There are cyborgs among us today – people whose body and perception are enhanced by implanted chips. The makers of the French-Spanish film Cyborgs Among Us map the current state of transhumanism – from underground garages to top technology labs. Will we all be artificial organisms one day?
Technologies implemented in the body can have two aims: to restore a state lost due to a disorder, or to enhance the function of a healthy body. Reconstructive technologies are not new: we’ve had cochlear implants since the 1990s. But the other – enhancing – approach which turns people into cyborgs sounds like real science fiction.
The term cyborg has been in use since the 1960s. It’s a blend of the term “cybernetic organism”. The original concept was positive – cyborgs were to discover unknown planets and expand human knowledge. It was only films full of lethal machines from the future such as Terminator that brought negative connotations.
Today’s cyborgs really don’t look like lethal machines. They are pioneers and visionaries convinced that they stand at the very fore of the future “revolution of evolution” – the human body can design and enhance itself without having to wait for the long Darwinian cycle of mutation and selection. Among cyborgs and proponents of transhumanism there are enthusiasts from notorious American garages who test their inventions on their own body, but also professors from renowned universities. The results of their work are breathtaking.
An antenna implanted in the brain connected to the internet capable to sense colours as sound? A bionic hand controlled by thoughts? A brain stimulator that turns a Parkinson patient into a healthy person with the press of a button? An external chip that can store memory directly from brain? All these inventions already exist or their development is close to implementation.
The artificial human, or Human 2.0 also presents a moral and ethical challenge, though. In the future the political division between the right and the left might be replaced by a conflict between advocates and opponents of transhumanism. And thanks to the film Cyborgs Among Us you will be able to tell your grandchildren – possibly by telepathy – that you didn’t miss the start of the greatest revolution in the development of the human kind…
The screening of Cyborgs Among Us takes place on Monday 16th October at 2.00 pm in the “Velká Aula” hall. Free admission.
While screening the film you came across various bionic appliances and technologies enhancing the abilities of the body. Did you get a chance to try something yourself and what was it like?
Rafel Duran: One big challenge in our research was that the science behind cyborgs -the union between humans and machines- is not not unified under a single discipline but it spreads to Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Synthetic Biology, Biomechatronics, Neuroscience…There are research centers all over the world that investigate at the same time and to keep track of all the new inventions is sometimes overwhelming. After 3 years of research, we found that in this phenomenon of the human-machine interaction there is also a lot of hype, so we tried to show the most advanced and relevant research.
On the other hand, at the current moment most of this research is still being done in animals and human clinical trials. Moreover, this technology -by definition- is implantable so it involves surgery, it’s not possible to test it on your own unless you are a patient involved in a clinical trial or you have a severe illness like Parkinson disease and are suitable for a Deep Brain Stimulation implant. We have interviewed some of these patients, one for example he is the first and only person in the world using a bionic prosthesis outside the lab, in his daily life, which is directly connected to his bones, nerves and muscles. We were only able to have a taste of it, instead of implanted we had the electrodes placed on our skin and we were able to control a robotic limb by just moving our arm. This is regarding the academic science that takes place inside the official labs.
Outside the academic research, biohackers in garages implant themselves with more affordable implants like RFID chips that they use to unlock doors, to make payments and to store information. And also with magnets, for example, with which they can sense electromagnetic fields. I could have have tried those ones -the surgery is simple- to see how it feels like, but our purpose was another one. We wanted to show the people who believe in that phenomenon and who use it in their daily lives, not as a one-time curiosity. Surprisingly, what we found out was that these cyborgs don’t feel more more cold and mechanical Terminator type-, they feel more connected to nature and reality. They feel more human than before.
Out of curiosity, I thought about getting one of these simple implants, but at the end the practical advantages that I would have with them are minimal, so I didn’t. Maybe one day I’ll get a proper implant or many, who knows? Maybe one day we will all have implants (or at least the ones who can afford it). But I think that in the near future for most people it will be for medical reasons -because they will repair our body- not for enhancement ones. The big question that we point out in the film: once we incorporate these technologies in our bodies for medical reasons, if they give us the possibility to enhance us, will we cross the line?
At one moment the film says: The big revolution will not be created by a company, it will be a DIY revolution. Do you think that bio-hackers who create chips from easily accessible materials in their garage have the resources and the ability to come up with something really big?
Rafel Duran: At the moment, the resources available to biohackers are very limited. They use just a few chips and an Arduino board, so their limitations are obvious. So far, they implant themselves with small chips and magnets and even the nervous system is a far goal. And to get inside the brain is nowadays unconceivable.
Today, I think that their role is mainly to make this phenomenon visible, to explain it to society and to open people’s minds. They remind us that as humans we have a very low perception of reality -compared with other animal species, for example- and that we may be able to expand our biological limits, even our mortality. I think that in the future curious and imaginative people like them will be the ones who will find creative ways to implement all these technologies because they are not constrained by social rules or corporate interests.
In the past, self-experimentation has already played an important rule to further the science and to drive progress, from Pierre Curie to Barry Marshall. Actual biohackers are also guinea pigs, they are just a continuation of this scientific experimentation. They incarnate the human will to go beyond the human limits, no matter what, despite all risks -like the myth of Icarus. There has been and there will always be people like them, so it’s hard to imagine that this trend will one day cease to exist because it’s not possible to stop it. How could you?
So for now, I agree that the big revolution will not come from biohackers, it will come from the academic science. But in the distant future, it can change. Maybe then, biohackers may profit from very advanced technology coming from the official research and they will be able to test them on their own. There will be probably doctors willing to help them. There are some anonymous doctors helping them already, so it’s reasonable to imagine that there will also be in the future. If so, will it be possible to stop them, will regulations be enough? Will enhancement tourism exist? If we see what happens today with abortion or with plastic surgery, it seems that it will be very difficult.
The film shows various technologies that miraculously cure people’s health – brain stimulators, bionic limbs. What do you think the next big thing will be, something that a layman may not even think of as possible?
Rafel Duran: Well, there is a great deal of scientific research being done in different centers and universities all over the world. Most of this research is still being done in animals, but they have achieved very impressive things such as to transplant memories from one rat to another one. Others have achieved a very crude way of telepathy. Some scientists dream of having extra limbs, others dream of implanting chips in the brain to enhance memory, cognition and to have extra senses, others imagine to copy memories on an external device to help Alzheimer patients. But there is still a lot of work to be done.
But as I said, I think enhancement will come from remedial science and it is how it must be. There are a lot of terrible diseases that I hope we will one day get rid of, like Parkinson or Alzheimer, and this should be the first and most important goal. But as one scientists says in the film, once they get there will be people who will go further because it will be a technological challenge. From a scientific point of view, some scientists are convinced that it may take decades or centuries, but they are determined to achieve these goals. And how far it will take, it depends on us.
After this experience would you now vote for the Transhumanistic or the Bioconservative Party?
Rafel Duran: This political scenario today is not yet a realistic possibility, and I don’t agree that in the future the division will be so clear. There are already different trends -some more right-wing, others more left-wing- in the actual Transhumanist movement. So I think that even in the long term it will be a mixture of the old politics with new ingredients. As for the near future, science and technology will have to enter politics because now they are not in the main political agenda and it’s outrageous. And not only cyborgs, also robots, AI and genetic manipulation. This will change.
Today politicians don’t mention these issues, they are afraid of talking about that. In the US, because it’s a very religious country and science is a very atheist ideology. In Europe, because they put laws and safety in first place, even morality. Society will have to accept gradually these technologies before using them, and we are already doing that. Now, we have smartphones and wearables, and technology is going closer to our bodies. Before, we used to say “My telephone is running out of battery” and now we say “I’m running out of battery”. We are already united with technology in a psychological way, it is changing very quickly.
In 2106, the Transhumanist Party participated for the first time in a US Presidential Election and they got very few votes, they were hard to find in many states. But this process could suddenly accelerate. What would happen if one day a Silicon Valley entrepreneur like Mark Zuckerberg presents himself as a presidential candidate, even for a traditional party?
The future will bring a lot of changes, from social and political to legal ones. And also what it means to be human. I am not a technophobe, but we should be very careful and reflect on the consequences of uniting our bodies and our brains with technology. And to decide beforehand where we want to head to, so in that hybridisation biology colonises technology and not the opposite.