Enter the robot.
Someone told me recently that humanity, as we know it, will cease to exist in the future. Our bodies will be transformed completely and will be unified with machines. We will become cyborgs. Our living quarters will be dense, our bodies an amalgamation of robotics and organic matter, and sex will go the way of the dodo as humans achieve immortality and become asexual, therefore rendering reproduction as obsolete. In this brave new world it is possible that clean air and a stable climate could become unnecessary for our survival. Our mechanically enhanced bodies and cognitive faculties will be able to provide the solutions to humanity’s most pressing issues of survival (terminal disease, move over!). Those pesky impacts of climate change? Not a problem – perhaps our future cyborg selves will build that Spaceship Earth we’ve all been talking about. And food? Modern-day GMOs will be transformed and all the necessary ingredients for a healthy cyborg will be put into a single pill. Presto! McDonald’s is served.
“And what would Planet Earth look like?” I asked.
Well, it turns out that what Earth looks like wouldn’t really matter anymore. Humanity will have evolved into Cyborg 1.0, we will have achieved a level of technological superiority unknown in the history of civilization, and the changes in our bodies and minds will usher in a new era devoid of war and rich with meaning. The wars of today that are fought over resources and in the name of human rights will become moot as we move into the realm of immortality. Our mighty and logically enhanced computer brains will see war for all its futility, and the fragile human ego will be brushed aside in a wave of progress that allows humanity to reach its next logical step… cyborgism. While the balance of nature may end up stabilizing at a much higher temperature, our technologically enhanced bodies will successfully adapt with such efficiency, efficacy, and grace that there is no need to worry; humans will be fine even if the Earth is not.
To the naturalist this might be seen as an abomination, but to the pioneering technologist this advance is poised as being the saving grace of humankind. Our superior intellect will be the solution to our own mortality by virtue of delivering us from mortality itself. In fact, there are already major technological firms and self-hacking technological pioneers that are producing prototypes and experimenting with human implants. For example, Defense Advanced Research Projects Association (DARPA) is working on thought-controlled killer robots; the colour blind artist, Neil Harbisson, has developed an ‘eyeborg’ to translate colour into sounds that are transmitted to him through bone conduction; and a Canadian film maker, Rob Spence, replaced his lost eye with a wireless video camera that displays images real-time onto his computer. In fact, it was recently pointed out to me that we’ve been technologically augmenting our reality for some time. There are the obvious cases of laptops and smart phones, but when was the last time we looked at eyeglasses as a mechanical piece of life-enhancing technology? Perhaps humans aren’t meant to exist only as biological organisms. Maybe merging with the machine is the way of the future.
But to be honest, pushing the technology argument to its extremes seems a little far-fetched to me, and there are certainly potential repercussions that should be discussed (The Matrix, anyone?). However, as I listened to this argument I realized that I should not reject this person’s views out of hand. After all, I’m no engineer or pioneering technologist, and this ‘cyborg future’ is actually defensible from a human-oriented point of view. Our advances in technology, neurology, and biology, to name a few, are clearly resulting in new advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. But if a person is concerned with more than the survival of humanity then this philosophy may be a cause for concern.
Take the points of equality and equity. Exactly who is going to benefit from these human-enhancing technologies? I can’t imagine that the technological enhancement of human bodies is going to come cheap, and I highly doubt that a government program would provide for the technological-enhancement of its entire population. It seems fair to assume that the wealthy will immediately benefit from these commercially available advancements. Could the development and dissemination of this intellectual and bodily enhancement create a super-class of individuals? Is it reasonable to assume that these new technologies will be used for good, and that a human being’s self-interest will be circumvented with the installation of a memory-enhancing microchip?
Based on history, human nature, and the unequal gains of technological advances and their dissemination amongst today’s population, I am doubtful that cyborgism will serve to alleviate the ills of today. And if robotics and cyborgs do come to be the norm, I strongly question to whom those benefits will accrue. But maybe that’s where our ideological leanings come in… are we in this together, or is it survival of the fittest? Are you with us or against us? Are you a cyborg, or an inferior organic human?
As tempting as it is to postulate a future of cyborgs, immortality, and world peace, I think it is more prudent to focus on the here and now with a keen eye on tomorrow. Inequality drives violence. Food shortages kill millions of people every year. Children around the world are dying of preventable disease. Our oceans are becoming more acidic. Severe weather events are projected to increase in frequency and intensity. This is the here and now, and it seems to me that we’re a long ways off from becoming cyborgs. And I don’t think I want to live in a world where I don’t care to breathe fresh air, walk through a lush forest, or have sex.
But hey, if I’m a cyborg, who needs that air, trees, and sex crap anyways? Just give me my pill and let me live on this peaceful dustbowl of an Earth that humanity perfected.
This article was originally posted by Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.