Bionics And Cyborgs

A few years ago handicapped runners started to use new prostheses which looked like a curved thick metal sheet in a shape of a bird’s leg. The prostheses were flexible, enabled better spring and easier movement while running and the runners were achieving better times in races. Even discussions started whether these athletes could or should contest against the not handicapped ones. Surprisingly (or not), the not handicapped runners found such competition unfair, explaining that the prostheses have qualities human legs will never have and thus the handicapped runners would have great advantage over them.

A few weeks ago I was reminded of that dilemma when I was listening to an interview with a man who lost his hand in an accident and got a high-tech bionic prosthesis. A prosthesis that not only replaced the lost hand but offered skills his human hand would never be capable of.

Obviously, technology advantaged those people over “common people” in a certain way. Yet there is nothing to be envied as those are stories of people who had a nasty accident, went through a bad illness or were born physically disabled. The prostheses help them to live as normal life as possible which is their purpose and a remarkable achievement. As a “bonus” the people were given certain advantage but the advantage was actually just a side effect lacking general usefulness and was received at the cost of the loss. Would anyone want to sacrifice a part of their bodies to get a technical advantage instead? Under usual conditions, I doubt it.

But think of another case. Once I watched a presentation of a man who was born colour-blind and could see only in shades of grey. Nowadays he wears a small apparatus on his head that scans colour frequencies in front of him and sends them into a chip implanted at the back of his head. The colour frequencies are transformed into audio frequencies there and he can hear the colours in the form of tones. Obviously not individual ones most of the time but their combinations. Thus he hears music of pictures, faces, food and on the contrary, music causes him to see colours. Is it surprising that he started painting what he hears? He even decided to widen the range of colours he can identify into the infra red and ultraviolet spectrum and can hear colours people cannot see.

Although the human brain is a smart tool and can suppress something here or accent something else there, going through the process of getting used to the tones and their combinations and learning to identify them must have been tough. And yet the man says that it was worth the effort. It brought new and unexpected perspectives to his life. He feels enriched and encourages people to extend their sensual perception by using technology as part of their bodies.

And here I started wondering. Would anyone not disabled want to put their health at risk by implanting electronic artificial objects into their bodies to get that kind of advantage? I am not the one but we humans have many faces and expectations and I know that the right answer to that question is “yes”. People always experimented with their bodies and minds in pursuit of new experiences and possibilities. Also, it has already been suggested that subcutaneous chips might be used for storing one’s data in a universal ID one would have with them all the time. But how much bionic or cyborg-like a person should become? Or should be allowed to become?

In my opinion, implantation of various types of chips seems almost certain in not that far away future. And when it comes to survival, the future may require measures inconceivable now as people may need every advantage available. But for the time being, I am happy that there is still the option for everybody to make that decision.