Science fiction is becoming science fact every day. From simple things like tablets to the more complex ones like 3D printers, it seems like if we can imagine it, it can be done. Most of the time, to be frank, I don’t pay much attention to it. Things happen as they happen, and for someone that loves science fiction for its look to the future, I’m rather hard to impress in the present. However, there’s one area where I am keeping my attention fixed with hawk-eyed interest. Prosthetic limbs and the leap we make (are making?) from there.
Did It Start With Prosthetic Limbs?
Prosthetic limb replacements have been around since potentially between 3500 and 1800 B.C. (1) when an account of a warrior queen having her leg amputated and being fitted with an iron one was written. The most famous early limb replacement was probably that of Gottfried “Götz” von Berlichingen, who had an iron hand made for him after he lost his arm in a battle. Gottfried lived during the 16th century. (2) So, obviously, humanity has been interested in finding a way to replace lost limbs and restore mobility for quite a while.
Until recently, though, we had seemingly hit a wall when it came to restoring mobility. We could make them more comfortable to wear – a better design of the socket, a lighter material – but improving function was a bit more difficult. There were great advancements made but it wasn’t until much more recently that we were able to make vast improvements in the field of prosthetics. I am talking, of course, of prosthetic limbs being able to move (and even feel) via a brain-controlled interface, as discussed in Brain-Controlled Interfaces: Movement Restoration with Neural Prosthetics (3) from 2006. But that was10 years ago, and we’ve come a long way since then.
In fact, in 2015, Johnny Matheny debuted as the $120,000,000 man, when it was revealed that he had a prosthetic arm that he was able to manipulate via thought.
That was a moment that caused even laymen to do a double-take. In fact, the first time I heard about it, I’m pretty sure my eyes nearly bugged out of my head. Prosthetics controlled via thought? Holy ****, cyborgs! The future is here! Of course, once I read a little bit more, including the work that was involved, and the cost, I realized the future wasn’t exactly here. But, the future is very, very near. And that raises a few interesting questions. One of which is the acceptance or rejection of cyborgs.
Cyborgs and the Media
The best definition I’ve read for cyborg comes from Famous Robots and Cyborgs by Dan Roberts.
Cyborg: A ‘cybernetic organism’, partly robot and party organic. It can be a humanoid who uses technology to a greater or lesser extent to enhance his/her physical existence by incorporating it with his/her human form, or a creature whose robotic circuitry is integrated with that of another organic being, e.g. an animal.(4)
The idea of cyborgs is nothing new. The concept entered books over one hundred years ago. In 1911, Jean de La Hire wrote about the Nyctalope (5), who was a man with an artificial heart and fantastic night vision (amongst other things). This is one of the first appearances (if not the first) of what we would consider cyborgs in literature. Honestly, though, I hadn’t even heard of the guy until I started doing research for this article. I think what most people think of when they hear the term cyborg is the Borg from Star Trek.
And I think right there, with the Borg, begins that strange mixture of fascination with the idea of becoming physically integrated with technology, and the rejection of it. The Borg are seen by humans as ‘evil’, even though their actions aren’t truly meant to harm. They wish to consume technology and to raise the quality of life of creatures that they assimilate. When I questioned my partner about why the Borg were evil, he was quite firm about the fact that he thought they were. That the ‘hive mind’ was evil. Needless to say, I pointed out that it’s really not, especially in nature – look at the bees, man!- to which he retorted “But we’re not bees.”
That brought up a statement made regarding hive mind by an android in The Last Machine in the Solar System by Isaac Matthew Sobin (due for release April 2017), which I recently reviewed. The android basically acknowledges that he could see why hive mind is unappealing but wonders if humanity wouldn’t have survived if they’d worked together as a collective. What would have happened if their over-riding goal was the survival of the human race? Ultimately, the question doesn’t matter because there’s not a chance that humanity would ever accept the hive mind mentality.
But it’s not just the idea of the Borg that turn people off to machine integration in media.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, the central character has a qube, which is a computer underneath the skin of the neck. The character, Swan, can talk with the computer mentally, or make the voice audible to the others around her. She’s looked down upon for having this item installed in her. Apparently, these installations had been a ‘fad’ for a while, but humanity had ultimately rejected it for some reason. It’s fairly typical science fiction, but it was the first time that I ever thought about the real possibility that humans, as a whole, might reject mechanical artificial enhancements.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, as you can find many cases of this rejection in literature. In fact, just a few weeks before reading 2312, I saw evidence of it in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. On more than one occasion in the book, those who have had ‘enhancements’ are looked upon almost as second class citizens. Weirdos, to be putting it nicely. At least in that book, though, there’s an underground niche/club/black market of people who enjoy the ability to enhance themselves. They revel in it and thumb their noses (even as they maintain their distance) at the unenhanced others who might give them trouble.
I don’t think there’s a science fiction fan alive that hasn’t sighed wistfully at the idea of enhancing their brain power via some sort of computer mod. Or a college student, for that matter. Not to mention all the other cool enhancements that you could theoretically equip yourself with once integration became possible. Even if you had to insert microscopic disks through a small slit in your skin, wouldn’t the possibilities that present themselves be breathtaking? On the surface, it would be awesome.
So why does rejection of this integration pop up time and time again?
Cyborgs Amongst Us
Fun fact: There already is a recognized cyborg living amongst us. His name is Neil Harbisson, and he’s got an antenna implanted in his head. He is color-blind and uses the sound waves from the antennae to be able to ‘see’ colors. Neil founded The Cyborg Foundation with his partner in 2010. It’s a very visually pink site, but it is fascinating. Especially the Cyborg Database, which is not a list comprising one person, but instead lists the potential ‘cyborgian’ items currently in development.
I would be first in line for Doppler Labs’ Here earbuds, which would give me the ability to tune the sound around me. (Don’t like the noise the subway makes, but you have to ride it? Tune out the sound (but not everything else) by filtering it’s volume through Here.)
Tellingly, my initial thought upon seeing the antenna’d Harbisson was negative. In fact it was: “Yeah, no thanks.” I thought he looked absolutely ridiculous with ‘that thing’ arching up over his skull. So, even someone who is theoretically open to the idea of enhancements initially rejected it because it ‘looked ridiculous’.
Does it really look ridiculous though? Or is there an inborn fear of ‘different’ that keeps me from being able to accept it? It’s a fabricated extension of the man’s body that gives him the ability to see colors. Theoretically, I should be cheering at it, much the way I do at the mind-controlled arm, or the exoskeletons that enable the paralyzed to walk. But that was not my gut reaction, nor was I able to bring myself around to that point of view even after giving myself a stern talking to. I think what it comes down to is the fact that being color-blind isn’t, in my mind, a disability as much as it is an inconvenience. Is it an apples and oranges thing? Who knows.
Regardless of my mixed feelings on the subject, I am more fascinated than disturbed by it. All I really know, though, is I’m probably more curious about the acceptance and/or rejection of cyborgs now than I was when I started this post, and that’s left me up crap creek without a paddle. More research is necessary!
So now I turn the tables to the readers:
What should I read or watch that will give me more information on this subject?
What are your feelings on cyborgs and their acceptance or lack thereof?
Would you, personally, get an enhancement? If so, what? (and keep it PG, guys.)
- “A Brief Review Of The History Of Amputations And Prostheses | ICIB Online Library, 1976 | ACPOC – Association Of Children’s Prosthetic-Orthotic Clinics”. Acpoc.org. N. p., 2016. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
“16Th Century Prosthetic Iron Hand: The Story Of Gotz Von Berlichingen”. Ancient Origins. N. p., 2016. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
- “Famous Robots And Cyborgs”. Google Books. N. p., 2016. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
” Brain-Controlled Interfaces: Movement Restoration With Neural Prosthetics “. Sciencedirect.com. N. p., 2016. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
“Authors : La Hire, Jean De : SFE : Science Fiction Encyclopedia”. Sf-encyclopedia.com. N. p., 2016. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.