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Transhumanism, in the Context of Bionics and Cybernetics and Posthumanism (and Some Other Stuff)

I was listening to a Pandora comedy station one day when I heard Dan Cummins say this:

“I love robots. I wish I was a robot.  I’m really into ’em.  I get mad at the end of Empire Strikes Back when Luke gets his hand cut off by Vader and then, like, the next day, gets a better robot hand.  You knew about sweet robot hands, and you waited for tragedy?  Idiot.  If those hands were going on the market tomorrow, guess who’s cutting their hand off tonight?  This guy.”

I know a few people with prosthetic limbs.  They’re insane.  Technology has developed to the point of limiting the physical disabilities of amputees to an almost (relatively speaking) imperceptible level.  I have one friend (Let’s call him Tom, because that’s his name.) who lost a leg in a brutal motorcycle accident.  Tom has a prosthetic, and I’ve often marveled at its capabilities.  It is so in tune to his body that it self-corrects when he loses his balance.  But when I heard Dan Cummins’ joke I thought, This can’t really be an issue.  No one would opt for prosthetics when they have perfectly functioning human body parts.

Until I saw this:

In summary, the video follows Rob Spence, self-proclaimed “Eyeborg,” on a tour of some of the most advanced prosthetic technologies and theories of our time.  He begins the video by comparing himself to Adam Jensen, a cyborg in the video game Deus Ex.  Adam has robotic machinery that enhances the entirety of his human experience.  His mechanical eyes have augmented vision – aka Terminator vision – and his prosthetic arms transform into guns.  (He is more than meets the eye.)  The video compares several men whose prosthetics are on the cutting edge of technology to Adam Jensen, and makes the case that we are not far from the technology that makes Adam possible.

An Incredibly Brief History of Prosthetics

Prior to 1945, prosthetics had not changed much in 3000 years.  Their main function was to take up the space where the missing limb ought to be, as in the case of the peg-leg or a knight’s bronze hand.  They were barely flexible, much less responsive.  But an increasing number of World War II veterans returning with missing limbs lead to the development of the Artificial Limb Program.  The program tackled three issues: surgery to remove limbs, materials to create prosthetics, and computer machinery to make the limbs more responsive.  The goal was, and has since been, to create a symbiotic relationship between a person and their prosthetic, in a way that mimics the connection between a person and her arms or legs or fingers or toes.

Since then, the science behind prosthetics has seen leaps and bounds in terms of enhancement.  Surgeons are better at preparing the body for prosthetic attachment in order to guarantee the patient the most comfortable movement possible.  Developers use carbon-fiber composites, making the artifical limbs lighter and less of a hindrance.  The most important development in prosthetic history, however, is the microprocessor.  The microprocessor has enabled the prosthetic to “think,” in very basic ways.  Using electricity they are able to respond to their environment, as in the case with my friend Tom’s self-correcting leg.  More advanced prosthetics use electrical impulses to respond to the muscle movement in the body.  It’s pretty wild.

The science of prosthetics has since begun merging with bionics – a subfield of biotechnology that explores how neurochips can help victims of paralysis overcome their disabilities by regaining function of their bodies, or create synthetic electrical pathways from the brain to artificial limbs.  For me, this is where these scientific theories start to seem really out there, but we’re getting closer to this augmented reality every day.

So What?

Prosthetic technology research and advancement is not bad at all (unless you consider that we’re only treating the symptoms instead of the bigger issues like high rates of diabetes and victims of unnecessary war, and I won’t get into that) but the possibility of enhanced cyborg people is raising some ethical dilemmas.  What used to be the stuff of science fiction and comic books – from Luke Skywalker’s robot hand to Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit – is on the verge of exploding into reality.

Transhumanism (Yes, It’s a Thing)

There are many different social and intellectual philosophies that fall under the Transhumanism umbrella, but in the broadest possible sense:  Transhumanism is the desire to “fundamentally transform the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities” (Wikipedia).  This can include anything from Artificial Intelligence research and mind-uploading (digital consciousness) enthusiasts to biotechnology movements and extropianists.  In the simplest possible terms, Transhumanists believe in the merger of humanity and technology, much in the way prosthetics and bionics are creating modern day cyborgs.  Many Transhumanists consider themselves extropianists: they believe they can advance human evolution with the use of technology to alleviate suffering and extend life.

Without evoking Godwin’s law, there seem to be serious misgivings about the ethics of proactively creating a posthuman race.  But we have already seen, through the history of prosthetics so gracefully laid out in this post as well as Posthumanism defined by N. Katherine Hayles, that body and mind augmentations are not only possible, they are already in effect.  In the words of David Johnson at Ossur, “Who says that the normal human leg is the optimal thing for you?”  The Transhumanist movement comes into play when one takes her augmentation from a relatively passive interaction with a computer to an active conglomeration with computer technology.  Now that we have all the elements of making this vision a reality, why shouldn’t we all turn ourselves into cyborgs: making ourselves stronger, faster, healthier, and smarter?

Would you swap a healthy eye for a bionic one with additional functionality?  An arm?  An exoskeleton?  A brain?



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