augmented with some sort of computer, robotic or cybernetic technology. Using this definition, a cyborg is not built from scratch in a manufacturing plant, factory or lab as a robot might, but instead conceived through the union of a human egg and sperm cell. Androids, which are nothing more than sophisticated humanoid robots, probably will not be protected under any sort of anti-discrimination laws — at least not until they are sophisticated enough to demonstrate human-like emotions and self-awareness. Because of advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and the reverse-engineering of the human brain, this looks more and more feasible.
Even so — assuming that we can one day manufacture an android to resemble a human in every conceivable way, to say nothing of why we would ever have the need or desire to create such a being — it’s unclear whether the law would differentiate between a cyborg and android where labor rights and discrimination in the workplace are concerned. If a corporation can gain personhood status and enjoy certain legal rights and protections, why can’t an android? Would it be cruel and unlawful to make an android work around the clock, even if it showed no signs of fatigue?
When does a human become a cyborg? Where’s the line? Are people with pacemakers, hearing aids and electro-hydraulic prosthetic limbs cyborgs?
Right now, owning and using “distracting” wearable computing such as Google Glass isn’t protected by the law because doing so is a lifestyle choice, sort of like having excessive tattoos, which also precludes enthusiasts from certain occupations (though these attitudes are quickly changing). But over the coming years, cybernetic implants and augmentation will increasingly become ubiquitous, available in all flavors and degrees of performance. The more these technologies are accepted and used by a majority of people, for a great number of everyday tasks, the less they will seem like a choice. Instead, they will be viewed as essential tools to maintaining a “normal,” productive life, the same as an automobile, computer or phone. Even though it’s possible, most of us cannot do without a phone of some kind — smartphone or otherwise — and for this reason, the only choice in the matter is what brand of phone to buy and service provider to contract with.
And yet, in 1876, a Western Union internal memo scoffed at the idea that people will have need for them: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
Or consider this 1943 comment made by Thomas Watson, then-chairman of IBM, who doubted the pervasive need for computers: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Or this one by Digital Equipment Corp. founder Ken Olson, as recently as 1977: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
In 1899, the great Irish physicist and engineer William Thompson, Lord Kelvin — who developed the precise value of absolute zero, among other scientific contributions — strung together a staggering list of boneheadedly inaccurate predictions: “Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
And so it will be with cybernetic implants and augmentations. Most people now doubt that such things will possibly become mainstream, but as we’ve seen again and again, exciting new technologies tend to fill lifestyle gaps we never knew existed.
Workers in the US are protected in a number of ways. But if employers are required not to discriminate against those with a certain religious preference, which is very much a lifestyle choice, unlike age, sex and race, then perhaps cyborgs will one day have their rights addressed as well.
I believe that being a cyborg is a feeling, it’s when you feel that a cybernetic device is no longer an external element but a part of your organism. ~Neil Harbisson
When we hear the word “cyborg,” we think of an emotionless being that has completely lost or was never granted its individuality or right to privacy. We think of the worst kind of collectivist entrapment, a state of perpetual mindlessness that seeks only to follow directives passed down from some higher authority. We think of the Terminator, Robocop and Star Trek’s Seven of Nine.
That being said, the negative attitude we harbor toward the idea of cyborgs has led to a massive backlash against Google Glass, which many people feel is an assault on privacy and individuality. An advocacy group, Stop the Cyborgs, is in fact campaigning to limit the use of intrusive devices such as Google Glass with the intent to “stop a future in which privacy is impossible and central control total.” Likewise, some businesses have already banned it from being worn on their premises. The first such establishment, the 5 Point Cafe in Seattle — which describes Google Glass as a “new fad for the fanny-pack wearing never removing your bluetooth headset wearing crowd” — has now aligned itself with Star Wars’s droid-hating Mos Eisley Cantina.
It should be noted that the 5 Point Cafe’s banning of Google Glass is done somewhat out of respect for its patrons’ right to privacy, somewhat to be sardonic, somewhat to rabble-rouse and attract media attention — but mostly because the thing looks, well, dumb. Its faux-futuristic, Apple Store aesthetic doesn’t fit in with the cafe’s Seattle counterculture, hole-in-the-wall reputation. Their slogan, after all, is “Alcoholics serving alcoholics since 1929.”
The 5 Point Cafe’s disapproval of Google Glass also says a lot about the majority of Americans’ attitudes toward what they perceive as a gradual loss of privacy and individual freedoms due to technological intrusion. Smartphones are just as guilty of this as Google Glass, but the latter’s always-visible, always-on, always-pointed-at-you functionality crosses a line that makes many people uncomfortable. We just want to be left the hell alone. The idea of being secretly filmed — by any device, for any reason — makes us squirm, even though we’re knowingly caught on surveillance cameras dozens if not hundreds of times a day. We desire privacy and respect for what makes each of us unique, and when we don’t get it, we feel less-than-human. We feel as if we’re being treated like an animal.
Or worse, we feel as if we’re being treated like a cyborg, which is essentially a tool. And since tools don’t receive empathy or privacy, neither should a cyborg.
So maybe this is why the Mos Eisley Cantina’s barkeep gets all huffy when Luke tries to enter with his recently acquired droids. Although they appear to have emotions and personalities, C-3PO and R2-D2 are really cybernetic frauds, artificial charlatans trying vainly to pass themselves off as equals to other Cantina patrons. It’s an insult. To the surly proprietor, droids’ transparent mimicry of self-awareness and entitlement to certain rights sentient beings enjoy mocks the privilege of actually being a sentient being.
This repulsion toward androids and cyborgs can be described as the uncanny valley effect, first described by roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. Simply put, when we are confronted with a robot that resembles a human but doesn’t get human behavior quite right — their eyes might not blink like ours or their movements might appear too jerky or calculated — it creeps us out.
And so it is with Google Glass. When we eventually start seeing people on the streets wearing Google Glass, it will surely give some observers unease and skepticism.
They might ask: What are they doing with that thing? Am I being recorded or filmed? When I speak to them, are they tuning me out by listening to music, watching a movie or checking the weather forecast? Are they mentally correcting my factual errors using Wikipedia without my knowledge? Are they using face-recognition technology to scan and analyze me? Do they know all about me — my name, my Social Security number, my past, my secrets?
What part of their humanity and uniqueness did they have to give up to enjoy the benefits of Google Glass?
As admirable as Stop the Cyborgs and 5 Point Cafe’s efforts may be, there’s little hope that the cyborg-ification of humans will stop. No child wants to grow up to be a cyborg, yet humanity is increasingly becoming cybernetic. Many people cannot reasonably function without the use of hearing aids, artificial hips, mind-controlled prosthetic limbs or computerized speech generators. These devices are necessities, and no one faults their users for taking advantage of them. Google Glass is admittedly a different beast altogether, as it is an elective tool and could be used to violate non-wearers’ privacy.
But right or wrong, it’s only the beginning. From retinal implants that perform the same tasks as Google Glass and more, to telekinetic tattoos and nanobots, we’ll be so hard-wired with tech that, as futurists such as Kurzweil predict, the line separating man and machine will blur.
By then, will we even care about abstract liberties such as privacy and individuality?
It’s almost impossible to fathom now, but perhaps in the future we’ll look back and wonder why we cherished our individuality so much and resisted collectivism. After all, privacy as we now know it is a relatively modern phenomenon that we take for granted. Most of us wouldn’t be able to tolerate the constant physical togetherness and lack of solitude that defined a medieval European lifestyle. But since then we’ve readjusted our attitudes toward privacy and individuality, and chances are they will need to be readjusted again. Perhaps once most of us are wired to communicate telepathically and always be aware of each other’s locations and identities, we’ll find popular twentieth- and twenty-first-century depictions of cyborgs to be quaint, naïve and, yes, even a little offensive.
“Performance philosopher” Jason Silva understands the Singularity. It’s obvious from his infectious can’t-quite-spit-the-words-out-fast-enough excitement that he’s spent a lot of time marinating in the idea that, within the next 30 years or so, things are “going to get really weird.”
For the uninitiated, and for those who just can’t spare four and a half minutes to watch Silva’s video, the Singularity is a physics term co-opted by futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil to describe a worldwide event so hugely defining, so epoch-making, so miraculous in its brilliance that all of human existence bottlenecks and, once it emerges on the other side, is dramatically changed forever — changed so greatly, in fact, that people standing on the pre-Singularity side of history cannot reasonably begin to comprehend life as it has become on the other side.
As Silva puts it, try explaining something as complex as a Shakespearean sonnet to one of our ancient prelingual cave-dwelling ancestors. She would probably lack the cognitive muscle to process not only the meaning of figurative language but also language itself. The sounds emanating from your mouth would be just that — sounds. Your way of life would be an existential mystery to her. The ability to speak and communicate and share ideas both practical and metaphysical has enabled humanity to make unimaginable strides in a limitless number of areas. Had we never discovered the ability to make the sounds in our mouths mean something other than what they literally are — sounds — would any of this have been possible?
You wouldn’t be reading this blog, for sure.
So when will the next Singularity event occur?
As always, the Future Culturalist refuses to give specifics. But he will acknowledge that not one but three events as great as the invention of language will take place sometime before 2099. For now, all we can do is speculate. Such speculation is tricky, as we’ve already pointed out. Could our knuckle-dragging forebears ever have anticipated where language would take us? How would we go about explaining the Internet to an ancient, even one as ahead-of-his-time intelligent as, say, Socrates?
Kurzweil — who has made some bold predictions over the years, some of them accurate, most of them not-so-accurate — predicts that the next Singularity will be reached by 2045, when the line separating man from machine will blur completely. The reverse-engineering of human brains will allow us to build smarter computers capable of much more than making lightning-fast calculations. Indeed, they will be able to think and understand symbolic language and feel like a human. Conversely, breakthroughs in nanotechnology will allow us to implant tiny yet powerful computers in our brains, perhaps even replace large sections of our brains with artificial components, thereby boosting our computational speed and accuracy, not to mention improving our memories.
Ever walk in a room, only to forget why you entered it in the first place? Yeah, that will be going away.
However, the real story isn’t that we’ll be smarter than we are now. The story is that, for the first time in history, one of our inventions — the computer — will become our peer. What will the difference be between a machine with human-like abilities (learning, thinking, reasoning, feeling) and a human with computer-like abilities (making instantaneous calculations, making sophisticated predictions, housing and retrieving vast amounts of data accurately)? Granted, one was assembled in a factory whereas the other slipped crying and screaming from its mother’s vulva.
But the day will indeed arrive when humans and machines see each other as equals, relate to one another — even existentially and religiously — and share more similarities than differences. When that day comes, we’ll know for sure that we’ve passed through yet another Singularity. When that day comes, humanity as we know it will have been irreversibly changed and redefined. We who stand on this side of the Singularity cannot fathom the far-reaching implications of such an event any more than our prelingual ancestors could fathom the implications of human language.
Any Star Wars fan knows that C-3PO is designed for human-cyborg relations. He helps humans (as well as non-humans) communicate with clunky droids such as R2-D2 and even the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive engine. As companionable as the ever-fussy C-3PO is, the imminent Singularity will no doubt prove that we have no need for his kind’s services. The reason? An intercessor will not be necessary between two beings who feel one-and-the-same. We will have already become C-3PO, and C-3PO will have already become us.
Plus, the blurring of boundaries between humans and machines might bring new meaning to “human-cyborg relations.”
Silva warned us that things were going to get weird.