why humans and machines may have no choice but to merge

With so many imagining a future where machines exist not just by our side but as parts of us, we may have made sure that we have no choice but to become part robot.
warhammer 40k tech priest combat
Illustration: Adeptus Mechanicus tech priest from Warhammer 40K

Sometimes when I’m in the mood, I’ll mention that after turning 100, I plan to retire to Mars. But since I don’t think human bodies as we know them will ever be able to withstand the rigors of life on other worlds, unlike some space-faring media darling CEOs one could mention, I make sure to clarify that it will be in the form of a brain in a jar. Now, normally, I’m joking. Yet, there is a very interesting research path which shows that such technology actually isn’t totally out of reach and it may be possible to keep brains alive for much longer than we thought outside of their bodies with some frighteningly simple machinery. Suddenly the joke is a lot less funny and opens the door to some very interesting questions and ideas.

If my brain can be isolated from my body and kept alive indefinitely, but my gut biome plays a significant role in regulating my mood and personality, does my stomach need to come along for the ride as well? I would certainly also need my endocrine system to make hormones which are also necessary for moods and emotions. It’s probably a good idea to keep my lymphatic system as well to fight off potential infections and balance out my microbiome. Now, I’d need to be able to move around so my brain would need to be connected to machinery which enables that, as well as microphones, cameras, and other sensors that would allow me to perceive the outside world, and wouldn’t you know it, we have designs for that too.

Of course, I’d also need to communicate with the outside world but a neural mesh firmly around my brain can pick up the signals from my speech motor cortex and learn how to turn my intent to say something into speech. We’ve also proven this is a very real possibility by testing these technologies on stroke victims. All of a sudden, my brain and key organs and tissues are ready for life as we know it using a new mechanical body that could be as humanoid or as wild as I’d want or require. We could also go the extra step and infect my cells with benign viruses that inject or delete genes to improve my ability to deal with radiation, borrowing mechanisms seen in some of Earth’s toughest organisms: tardigrades.

Keep in mind that the key finding on which this whole concept is based is not just some random, one-off experimental result that can be chalked up to error. A very similar experiment on mouse brain tissue was able to keep it alive for 25 days, which tells us we’re steadily getting closer to understanding how to do some things recently thought to be impossible dreams with amazingly straightforward setups. Even more interesting is the fact that the kind of extreme cyborg I’m talking about has already been created, although the modified organism was a tiny marine worm because we’re still in the very early stages of this research. (We’ve also tried to emulate a worm brain to control a simple robot as well, with some success.)

You may recognize all this as the plot of a whole lot of sci-fi movies based around a topic which came up again and again since the 1960s, especially when it comes to space exploration. And you may not have known about just how far some of these experiments have gone and ask just how far they’re going to go and whether continuing down this path could redefine what it means to be human. Will those modified on their deathbeds, then, later in life to be more machine than human become their own strange society like the Adeptus Mechanicus of Warhammer 40K? Is any of this a good idea over the long term, or are experiments like this inevitable because if it can be done, a human will eventually do them?

Unfortunately, there are no easy, clear answers to these questions and there may never be. But the fact of the matter is that technology being described here in great detail exists and there’s a lot of incentive to continue pushing it further and further because it would be incredibly beneficial for countless patients whose control over their bodies is limited even as their minds feel trapped in a prison of broken flesh. And with so many people worried about AI and supposed inevitability of extremely advanced cyborgs firmly in the zeitgeist, this hypothesis may be reaching the point of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, like the idea of space travel and exploration around the second half of the 19th century.

While such concepts may seem like far-fetched but interesting things to think about, we need to start planning and imagining what happens next. Just consider how disruptive the last century of technological change and scientific discoveries have been, and how quickly change has come. It left many of our leaders trying, and badly failing, to adapt to the modern world themselves, much less lead us to solutions fit for the time in which we live, prompting millions to take solace in fevered, self-destructive conspiracy theories, yearning for despots that will stop all this evil change. Imagine a future where some humans are no longer human the way we think, and the consequences of failing to account for that.

# tech // cyborg / scientific research / transhumanism


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