The term “cyborg” was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in a 1960’s paper called Cyborgs and Space - Kline said it sounded like a town in Denmark. Their idea was to engineer people for space by implanting electrical devices that would regulate wakefulness, metabolism, respiration, heartbeat and other physiological functions. Onboard devices would bypass lung-based breathing, alter heart rate and temperature, reduce metabolism and food intake, and control wakefulness.
Little work has been done on modifying our bodies in this way, but recent research in cognitive science suggests that we are cyborgs anyway, not in the sense that we have modified our bodies, but in the deeper and more penetrating sense that we have modified our minds by extending and amplifying them with external technologies. We are so enmeshed with these technologies that removing them would be akin to brain damage. We are cyborgs now - and we always have been.
The philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark, who has pioneered much of this research, points out that our cyborg status solves various puzzles. One is the way in which, despite our genetic similarity to other species, there is something that makes us different and sets us apart. This is the cyborg modification of our minds with external, cognitive technologies.
The first cognitive technology was probably language, which enabled us to freeze our thoughts into stable objects that we could reflect upon and change. We were then drawn upwards in a virtuous circle as one cognitive technology led to another, upgrading our mindware from speech to writing, through increasingly flexible forms of printing. Until today, when we are engaging in an intimate relationship with machines. And the process is speeding up.
Even without our cognitive technologies we are what I call “bioborgs”, with modular brains and onboard robot-like devices that we launch to do our bidding. When you go to the fridge for a beer you don’t consciously move your left leg and then your right leg and then your left leg. You delegate responsibility to an onboard walking mechanism - I call it a “biobot”. When you get to the fridge you launch a “get that bottle” routine, rather like launching a little onboard robot. You effectively say, “Get that bottle for me” - and the device gets it for you.
We don’t “drive our bodies,” controlling each and every action. We have dedicated mechanisms that do the job for us, and this frees up our minds for higher things. Think how your fingers co-ordinate when you tie your shoe-laces or sign a cheque. Imagine what it would be like to individually instruct each of your fingers to do these things!
Our bioborg nature is beautifully illustrated by the Titchener/Aglioti disks. There is a well-known visual illusion called the Titchener Circles Illusion (click here and here). We have a circle surrounded by an annulus of small circles, and another circle of the same size surrounded by an annulus of big circles. The circle surrounded by the small circles looks bigger than the circle surrounded by big ones, even though the inner circles are the same size.
Aglioti replaced the inner circles with plastic disks we can pick up. Now here’s the puzzler. The disk surrounded by the small circles looks bigger than it really is, but when you go to pick it up, your thumb and forefinger form exactly the right aperture to do so. The conscious you is fooled but the part of your brain that’s driving the “pick up the disk” routine isn’t fooled.
The explanation is probably that we have two incoming visual pathways: the dorsal and the ventral. The dorsal pathway is part of an ancient system (the dorsal system) that is responsible for the fine details of motor control. The information coming in through this pathway isn’t routed through consciousness and the dorsal system isn’t fooled by the illusion. On the other hand, the information coming in through the ventral stream is routed through consciousness and the ventral system is fooled by the illusion.
So - when you launch the “pick up the disk” routine, the routine uses information you don’t have access to. You are effectively launching a device that has better sensory apparatus and access to more information than you do.
Our bioborg nature leaves us well placed for mechanical augmentation, for a seamless integration of our onboard abilities with technologies in the world.
Exploiting the world
Cognitive scientists initially believed that we build rich inner analogs of the world, rather like inner maps. We now know that doing this on a large scale would be computationally too expensive. Instead, our brains often exploit enduring features of the world as external memory stores. All we need is a rough idea of what’s out there plus the ability to zoom in and get detailed information on a need-to-know basis.
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