The week of January 10, 2016

We’re already living in the cyborg future

By Jesse Hicks

Roy Batty was born—sorry, “incepted”—Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. The Blade Runner replicant, played with aggressive melancholy by Rutger Hauer, went on to see attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion and watch C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate before delivering one of sci-fi’s most moving soliloquies on life, memory, and mortality. And then he was lost, like tears in the rain.

Quibble if you want: Batty was an android, a replicant—not a cyborg. But in Blade Runner he wasn’t one half of the man versus machine binary. He was the complication—the living, breathing proof that a mere assemblage of technology could be, in fact, more human than human. This refusal of a simple division—the belief that sometimes machines could show us humanity, even as humans could become like machines—was a hallmark of Philip K. Dick’s later work, and it’s distilled to its essence in Batty.

So he’s not a cyborg, but he does what the cyborg does: Make us question the boundaries we draw between man and machine. When we think of cyborgs, we often think, well, of Star Trek’s Borg, a pale, fleshy collective bonded to its Giger-esque machinery. Or Darth Vader, clad in black and, again, pale and disfigured. Or, more heroically and telegenically, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, an armored hero with a machine for a heart.

In a broader sense, though, today we’re all cyborgs, beings of flesh bonded to machines we often don’t fully understand or control. (What device are you reading this on right now?) In this issue of the Kernel we’re looking at the figure of the cyborg, in which our ideas about what is human and what is technology start to blur and complicate.

Today we’re all cyborgs, beings of flesh bonded to machines we often don’t fully understand or control.

There’s one famous cyborg I haven’t yet mentioned: RoboCop. “Part man. Part machine. All cop. The future of law enforcement,” ran the tagline for classic dystopian satire. As Matt Stroud suggests in this week’s feature on today’s high-tech cop, the 1987 vision of RoboCop looks a lot like today. Drones can provide eyes in the skies; handheld radar lets cops “see” through walls. Biometrics, including early forays into facial recognition, let police identify citizens on the streets. The future of law enforcement, as William Gibson might say, is here already—it’s just not evenly distributed.

Burrowing beneath the gear, Noah Berlatsky asks what we can learn about law enforcement from RoboCop, both the film and the cyborg. To Berlatsky, the movie presciently predicted our increasingly militarized police forces, while also predicting our attempts to try to solve the resulting rise in police violence with… more technology. Body cameras may help deter police violence—but they may not, and it’s an expensive experiment to find out the answer. Better, he suggests, to look at the deeper causes, rather than try to kludge a solution onto a faulty machine. “RoboCop will act like RoboCop,” he says. “If you want a different outcome, you need to build a different machine.”

But not all cyborgs are going to be RoboCop. In fact, nearly all of them won’t be, and that’s why Zoltan Istvan believes we need a Transhumanist Bill of Rights: to protect the right to be a cyborg, in whatever idiosyncratic form we choose. It seems like an abstract question, but he points out the complicated moral, ethical, and legal questions provoked by advancing technology. Should it be OK to cut off your own arm to replace it with a new, improved prosthesis? Should we be able to marry robots? What kind of crime is virtual rape? Such questions are only going to become more pressing.

Finally, I talked to Kara Platoni, author of We Have the Technology: How Biohackers, Foodies, Physicians, and Scientists Are Transforming Human Perception, One Sense at a Time. Platoni spent a year talking to people trying to understand one of the most fundamental philosophical questions: how the mind apprehends the world. That means basement biohackers trying to give themselves superpowers, perfumers looking at how scent is deeply tied to memory, researchers questing after a sixth taste, and a blind lawyer fitted with a prototype artificial eye. She examines how little we know about how our brains interact with our senses, how much we’re hoping to learn, and how that understanding might lead to better, weirder senses in the future. After all, if we can figure out the connections between mind and body, we can start tinkering with them—and be that much closer to opening up a whole new world of cyborg possibilities.

Enjoy the issue.

Photo via JD Hancock/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed