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Cyborgs in the Workplace: Why We Will Need New Labor Laws

“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.

Neil Harbisson's eyeborg grants him synesthetic abilities such as "hearing" colors as well as seeing colors that baseline humans cannot perceive. His Cyborg Foundation helps promote and defend cyborg rights.

Neil Harbisson’s eyeborg grants him synesthetic abilities such as “hearing” colors as well as seeing colors that baseline humans cannot perceive. His Cyborg Foundation helps promote and defend cyborg rights.

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.

"Hi, I'm here to apply for the school counselor position."

“Hi, I’m here to apply for the school counselor position.”

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.

Robot flowchart

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?

MR. POTATO HEAD: Woo-hoo! Five o'clock! So am I free to go? ENGINEER: No. MR. POTATO HEAD: But Mrs. Potato Head and I -- ENGINEER: I said NO!

MR. POTATO HEAD: Woo-hoo! Five o’clock! It’s Miller Time!
ENGINEER: Not tonight it ain’t.
MR. POTATO HEAD: But Mrs. Potato Head and I —

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.

"Shut up."

“Shut your potato hole, why don’t ye, ‘fore I stick me boot up your arse!”

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


Where the Next Singularity Might Take Us

“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.”

Human-Cyborg Relations

Silva warned us that things were going to get weird.

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