Cybernetic Augmentation: the practice of implanting electronic machinery into the human body to restore or improve its abilities. Cybernetics have been a popular trope in science fiction for well over a century. The technology allows characters to have wonderful and amazing powers while also creating an avenue for superhuman abilities in an increasingly science-minded world. No Gods or monsters here, just badass robot people.
Cybernetics are a huge part of the world in CDPR’s Cyberpunk 2077, where the only people that don’t have augmentations are the Monks that can lead you through some surprisingly enjoyable meditation sessions. But everyone else has at least a few basic additions that allow them to function properly in society.
So in the spirit of the game, let’s talk about cybernetics. How possible are they? How close are we to making them IRL? How might they shape our society and cultures?
In order to answer the first question, we should first look at what exactly a cyborg IS. When we think of cybernetic augmentation, it brings images of sci-fi tech to mind. Like making your entire arm a gun. (That you kill yourself with, more often than not…) Or surfing the internet with your mind. Artificial body parts, that sort of thing.
But a cyborg is just an organic being that has an implanted technological device to “restore or improve its abilities”. This means that there are cyborgs that already live among us. No, not in a “lizard people run the government” kind of way. But anyone with a hearing aid or pacemaker is technically a cyborg. Which means, for the first three movies at least, Ironman IS a cyborg. Technically speaking.
And if you relax the definition a little, there’s an argument that most people in developed countries are already cyborgs. Our phones are becoming more and more important to our day-to-day lives. How bad does it feel to realize you’ve forgotten your phone somewhere? Almost like you’ve lost a limb, or you’ve gone blind. It’s also worth noting that using technology to augment human ability is pretty much the oldest trick in the book for our species. Philosophically speaking, how much different is holding a sword in your hand to having a sword FOR a hand?
In order to have a robot arm, you need to be able to control it. Which means we need our electro-chemical computer – i.e. the brain – to talk to the electrical computer, i.e… a computer. To do this, we need a BMI, or Brain Machine Interface.
BMIs are not a terribly new technology. They’ve been used successfully as early as 1978, (albeit with limited success,) to help restore sight to blind individuals. And devices were being implanted in patients to control robotic limbs as early as 1998.
The Utah array is the only BMI micro-electrode array – the part that detects your neurons firing – with FDA approval. It isn’t the only one around, but it’s a good baseline. The Utah array has up to 128 electrode channels in a grid pattern that measure when and where a nerve fires; and relays that information to a computer.
This technology is good enough for rudimentary movements. But it struggles to get more precise than moving individual fingers. So what’s next?
Neuralink is a company that many of you have probably already heard of. With explicit goals of narrowing the divide between machine and artificial intelligence, Neuralink is a BMI that has nearly an order of magnitude more channels that can both read and write information to your brain. It also sits inside your skull without breaking the skin, charges wirelessly, and has many of the same internal functions as a modern phone.
This is a huge jump from the abilities of the Utah array. So much so, it has experts in the field skeptical. Musk’s frantic pace of improvement flies in the face of the standard progression of science: slow and steady. Musk has always been more… aspirational than realistic. Which isn’t a bad thing; this is a technology that should be pushed. But the list of things that are worse to rush than brain implants is very short; even in the event that Neuralink is safe for its host, long term.
Information security is a huge ethical concern for this kind of device. In 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, Motoko Kusanagi hunts a criminal hacking into people’s minds, or “ghosts”, to alter their thoughts, memories, and intentions for their own purposes. Musk has stated that security is a top priority, but when it comes down to it, no system is foolproof. As this technology advances, and as it becomes commonplace, the question won’t be “if” a brain gets hacked, but rather “when”.
The technology itself isn’t evil. You can’t judge something based on the bad it might do. This technology can improve the lives of thousands, help replace limbs with high-functioning robotic prosthetics, restore body functions to paraplegics. Patients with Locked-In Syndrome could be given a voice, or even their entire bodies back. Any one of these is reason enough to try and make BMIs a reality.
Considering the current technology and interest in artificial intelligence, it seems unthinkable BMIs won’t be advanced to the logical maximum. Just like phones with communication, and the internal combustion engine with transportation, BMIs seem poised to revolutionize and create whole new industries. Only this one may let strangers airdrop Rick Astely into our brains.
Safety & Immune Response
The human immune system is an extremely well-oiled machine. Our bodies are constantly being assaulted by microscopic attackers that think we’d be a good place to set up shop. But thanks to our immune system, it rarely happens. Even when something slips through the cracks, our bodies can remember past threats and grant us immunity going forward.
There are two significant problems we have to overcome to really get to the sci-fi levels of augmentation. First, is the internal immune response. Second, is the skin problem.
Our bodies are very good at attacking anything inside us they think shouldn’t be there. Today, 100% of medical implants cause an immune reaction. 35% of which require an additional surgery to fix. The other 65% of cases still have our bodies attacking the implant. Damaging it and irritating the implant site.
For life-time prosthetics, like you have in Cyberpunk 2077, the ratio of secondary surgeries would need to be lowered substantially. 35% is a lot of people even now, when implantations are fairly rare. Advancements in immune response control and biocompatible materials are 100% needed before we can reach the Cyberpunk levels.
The next portion of our immune system that we’d need to get around is actually the biggest part: your skin. You don’t normally think of your skin as part of your immune system, but it’s actually one of the most important parts. It acts as a passive immune system, strong walls keeping everything out. As they say, the best defense is a really good defense.
Mods like the ones found in Cyberpunk 2077 are actually huge gaps in your body’s defense. Neuralink’s design has actually changed to reflect the challenges posed by this problem. Something like the Jack-in plug would put you at a constant risk of infection and be a source of painful irritation. Which is to say something like what Dum Dum here has… is still a ways into the future.
How does technology impact culture? Cell phones have hugely influenced western culture over the past three decades. They have certainly changed the way we do many things. But they really only magnified the behaviors and desires we already had. We wanted to be closer to people, we wanted more people to pay attention to us, or to bring the mundane things like banking into the 21st century. The technology that allowed that to happen flourished.
What cultural itch would technology like this scratch? Let’s assume we overcome the technological hurdles we’ve laid out, and any other unseen challenges. Let’s assume it’s all perfectly possible. What would people do?
Humans have been expressing themselves by altering their appearance since at least the Neolithic period. Our bodies have been canvases for the ultimate level of self-expression, often seen as the most extreme.
Fashion is, and has always been, another huge influence on cultures throughout history. High fashion has been a mark of success and wealth for millennia and functional, durable clothing has kept industries working for centuries. Clothing seems more vertical than lateral. Outside of a small amount of functional work clothing, or specific subgenre clothing, the only way to get “better” clothes is to buy designer clothing.
Centuries ago, music was similar. You had the complexity and expense of a full symphony, or simply a handful of locals playing as best they could. Now, there are genres, sub-genres, cultures and subcultures around those genres. Now, there is more lateral movement than vertical.
A lot of music isn’t “better” or “worse”, but musicians use different genres to express different ideals or emotions. Idealized cybernetic augmentation will do something similar for both fashion and body modding, maybe even make them one and the same thing. It will allow for a diversification of the human form, changing what our bodies do for practical or aesthetic reasons on scales unthinkable today.
It may not change the whole of society, but how we “dress” and even what “dressing” means, might change. Could we have different limbs for different occasions? Will we have “work legs”? If augmentations could be easily swapped, then specialization is inevitable. We could change our bodies based on what we’re working on, or our hobbies. How we want to express ourselves. The potential is limitless.
This technology is coming. It’s been in the cultural perspective for over a century, and now technology is catching up to our imagination. Depiction and discussion in creative spheres have always pushed technology from fiction into science.
How this will affect society is a massive question, with too many facets and perspectives for a single video. We couldn’t hope to adequately begin to cover the whole topic even with years of dedicated research and introspection, and that’s only the technologies we know about. There will be thousands of ways cybernetics will change the way we live forever. Many of those changes won’t truly be felt until years after the fact.
Let’s just hope Cyberpsychosis isn’t real.
If you want to check out the video version of this article you can find it down below.
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Canadian Nerd. For my own safety, please do not get me talking about space news. I get dehydrated.