Recode, We are already cyborgs | Elon Musk | Code Conference 2016

Will Humans Merge with Machines?

5 Things We Need to Know

June 5, 2017, Bruno Jacobsen

Earlier this year, Elon Musk, Tesla Motors and Space X visionary, said that humans must become cyborgs if they are to continue to add value to the economy and stay relevant in a world of increasingly powerful AI. However, many people still flinch at the idea of a world of cybernetic organisms, where humans enhance their abilities by integrating artificial material or technology into their bodies. Will we ever welcome this scientific development? 

Here are 5 things we need to know about "cyborgs".

1 – Cyborgs already walk among us

Cyborgs are not necessarily new to us. Bionic or prosthetic limbs, pacemakers, hip replacements, and many other artificial parts are already used by millions of people all over the world. We even have more advanced cyborg technology: Neil Harbisson who was born with achromatopia, a more severe condition of color blindness, uses an “eyeborg” to perceive color. Since he can only see in black and white, the eyeborg translates colors it sees into sounds. Although he hears colors instead of seeing them, his perception of any color now comes as naturally to him as it does for the rest of us.

2 – We have had similar fears in the past

The fear of the unknown is not new. Some of the questions raised with regards to cyborg technology revolve around our ability to control the outcomes that come with it. Are we taking things too far? What if things get out of hand?

As Mizrach reminds us, during the early days of recombinant DNA (manipulation of genetic material to create new sequences and hence new traits in organisms), there were people on both sides of the debate, and many panicked about possible unforeseeable consequences. Indeed, some debates such as those around GMOs persist to this date, although with less fervor and with the scientific community largely regarding recombinant DNA molecules as not harmful.

Robotics is another area where predictions of doom have been more fascinating than the benefits that come with it for almost a century. Yet, despite it, we have continued to develop this technology and it has brought tremendous improvements in productivity to society at large.

3 – The problem is not restoration, but enhancement

When it comes to cyborg technology, the debates seem to largely deal with the enhancement of human abilities.

One would be hard-pressed to find many people who disagree that introducing artificial technology into a human body to restore lost function is ethically wrong. We generally accept that pacemakers and other devices are necessary and do not shy away from supporting their development. Even with respect to Neil Harbisson’s “eyeborg”, a more advanced and unconventional piece of technology, most of us would applaud the effort and be happy people can have access to these types of technology.

However, inserting the same type of cyborg technology into someone who is already perfectly healthy raises more eyebrows. Are we changing the nature of human beings? Will we reach a point where we can no longer affirm that we are human? Or is it fair towards those who do not have the capital do enhance their own abilities? Will there be an even stronger division between the haves and have-nots in the world? There is no simple answer to these questions.

4 – It is practically inevitable

Despite all debate, it is practically inevitable that we will, to an extent, merge with technology. It might not occur soon, but the pace of technological development and growth of scientific knowledge almost guarantee that at least the means and technology to make it happen will be available.

5 – There will likely be lots of regulation

The use of cyborg technology is likely going to be subject to the precautionary principle. Simply put, that means that governments around the world will require those who propose its widespread use to prove that it is not harmful to human beings. And it will likely be a consortium of politicians, economists, and scientists that will have to join efforts and propose it.

In addition, there is also a good chance we will self-regulate it. In college applications and exams, job interviews, and many other areas, we can imagine a world where “enhanced humans” will have to prove that certain technology does not give them an advantage, the same way that college students cannot walk into an exam with headphones on unless they can prove that they are needed and conform to the codes of conduct.

As Nicholas Agar argues on Slate, humans cannot uninvent a technology. What we can do, he argues, is to be selective on our use and restrict the extensive use of technology that is deemed to result in more damage (whether societal or physical) than benefits, as we do with, say, nuclear bombs.

Going forward

So will we ever fully accept cyborg technology in the future? It seems like we will have no issue with restorative technology. As for enhancing our capabilities, we will continue to make progress in this area and we will reach a point where a more serious debate will have to take place. But although we do not have the answers yet, it seems likely that we will embrace cyborg human enhancement at least to some extent.

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