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Are cyborgs our next evolutionary step?

If you weren’t already aware, cyborgs walk amongst us. An augmented human species. In fact, you might be working with one. Or there could be a few in your neighbourhood, frequenting your local supermarket. Once a figment of science fiction imagination, cyborgs are fast-becoming a new breed of curious humans, forcing the rest of us to start asking some big questions.

What exactly is a cyborg?

Technically speaking, the term cyborg is short for cybernetic organism – a being made up of biological and biomechatronic parts. Or, in other words,  a human-robot hybrid.

Associate Professor and Roboticist, Matthew Joordans, from Deakin University’s School of Engineering, explains that, ‘Generally speaking a cyborg is anything that’s part biological and part machine, though they generally have human brains. A grandparent with a pacemaker could be termed an early cyborg. So could a young child with a cochlear implant.’ What about an artist with an antenna surgically implanted into his skull? ‘Definitely a cyborg’ he says.

Arguably one of the world’s most famous real-life cyborgs, contemporary artist Neil Harbisson was born with achromatism, an extreme form of colour blindness. In 2004, at the age of 21, he underwent surgery to implant a metal antenna into the base of his skull. On the tip of the antenna, hanging just in front of his forehead, is a sensor that picks up and converts light into sound waves. As a result, Harbisson is now able to hear and feel colour, which he then translates into his art.

When did science fiction become real life?

Cyborgs have been gracing our small and silver screens for decades. ‘Have you seen Blade Runner? X-Men? Star Trek?’ Associate Professor Joordens asks. ‘One of the greatest fictional examples of an augmented species are The Borg from Star Trek’, he says.

Humans wilfully augmenting their bodies with non-biological parts in the real world isn’t new. In 1998, Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, inserted an RFID tag into his arm enabling him to open doors and turn on lights as he walked around campus. He is widely regarded as the world’s first cyborg.

In 2007, Australian performance artist Stelios Arcadiou, also known as Stelarc, had a cell-cultivated ear surgically attached to his left arm. He plans to connect the ear to the internet via a wireless miniature microphone so that people around the world can listen in through a website.

Moon Ribas, artist and friend of Harbisson, had a tiny magnetic sensor implanted near her left elbow in 2013. Connected to online seismographs, her arm vibrates whenever an earthquake strikes anywhere in the world. The stronger the earthquake, the stronger the vibration. Ribas translates the vibrations from her arm and translates the tremors into dance movements.

'One of the greatest fictional examples of an augmented species are The Borg from Star Trek.'

Assoc. Prof. Matthew Joordans,
School of Engineering, Deakin University

Though such body augmentations may seem peculiar or even useless, there does appear to be a common thread – to develop or enhance the five senses we are born with. Whether it’s amplifying their body’s acoustics like Stelarc, or creating an entirely new sense like Ribas, these self-proclaimed cyborgs are intent on pushing the boundaries of their humanness. It begs the question; are they reckless? Genius? Or is it simply survival of the fittest?

Will all humans eventually be cyborgs?

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, thinks that we as humans need to embrace cyborgs and metabolic advancements. Well known for his future-proofing and entrepreneurial clout, Musk recently shared his prediction for humankind at the World Government Summit in Dubai. He warned that humans must become cyborgs to stay relevant in a future dominated by artificial intelligence.

Associate Professor Joordens thinks otherwise.  ‘I don’t think it will happen’ he says. ‘I don’t think people will want to lose their identity. But if you want to know what the ultimate cyborg looks like, go and see Ghost in the Shell’.

Learn to understand cyborgs by studying Cyborg Anthropology, or help design their augmentation through studying Deakin’s Bachelor of Computer Science.

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Associate Professor Matthew Joordens
Associate Professor Matthew Joordens

School of Engineering, Deakin University
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