wowt explains: what is a cyborg?

Thanks to science fiction we're all familiar with the term cyborg, but what it means is actually a lot less defined than it appears at first glance.
crouching cyborg

From a strictly technical standpoint, a cyborg is any living thing which incorporates some sort of technology in its body. It seems pretty cut and dry but when you drive into the details, you find a lot of interesting nuances and paradoxes, and because there are cyborgs walking among us today and their numbers seem poised to explode in the foreseeable future, they aren’t purely academic details but pose very real legal, ethical, and technical questions to be resolved. We’ll rely on cyborg technology if we really want to explore space, radically extend our lifespans, and help people with severe trauma or terminal diseases.

what’s the origin of the term “cyborg?”

Cyborg is a portmanteau of the words cybernetic and organism, created by Austrian neuroscientist Manfred Clynes in his 1960 paper Cyborgs And Space. He argued that the human body was unfit for long term space exploration and that to properly explore the final frontier, astronauts should be modified to handle life support functions automatically. This was actually a popular idea in the early 1960s as the Soviet Union and United States were competing in sending humans into orbit and scientists started thinking how astronauts would survive exposure to other words and deep space. Of course, some of the most publicized ideas for modifying us to deal with alien environments lacked the knowledge we have today and now come off as downright bizarre.

when was the first cyborg created and who was it?

Under our working definition, the first experimental cyborg is Arne Larsson, who had the very first human pacemaker implant in 1958 in Sweden. The first legally recognized cyborg is artist Neil Harbisson, who received an antenna in 2004 allowing him to “hear” color after only being able to see in greyscale due to a rare form of color blindness. There’s really no special reason for the distinction or much real consequence to this other than allowing Harbisson to wear his antenna in government IDs. Lawmakers simply haven’t spent much time on this topic and likely won’t until there’s a real need.

how many cyborgs are out there?

If we stick to the initial definition, pretty much anyone with a medical device or implant could be considered a cyborg. Roughly 3 million people worldwide have pacemakers implanted in their bodies. Millions more have joint replacements every year. Hundreds have experimental implants allowing them to talk to machines and high-tech prosthetics. Thousands had bones replaced with metal alloys. In short, add up the number of people with high tech replacement and assistive devices, and you have the number of cyborgs. A generous estimate would put it at somewhere around 11 million people.

is there an alternate definition of cyborg?

Yes, there’s an alternative definition which sees cyborgs as humans or aliens who exceed the limits of their physiology with technological implants. We don’t currently have these sorts of implants outside of proof of concept ones showing that our nervous system can see devices we control with our thoughts as additional limbs, our focus so far has been on assistive rather than enhancement tools. However, as using assistive devices becomes even more commonplace and we perfect implanting them using minimally invasive methods to avoid infection and speed up healing, there will certainly be a market for devices that give us an extra boost.

what would be the risks of becoming a cyborg?

Infection from a botched surgery, malfunctioning or defective devices, or devices that aren’t a good match for the patient’s physiology would all pose major problems for an aspiring cyborg. Tens of thousands of people every year get hurt by defective implants, and the risks would be greater with more important and sophisticated devices. Incidentally, the common picture of a cyborg with wires coming out of their skin are a far cry from what we’d actually see since an open wound around a wire to an implant would be a perfect conduit for constant infections.

Likewise, your body could try and reject an implant. While this wouldn’t be as dangerous as an organ rejection, your immune system still doesn’t want anything that doesn’t belong in you by default and would still see any artificial implant made of the wrong material as a foreign body and try to isolate it using collagen fibers, reducing its efficacy over time. So, your implant may start out working perfectly, but fade after a few years, requiring additional intervention. This is especially important in planned systems designed to interact with the nervous system where such collagen fibers could interfere with their ability to exchange information with neurons.

can cyborg implants make us superhuman?

Real world cyborg technology is likely to be very subtle from the outside, even if it’s extensive on the inside. They also may not be able to make you superhuman. For example, a common sci-fi trope is a protagonist who receives implants to run faster than a world record holder, move with reflexes far beyond any human, and punch right through a wall. In reality, modifications to enable that would require a complete rebuilding of the skeleton and muscles and may not be as effective as advertised since neurons can only forward and process signals so quickly.

Trying superhuman feats without such a massive and invasive changes would end in shattered bones and torn muscles as forces running through mechanical parts destroy soft organics. A far more scientifically accurate scenario for a superhuman cyborg would involve human organs in a shell of high tech, powerful prosthetics operated by implants in the nervous systems, shielded and cushioned to absorb enormous forces. That approach would also open us up to designs that don’t have to strictly fit and adhere to the human form, kind of like the Tech Priests of the Warhammer 40K franchise.

That in itself is far from a new idea as already noted, but it does set up a conflict of utilitarianism vs. aesthetics and for many humans no longer looking like one may be very problematic while others will be happy to leave what they see as a limiting form behind. You should probably expect the age of cyborgs to come with designs and devices that offer countless customizations to their users, with just about everything, including remote, thought-operated limbs and interchangeable facsimiles of sexual organs available for plug-and-play use. There’s bound to be a lot of trial and error until we nail down what we want and why, as well as what kind of implants we would want to limit and by what rules.

can non-humans also be cyborgs?

Absolutely. In fact, we should expect very advanced alien civilizations to be composed of mostly cyborgs if we ever find them. They may not necessarily use cyborg technology for life-extension purposes, but for defense against radiation, disease, and for warfare, having pushed their goals past a point where their bodies could handle them, or decided to explore hostile environments in which being purely organic is a serious disadvantage. Of course they could also choose not to pursue this avenue, but logic would dictate that it would leave them vulnerable to a whole host of threats and limit their development and its rate, and we’d be a lot less likely to make contact with them as their presence would be limited.

what’s the difference between a cyborg and an android?

Cyborgs still need organic parts to exist while androids are entirely robotic, and generally built to look as humanoid as possible. (We don’t know if they dream of electric sheep, however.) While androids are very popular in science fiction, they might not have much of a future in the real world outside of potential sex robots since they often create an effect known as uncanny valley, in which we get creeped out by things trying very hard to look human but failing to truly convince us they are. Because they would most likely be used to interact with flesh and blood people, the fact that we’re more creeped out by them than feel ready to interact with them is very unlikely to fuel demand other than in the aforementioned exception.

# tech // cyborg / future / medicine


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