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Cyborgs and the future of humanity

Geschreven door Ben van Lier - 26 februari 2014

Ben van Lier
“We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own, your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”

In their wanderings through time and space, the crew of the starship Enterprise comes into contact with the Borg, a technological collective consisting of assimilated organic species (like humans), whose separate components have been united. Any individual unit in the Borg collective is adapted within the collective for his role and duty, through technological applications applied to the organic section. Their mutual interconnectedness and collective thought and action processes turn them into a material and cognitive unit which is difficult to combat. The Borg have just one objective, and that is to dominate everything they encounter which could contribute to their technological perfection, and to incorporate it into their collective.

Intimate technology

CyborgAn impressive essay [1] published by the Rathenau Institute describes the rapid evolution of so-called intimate technology. Intimate technology arises from the rapid technological development based on the convergence or merging of nano, bio, information and cognitive technology. The authors believe that this convergence means people will become increasingly machine-like, and that machines will play a more prominent role within human interaction. At the same time they note that machines will exhibit human traits to an increasing degree. According to the essay, the intimate technological revolution aims at “the control of our intimate environment: our bodies, behaviours and social interactions.” (2014:73) However the writers also correctly suggest that these developments also raise questions about what we as humans can and want to be in a mutually interconnected world. A world in which technology is increasingly omnipresent, and where it steadily takes over responsibility from people. What it means to be human is thus one of the central and moral questions and political points of contention of this century. (2014:60)

A human skin print-out

An example of this initimate technology is Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), which is described as [2]: “a process whereby electrodes are inserted deep into the brain, connected to an internal stimulator, a type of pacemaker. Using this electronic stimulator, symptoms of various medical syndromes can be suppressed extremely locally.” But Deep Brain Stimulation is still just one of the many examples of intimate technology. Consider also cochlear implants for children who cannot hear, human skin made by 3D printers, a new artificial heart which operates autonomously, or brain-guided wheelchairs.

Cyber-Physical Systems

Another example is the development of medical Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) developed and implemented in the healthcare system. These Cyber-Physical Systems are already having consequences. A report by the NCO/NITRD (2009) [3] suggests: “With the advent of microprocessors, miniaturisation of electronic circuits, wired and wireless digital networking, and new materials and manufacturing processes, older generations of mechanical and analogue electromechanical devices used in patient diagnosis, monitoring and treatment have largely been replaced by devices and systems based on information technologies across the diverse array of contemporary medical devices. They are often connected to other devices in increasingly complex configurations, potentially creating systems of systems that span scales from tiny (e.g. an ingestible camera with real-time video) to ultra-large (e.g. scanning and irradiation equipment and geographically-distributed electronic record systems).” (2009:7)

Becoming Cyborgs

The developments described here have been going on for decades. As people and society we are now only confronted with the applications which have arisen rapidly from these converging technologies. The American scientist Donna Haraway had already noted in 1991 that as humanity, we had arrived at an inevitable process, in which we are evolving into cyborgs. She described it as follows: “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction [4].” (1991:149) Despite this observation, we as humans still have no answer to what we want to be in the steadily-advancing merging of people and society with converging technologies. At the end of last year the Italian philosopher Rosi Braidotti thus noted that we as people “need to learn to think differently about ourselves and to experiment with new fundamental schemes of thought about what counts as the new basic unit of common reference for the human.” (2013:196) [5]

The new human

The rapid technological development is having an increasingly significant impact on us as humans. Technological applications are no longer present only in physical form, but are now also increasingly an intrinsic, and to people invisible, component of man and his day-to-day living environment. This is the conclusion of Lier, Roozendaal and Hardjono in an as yet unpublished article. This fusion of our traditional way of life and environment with a new world based on technology and information, creates a new whole in which people and technology will merge and where existing boundaries or standards and values will blur or even disappear entirely. This new and hybrid entity of man and technology also requires humanity to be reinvented, giving direction to the development and shape of this new mankind. This evolution offers the opportunity to leave behind the current uncertainty, and to investigate the position of people within the future reality dominated by technology. This quest is essential, because the new reality challenges people to redefine the boundaries of ‘being’, or even to stretch them. According to Heidegger [6], we enter metaphysical territory here (2000, English translation), given that the quest transcends the existing (the current reality). To fulfil this quest for a future ‘being’ successfully, an alternative metaphysical definition of ‘being’ is thus necessary. A discourse between scientists working in technology and the traditional sciences, with the sketched technological developments as a logical starting point, could furnish the quest with an impetus. What makes people, people? And what makes people, people, in a world in which technology is almost omnipotent? Should such a discourse not be launched, there is a serious possibility that the fundamentals of the future technological reality will be based on algorithmic rationality and technological possibilities. In such a case people will need to adjust to or join the reality – technology assimilates people – and will only play a subordinate role.

  • [1] Est, R. van, with V. Rerimassie, I. van Keulen and G. van Dorren, Intieme Technologie: de Slag om ons lichaam en gedrag (Intimate Technology: the Battle for our Body and Behaviour). The Hague, Rathenau Institute 2014
  • [2] http://www.nfu.nl/trf/index.php?id=9&hoofdstuk=6&trf=427
  • [3] NCO/NITRD. (2009). High-Confidence Medical Devices: Cyber-Physical Systems for the 21st-Century Health Care. National Coordination Office for Networking and Information Technology Research and Development.
  • [4] Haraway, D.J., Simians, Cyborgs and Women. The reinvention of Nature. (1991), Routledge, Chapman and Hall Inc., New York. ISBN 0415903866
  • [5] Braidotti, R., The Posthuman. Polity press, Cambridge, UK. ISBN 9780745641577
  • [6] Heidegger, M., Introduction to Metaphysics (transl. Gregory Fried, Richard Polt) New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. ISBN 9780300083286

Ben van Lier works at Centric as an account director and, in that function, is involved in research and analysis of developments in the areas of overlap between organisation and technology within the various market segments.

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