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Perspective

Tuesday 28 October 2003

Dr Neil Levy, Research Fellow, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne

 

Cyborgs-R-Us  

 

Cyborgs, part robot part human being, are the focus of many of our most intense fears, anxieties and hopes. Ever since they rebuilt the Six Million Dollar Man (“better, stronger, faster”), in the TV series of the same name, cyborgs have been a perennial theme of popular culture. If Steve Austin represented the cyborg as the hope for a better human being, then Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original Terminator film represented the dark side, the cyborg with the machine in ascendancy. Becoming a cyborg at once represents the hope of an ultimate victory of the human mind over the frailty of the body but also threatens the mechanization of the soul. 

 

Today, at the dawn of a new century, the question of the cyborg is becoming increasingly practical for us. We are already implanting machines into our bodies, in the form of pacemakers and cochlear implants, and more and more powerful prosthetic devices are in the offing. Canadian scientists have made great progress on a bionic eye, which promises to cure at least some cases of blindness. I am certain that few people will object to such life-enhancing technologies. But what are the moral boundaries here? Though many people accept the use of implants to compensate for disabilities, they tend to feel uncomfortable with technological implants aimed at enhancing the capacities of people who possess the full range of normal abilities. Cochlear implants for the deaf or bionic eyes for the blind are fine, but we are disturbed by the idea of implanting silicon chips in normal people. We worry, especially, about what we might call mindware: technological tools for the mind, and not the body. 

 

Why do make this distinction? I suggest that it is because we fear that if we allow the cyborgization of the mind, we risk the destruction of something fundamental to the human being: our distinctive human essence. Giving computers a place in our minds will transform us into part machines. This is a frightening prospect. At very least, we risk allowing significant parts of our brains to atrophy. Think of the widespread fear that excessive reliance on electronic calculators or spellcheckers will undermine our ability to add and to spell, and that when we delegate these functions to our machines, we risk becoming their slaves. 

 

I think this fear is misplaced. In fact, there is a good sense in which we are already cyborgs, and have been ever since we became the language and tool using creatures we are. Our tools fundamentally transform the possibilities of our minds. In his recent book ‘Natural-Born Cyborgs’, Andy Clark gives a lovely example of how tools can transform the capacities even of chimpanzees. Chimpanzees seem to possess the concepts of “sameness” and “difference”. So it is easy enough to train them to sort pairs of objects, according to whether the pair is the same or different. But only chimps that have been trained to associate physical symbols with these concepts can undertake a more difficult task: sorting pairs of pairs according to whether they are the same or different. A pair which consists of two pairs that are both different is the same, whereas a pair that consists of one pair that is the same and another that is different is itself different. Only the trained chimps could do the task, because they could simply compare the symbols they used, rather than trying to deal with the individual items that make up the pairs. 

 

In just the same way, Clark argues, our tools and symbols - most particularly our language, but also our culture - transform our cognitive capacities. We think on paper and on computer screens, just as much as we do in our heads. An artist might be effectively disabled without her sketch pad, or a physicist without her computer. We have been interfacing our minds with machines ever since we began to associate particular sounds with ideas, to externalize them and to manipulate them outside our heads. 

 

So we needn’t fear the coming of the cyborg. In fact, we are already cyborgs. The new technologies, implantable chips and prosthetic eyes or whatever they turn out to be, are not fundamental departures from our nature. Instead, they are natural extensions of us, expressions of the kinds of creatures we are.  

 

Guests on this program:

Dr Neil Levy  

Research Fellow 

Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics 

University of Melbourne