18 May 2021

I am definitely not a cyborg

This is Lab Test #01 from the Digital Habit Lab

Each week we release two new experiments from the Digital Habit Lab, launching on Kickstarter later this year. It is designed to help you bring awareness to your digital habits and make them more intentional.

Jump to this weeks experiments →
All experiments released so far →
See all Lab Tests →

You may have heard the reports of Alex Murphy, a police officer from Detroit, who was brutally attacked in the line of duty. Murphy was immediately rushed to ER where teams worked tirelessly to try and revive him. After many hours it became clear that Murphy wouldn't pull through without unprecedented intervention, which was controversially given the go ahead. This involved amputating limbs and introducing pioneering prosthetics. Alex Murphy eventually made a full recovery, but the prosthetics he was given changed him. Actuators in his new hands gave him enhanced strength sufficient to exert roughly 400 lbs of force, and ocular implants allowed him to use a grid system to calculate complex bullet trajectories in real time. Alex Murphy was indeed RoboCop, and he was a Cyborg.

I am definitely not a cyborg.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, what does the term cyborg actually mean? It is a combination of the words cybernetic (the science of automated control systems) and organism. It was originally coined by Manfred Clynes in the 1960s as he wrote about our emerging use of space suits to enable us to begin to inhabit environments with no atmosphere.

One of the clearest definitions explains that a cyborg is:

"an organism that has restored function or enhanced abilities due to the integration of some artificial component or technology that relies on some sort of feedback."

This is the stuff of science fiction. Indeed the Oxford English dictionary's definition begins by stating that a cyborg is a 'fictional or hypothetical person'.

But perhaps artificially enhancing our abilities is not as far off as we think. Perhaps it's already happening. Take the artist Neil Harbisson, pictured in the image below:

Neil Harbisson

Harbisson is a British artist based in New York and he was born with achromat vision, which means that he cannot see any colour—only black, white and shades of grey. Harbisson is also a cyborg. The black antenna you see in the image above was permanently attached to his head in 2004, and it acts as a form of digital eye which allows him to see colours. Or, to be more precise, to hear colours. The sensor detects colour frequencies and sends them in the form of an electrical signal to a chip inserted in the back of his head. He can then hear this frequency as sound inside his head thanks to bone conduction—the same technology found in modern hearing aids. When the colour red is held up in front of the antenna, a specific tone plays. Swap the red for green, and the tone changes to represent the frequency of the new colour.

Being a musician as well as a visual artist, Harbisson took the time to learn each of the frequencies so that he could confidently identify them as unique. For a while this was an overwhelming and contrived process, but at one point it just clicked and became a natural process; a perception.

Harbisson's artistic practice explores the enhanced capabilities which his antenna afford him, and include sound portraits (sounds which represent people's faces) and colour paintings of famous pieces of music (such as the painting behind him in the image above). He has even extended the range of frequencies which his antenna can perceive to include those outside the natural spectrum of the human eye. This means he can hear (or see?) UV and infrared light, such that he knows when the sunlight has dangerously high UV levels.

This may sound intriguing to you but, similar to Robocop, likely still feels far from your own experience of reality. But there are a whole host of companies who are already making significant ground in commercialising machine-brain interfaces similar to Harbisson's antenna which extend the capacity of our mental thought. These come in the form of non-surgical wearable devices such as a NextMind headband, or permanent brain implants, such as Elon Musk's Neuralink. The latter is a set of wires which interface with your brain using what they call a 'neural lace'.

The short term goal of all of these devices is to help people with paralysis regain independence through the control of computers and mobile devices. Once that's achieved, the natural next step will be to extend the capacities of any healthy individual. And the speed at which these technologies are becoming a reality is worth being aware of. Neuralink, for example, was founded in 2016 and only earlier this year they shared footage of a monkey using the device to mentally play the videogame pong. Initial human trials are set to begin as early as later this year.

A 9-year-old macaque monkey named Pager plays pong with his mind

There are also plenty of other technologies which have already dramatically enhanced our mental capacities.

  • Neural networks can help us spot patterns in images and data that were previously invisible to us.
  • Augmented Reality headsets give us access to contextual data within the very environment that we are perceiving.
  • Our smartphones give us access to the knowledge and memories of the whole of humanity within seconds of us deciding to search for them.

So, on further reflection, perhaps the idea that you may be a cyborg doesn't feel so far fetched? And although you may not be planning on hearing colours anytime soon, it's clear that we already rely on different types of augmented abilities every day. The key thing here is that the these technologies are impacting our behaviour dramatically and it is therefore vitally important that we are aware of this change as it is happening.

After all, being able to access the entirety of human knowledge in an instant can be incredibly useful and enable us to grow and learn in meaningful ways. But, if we use these cyborg skills without awareness and intention, they can also end up enhancing our innate capacity for things like distraction, procrastination and harmful forms of self comparison with others.

Ok, now what?

Below are two experiments from the Digital Habit Lab to run for yourself and observe to what extent you are a cyborg or not. Over the next week, try playing with these and observe what happens to gain insight into your own habits.

We would love to hear how you get on, so do get in touch and let us know what you find!