The Growth of the Cyborg: A Speculation on the Social Potentialities of Cybernetic Research and Development

This speculative paper reviews the nature of a cyborg, or cybernetic organism. It explores how cyborgs are defined in reality and fiction. The potential benefits and negatives of unrestricted cybernetic advancement are explored and discussed. A further exploration of any possible distinction between humanity and cybernetic organism is conducted, with sociological implications of this highlighted.

A cyborg may be defined as a symbiosis between man and machine (Oxford dictionaries online 2009). In 1960, Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline defined the term ‘cyborg’ as a portmanteau of the words ‘cybernetic organism’ (Birkholm 2006). However, the precise definition of the melding between man and machine is the cause for debate. There are several arguments as to how to define the term. The first argument indicates that a cyborg is a living being-machine hybrid, with mechanical limbs, eyes and organs surgically implanted, whilst simultaneously continuing his human existence. This type of cyborg is portrayed in much science fiction (Star Trek: First Contact 1996), largely for the ‘shock’ value of the expose.

While a common theme in science fiction and role-playing games (Siembieda 2002), cyborgs such as this may be more difficult to reproduce in reality. Rejection of foreign objects inserted into the body, and the difficulty of combating rejection become apparent (Plotnikov et al 2007). This is not to say that there has not been progress along this field. Direct mechanical surgical interfaces, such as pacemakers and bionic ears are reasonably commonplace (Bovo R 2008). Thus, cyborgs are not as futuristic as often stated, and instead live among us, with comfortable, normal lives.

A second definition of a cyborg is of an individual who operates with any sort of foreign, or artificial, growth within them ( Stem cell research (Plotnikov et al 2007) is leading science towards the development of artificially grown nerves and organs, which may replace ailing human ones (McGowan Institute for Reproductive Medicine website). In some ways this already exists, with diabetics routinely utilising artificial human-derived insulin. Progress in this area has been slowed due to natural ethical considerations. Larry Niven (Niven 1968) in particular has explored the ethics of this type of technology.

Regardless of their nature, a cyborgs place in society is often questioned, particularly when the science-fiction ideas are raised. When a cyborg is significantly superior to a ‘regular’ human, how should they be regulated? A strong cause for the advancement of cybernetics in society is given by the transhumanism movement. Transhumanism, often referred to as H+, is an active pursuit of the betterment of humankind through cybernetic augmentation (Humanityplus website). The argument follows that as medical science becomes more advanced, our ability to evolve is eroded due to the fact that genetically less-fit specimens continue to breed. As a result, H+ indicates that they would advance humanity by artificial means. These artificial means may be something simple, such as a change in skin pigmentation and eye colour to suit the whim of the owner, or something quite drastic, such as the removal of the human brain and its placement in a totally cybernetic body (Galaxy Express 999 1978).

This last, drastic step then leads to further questions. If this were to happen, would that individual remain human? The cybernetic body may not even have humanoid shape (Siembieda 1995), or it may be far too large to interact with any other than those similar to itself. Would the cyborg still be considered male or female, with no discernable genitalia? Would it still be allowed to vote? Would its vote carry the same strength as another vote?

It is here where we must look at the social issues for cyborgs in general. Transhumanist arguments to the above questions would follow the lines of sentience, rather than humanity. This would mean that it would matter little if the individual remained ‘human’, for a given definition of humanity. Regardless of shape, a legal entity (Niven 2004) would have the same rights and responsibilities as any other legal entity. This would cover gender issues, size, and mechanical complexity. To a transhumanist, it is the sentience of the mind that is paramount, rather than the shape or condition of the body.

Other social structures take a different route. Certain religions teach that the human body is sacred, and should not be interfered with. Some choose not to cut hair or shave, some do not believe in blood transfusions. A very few do not allow any invasive surgery at all. To these religions, and a large part of society, it would seem abhorrent for a cyborg to exist in the extreme manners described above. These would answer the question that no, such a creation is no longer a human being, that its gender is that with which it was born, and that as a creation, rather than an individual, it would not have sufficient right to vote.

Those that call for further cybernetic enhancement often point to the benefits. In this discussion, the benefits will encompass future potentials as well as existing technologies. Cybernetics are often seen as a ‘miracle technology’.

They are capable of making the deaf hear (Kos et al 2009) and show potential to allow the blind to see (Bertschinger et al 2008) and the lame walk. Beyond these, replacement of ailing organs with vat-grown or cybernetic replacements would enhance longevity significantly beyond that of current humanity.

Continuing to its logical conclusion, one could end having a totally artificial body, with nothing but the original brain remaining. This body would be faster and stronger than any weak flesh, be more efficient and reliable, be less susceptible to disease and decay, would not gain or lose weight unhappily, and would be completely customisable to the owners needs. Socially, the concept of ‘race’ may be entirely removed as a defining skin colour, with customisable skin colour and features available in any shade at a simple request. Further features could include enhancements for dangerous jobs, such as breathing apparatus or built-in spotlights for miners and divers, enhanced strength for rescue workers and soldiers, or a variety of cameras and recorders for those in the media.

Should the cyborg leave their position and pursue a new career, with simple modular technology they could be adapted to a new job. HG Wells described his Martians as effectively cyborgs, being simply brains that became whatever bodies they happened to be put into at a time, from a warrior to a worker with a simple change of machinery ‘they changed bodies in the same way that a man might change hats’ (Wells 1898). This may yet be the ultimate expression of a cyborg: An immortal mind within an invulnerable, highly adaptable body. Certainly this can be seen as a great benefit, it can be argued, compared to our current brief, sickness-prone, ‘weak’ condition.

All benefits may have a potential for negatives. This is the case with cybernetics. With reference to the above, it is well that it may be used for medical enhancement technology. Cochlear implants, artificial eyes, and hydraulic legs, it is argued, may benefit humanity. The question then becomes a social one: Which part of humanity benefits? It can be noted that in the world today there are a small percentage of the ‘haves’ and a large percentage of the ‘have nots’ (Anonymous 1982). This is the case even in first world countries. The ratio climbs much higher when entering the third world (Ganesh and Barber 2009). With this in mind, it is suggested that while miracle technology exists for all, only a small proportion of the global population may be able to fully benefit from it, due to the lack of finance or resources. Only small charity organisations, such as the Fred Hollows foundation, give cheap modern surgery to the world’s poorest people (Fred Hollows Foundation website).

As a result of a growing divined between the haves exploiting the have nots, this may lead to further societal conflict. The conflict would be across many fields, between those that have become fully augmented in various ways, and those that have not. This rejection could be for social, religious, or monetary reasons.  However in military terms, a cybernetic army with damage-resistant skin and organs, targeting-eyes and built-in communications and weapons, would likely destroy a conventionally-equipped force of equal size with ease, thus bringing the area and people under the jurisdiction of the augmented. Thus the current situation would become further exacerbated.

This then introduces the next point, which is that of cybernetic slavery. With the potential cost of augmentation being very high, a cyborg would naturally have to have a long lifespan simply to pay off the cost of replacement parts. Should the cyborg fail to make his or her repayments, removal and repossession may occur.

A social cost may also be paid for the fully-augmented. If it were the case of transplanting the brain of a human into a human-like body, then adaption and acceptance into human society would be likely to follow. This is simply an argument that we like what is similar to ourselves (Walters et al 2008). Should that brain be put into an inhuman, metallic, significantly larger or smaller body, then humanity as a whole may treat the organism differently. Indeed, it may perceive itself differently to humanity, as either superior or inferior. With regards to external appearance, it is worth mentioning the sociological trend towards the inhuman known as the ‘uncanny valley’ (Stix 2008). This phenomenon occurs when cartoonists and artists try to create a simulacrum of humanity, but fail due to an unknown factor. The simulacrum is real enough that it looks almost human-like, but is not quite human enough, and is strongly rejected, as opposed to anthropomorphic animals and such which are embraced. This argument may well also refer to cyborgs that no longer resemble humanity precisely. Cyborgs have often been portrayed as villains or some other form of evil. The Borg of star trek are an example of expansionistic cyborgs (Star Trek: First Contact 1996), while Darth Vader’s unquestionably evil nature in the Star Wars films mark him also as an evil cyborg (Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back 1980). As a result of these popular science fiction genres, cyborgs may be presented as evil, although they may simply be regular people. With this in mind, it may be that general humanity may not treat an inhuman or slightly inhuman-looking cyborg with the same manner that they will treat one another.

This final point, how the cyborg perceives itself, is important to the ultimate question: Where does society draw the line? Where is it that humanity stops, and a new being evolves? If the transhumanist argument is followed, this should not matter, as any sentient being has a right to be treated as such, regardless of appearance or abilities. The case for transumanism may have to fight with conventional thought and religious doctrines. The line can be drawn, but for each society that line would be differently perceived. From absolute intolerance in some societies, to total abandonment of physical form in others, to a user-pays system in yet more.

It could be likely that most accepting countries and societies would create an artificial line that limited the total development of the cyborg in civilian circles to non-military levels of power. Arms and legs could be no stronger than a human, perhaps a requirement may be placed to limit the design to an anthropomorphic one. Any wireless connectivity would be allowed to be no greater than that of an average mobile telephone or computer. Limitations would be placed on learning and sports environments to dissuade any forms of unfair competition. In some ways, this has already been started with a missing-limbed athlete unable to compete with his able-bodied brethren, due to the unfair advantage administered to him by his artificial legs (BBC Sports website).

It can be seen that the definition of a cyborg is a very unclear one, from a lumbering metal-and-flesh cyberman from doctor who (Harris 1983) to that which most people would suggest is indistinguishable from the perfectly normal. The potential benefits from augmentation into a cybernetic body are unquestionable, and futurists have predicted great things to come if unrestricted development would continue. While the benefits increase, the negatives also continue in the same vein. Growing rifts between those that can and those that cannot afford upgrading may result in a splitting of societies, and the cyborgs perception of themselves may no longer be as human. Indeed it may be as something less, or even something more. As governments attempt to regulate this industry without suffocating it, it is their responsibility to draw a line between where humanity stops and cybernetic life begins. With the world being such a diverse place, with incredibly different cultures and morals, it seems that this line may be drawn at different levels simultaneously. Therefore, a line may only be drawn artificially, perceptively based upon the morals of the society creating it. Whatever social direction ‘the line’ may finally take, it is clear that further cybernetic developments are awaited by the world with both great trepidation and great anticipation.




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4 responses to “ The Growth of the Cyborg: A Speculation on the Social Potentialities of Cybernetic Research and Development

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