The of “cyborgs” often evokes a visceral kind of response from people – whether a carryover from movie antagonists or the seeming rejection of that which makes us human. Although some dictionaries would define cyborgs as a fictional fusion between human and machine to extend [physical] abilities through machine convergence, there’s actually more substance than fiction to the movement these days. The time of the Six Million Dollar Man is swiftly approaching, whether on a grassroots level or through structured academic research.
Some proponents aren’t content wait on the sidelines – they want their future now and are willing to experiment on themselves to do so. Grindhouse Wetware was founded in 2012 by programmers, engineers, and enthusiasts with a goal of augmenting humanity using safe, affordable, open source technology. This is a DIY, biohack collective who’s individual goals are as diverse as the adherents, but fundamentally, they’ve been cautious to adhere to safety protocols (kill-switches, warning systems, hardware features, etc.) along with each project in the grinder community. Their projects include Circadia (an implantable device that can read biometrical data and transmit it via bluetooth), the Thinking Cap (which works off transcrianial direct current and cranial electrotherapy stimulation), and Bottlenose (sonar, UV, wifi, and thermal information translated to magnetic fields via induction where it can interact with implanted finger magnets).
There’s a clear division between collectives like Grindhouse Wetware (who follow a somewhat scientific process) and other DIY enthusiasts such as Lepht Anonym, self-described as a “faceless, genderless, British wetware hacker, lacking both gods and money”. Reading Lepht’s blog was like a raw/naked journey into fevered impulses, psychiatric treatments, and cries for help, but her relentlessness, bravery (self-destructiveness?) and commitment towards transhumanism are noteworthy. She, like others, think that the conventional transhuman movement is “lame”, condemning them for staying within the threshold of ideas. Her methods are those anyone can do – kitchen stuff – provided you’re willing to brave the pain and hard learnings. In Lepht’s case, her experimentation led her directly to hospitalization on several occasions as the materials she used weren’t bio-proofed and turned septic. Still, she’s experimented with embedded RFID chips (allowing authenticated control structures) and has implants her fingers that allow her to sense electromagnet fields.
Another proponent of the experiment-on-the-self philosophy is Kevin Warwick. He’s a highly awarded professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading – and acclaimed for being an eminent scientist to illustrate the ethical impact of his work. His name may sound familiar – he made headlines in the late 90s when he implanted a silicon chip transponder into his forearm, allowing him to operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger. Four years later, he implanted a 100 electrode array into the median nerve fibres of his left arm. The operation allowed him to control a wheelchair and an intelligent artificial hand via the neural interface. Of particular interest, professor Warwick was able to stimulate artificial sensation through the process and could share sensations with his wife (whom he convinced to get a less dramatic augment). In 2008, Warwick lead a team to successfully create a robot powered by a rat brain. These experiments have helped lay a groundwork for human/machine convergence in advanced medicine and pushed the boundaries of enhanced senses.
No talk of cyborgs could be complete without discussing professor Steve Mann – one of the originals, the “father of wearable computing” and “the world’s first cyborg”. I’ve tried to keep pace with Mann’s work/research for over a decade now, and beyond the incredible contributions he’s made to wearable computing and computer vision systems (for the past 36 years), he’s an outspoken advocate for personal rights. I saw him speak of the philosophy/practice of “sousveillance” (inverse surveillance) at TEDx last year. In a nutshell, he speaks passionately for the individual to be able to monitor and record everything. Sousveillance affords an individual basic level of protection from abuses of the state, corporations, and other individuals. He’s actively trying to promote an integrity protocol for the cyborg age: The Veillance Contract, which balances the implicit contract we have of being constantly recorded with an individual’s right to do the same thus helping safeguard against all manner of prospective hypocrisies, secrecies, and corruptions.
These individuals – along with many others like them – live on the frontier, dedicating themselves to the idea of an enhanced humanity via technology. Independents like Lepht or the Grindhouse Wetware collective fight for transhuman advances everyone can afford, whereas others enjoy research funding and push forward advances we’ll no doubt be recipients of in the coming years. Either way, they fight the status quo and stand as brave advocates in the face of frequent condemnation for the world that we will inherit.