Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Extreme Body Modification"

I really like how this article on transhumansim begins:

"We all want to be our best selves."

That, in a nutshell, is the driving force behind transhumanism. On one level or another, we all want to be more. We want to be able to do more or to just feel better. Quite often, that means devising the means to transcend our limited biology, rendering our physical form to an olio of cybernetics and nanotechnology.

Of course, robust debate has accompanied that effort, especially when it comes to augmenting the body with what might be construed as "non-essentials." This includes implanting cameras, permanent exoskeletons, or replacing healthy limbs with cybernetic appendages. At the top link, Gizmodo's Rose Eveleth spoke with two "biohackers" who have a keen interest in just where cybernetics is taking us.

One of these people is Tim Cannon from Grindhouse Wetware. His work has involved a number of different implants, one of which he placed under his own skin to transmit his body temperature to a computer. Swain has gone through numerous cases of trial and error with his own implants. He tried to implant an RFID chip that would allow him to instantly pay for his rides on the London metro, but he was unable to acquire the necessary medical-grade silicon for such a procedure. He was, however, able to modify hearing aids to detect and receive WiFi signals around the city.

What is of great interest to me are the differing philosophical slants from which both men approach transhumanism. Swain sees these augmentations as a way to "get at the most human things about us." Cannon, on the other hand, is far less romantic about it. He sees the human brain as "defective piece of hardware," something we should be working to design a replacement for. He's also clear on the point that his research is not motivated by medicine. "I'm not trying to cure people," he says. The analogy is then made, whether it's made by Cannon or Eveleth is rather unclear, to plastic surgery. That practice has its origins in helping trauma victims. Now, it's far more often employed to give new noses or larger breasts, neither of which are exactly saving the world.

Hearing these two talk reminds me of Kevin Warwick, "the cyborg professor." I mean that not in terms of philosophy but in the sense of hacking and tinkering with one's own body via transhuman technologies. With his own RFID implants, Warwick can control the thermostat of his house, turn lights off and on, and open doors...all without touch anything. He later had electrode arrays grafted to his nervous system and was able to control a cybernetic limb in London while he sat in New York. All the work these men are doing, when taken in total, adds up to one thing: progress,

I know that there are ethical questions involved with these types of modification. Hell, I spent two semesters teaching classes on that very subject. There is concern about what happens when our population is further bifurcated into one of haves and have nots, specifically who has the modifications (and thereby the advantages) and who does not. If history (and the present, for that matter) is our guide, than these will only be in the bodies of the wealthy. An additional concern is how one might weaponize these implants.

That should not stop us. We are on the cusp of an opportunity to eradicate disease as we know it. As the work of these three men progresses in tandem with other research, such as Google's work on virtual neural networks, our lives will ultimately change for the better, despite whatever pitfalls may await. I mean, those are always out there, regardless of whatever endeavor you undertake.

As Rose Eveleth ever-so-eloquently put it in the comments section of her article: "instead of saving up for tombstones, we can start saving for transition, or 'metamorphosis.'"

Again, that pretty much nails it.

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