Amber Case, an American cyborg anthropologist, argued in a 2011 TED Talk that “every time you look at a computer screen or use one of your cell phone devices,” you are, in fact, being a cyborg.
Based on the traditional definition of a cyborg, she’s not wrong. A 1960 paper on space travel defined a cyborg as “an organism to which exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments.” What is humanity’s current environment then? Already, our constant exposure to technological devices and online social platforms puts us a world apart from say, 25 years ago. Navigating this new landscape using “exogenous components”, which must count our smartphones, laptops and tablets (they are more a part of us now than we may admit), solidifies the standing that we just might be the cyborgs we had read about as children.
While Human 2.0 can already be argued as the average human in a modern city, armed with a smartphone and constantly hooked up to the Internet as the new stream of consciousness, Human 3.0 has already arrived in reality. The new HUMAN+ exhibition at Marina Bay Sands’ Artscience Museum attempts to shed a little more light on our eventual evolution. Attending the opening weekend of the exhibition was the world’s first officially recognised human cyborg, Neil Harbisson.
The contemporary artist was born with an extreme form of colour blindness that resulted in him seeing only in greyscale. In 2003, he embarked on a project to implant an antenna in his skull that uses audible vibrations to report information to him. Harbisson now hears in colour and paints sounds. In a sense, his antenna (or eye-borg as he calls it) allows him a man-made synaesthesic experience. Harbisson has used his standing as the first cyborg to speak up for the rights of other such humans, who have incorporated technology into their bodies. He founded the Cyborg Foundation alongside fellow artist and collaborator, Moon Ribas (whose online seismic sensor implant lets her feel the vibrations of earthquakes across the world), to represent and fight for the rights of other cyborgs.
It begs the question, of course – to what end are humans allowed to “upgrade” themselves so to speak?
As it stands, many cybernetic implants these days are catered to amputees and the disabled, helping them to live like able-bodied persons on a daily basis – aiding them in performing tasks they would otherwise be unable to do. The ethics behind, say, an abled man building an exoskeleton for himself is, however, debatable. For where then does human end and cyborg start? And where does cyborg end and robot start?
As Honor Harger, executive director of ArtScience Museum puts it, “Our perception of what it means to be human has been transformed by science and technology. Advances in genetic engineering, biotechnology and nanotechnology that not long ago seemed purely science fiction are now real. Cyborgs, superhumans and clones are alive among us today. What does it mean to be human now? Should we continue to embrace modifications to our minds, bodies and daily lives, or are there boundaries we should never overstep?”
With the rapid progress of AI technology and robotics, the gap between human and cyborg is fast diminishing and like any new social norm, should be questioned thoroughly. I, for one, stand on the side of evolution – manmade evolution, that is.
HUMAN+ runs at the Artscience Museum till 15 Oct