November 27, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Are we on the brink of a future society, or already living in one? Michael Cook looks at the relationship between human and machine.

Back in 1998 Kevin Warwick, now Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, underwent an operation to have an RFID chip inserted into his own body, a small piece of technology that, with the use of the right sensors, would allow him to activate lights, appliances and security systems simply by touching them. The operation heralded the beginning of what Warwick called “Project Cyborg”, a series of investigations into the notion of the cyber organism – organic life, augmented with machines.

Warwick has often been heralded as the first human cyborg, a step towards a new type of human being, where technology empowers us to be more than we were born to be. He and his peers appear to show a powerful new era of human existence on the horizon, a world of complicated ethics and controversial technology. In truth, though, we are already there.

I am writing this article on a small computer which has been within a few metres of me, almost without exception, for over a year. While the act of recording writing has been around for many millennia, now I am able to improve the quality of the spelling and grammar without reading it again myself. I can look up the name of Kevin Warwick’s research partners without moving from this chair. My wife is communicating with me from over four miles away – I can not only hear her voice, but see her.

The difference between my MacBook and an artificial limb is slight – it is not physically attached to me, and it does not replace any organ or muscle tissue I was born with. Nevertheless this device, like the phone in my pocket, rarely leaves my side and greatly increases the tasks I can accomplish. I am an order of magnitude more capable than a human born a century before me, through little effort of my own. In many ways, whether the technology ever makes its way into our bodies is immaterial. We are already part machine.

The 2011 videogame Deus Ex: Human Revolution paints a near-future humanity as socially fragmented due to the cost and power associated with machine augmentation. The game’s overall message is neither negative nor positive, but it asks one question quite clearly: what happens to those left behind?

We rarely ask this question of today’s society, yet we can see the benefits that technology can bring – we see an increased yearning for freedom of expression in countries suddenly exposed to wireless communication or the Internet, for instance. It proves that technology need not be giving us super-strength or bionic vision to make us more powerful; simply by giving us the capacity to communicate with one another at a distance, human beings become empowered and able to change their lives for the better. Yet many countries remain without such benefits, or have them strictly curbed by their governments. In a sense, we are already living in a stratified world, where those with technology are afforded greater productivity, power and self-realisation, and those without are left to be exploited, divided and marginalised.

This division that exists, between us ‘almost-cyborgs’ and those left behind, is hard to bear in mind as we consider new applications for technology across the world. We look at people like Kevin Warwick and we dream of the future. We read publications like I, Science and imagine how society will look like in a decade’s time – renewable energy, virtual life, the universe unravelled and formalised. But what is likely to define the next ten years of human society is not the bleeding edge of research, but the ragged cuts we leave behind – the societies deprived of the empowerment we have enjoyed so far.

The best way to start attacking this problem is to reconsider our current society not as one on the cusp of human revolution, but one that has already undergone it. A society where we have access to an infinity of data, unaffected and unfiltered by class, caste or race; where the entirety of human knowledge is accessible to all, for free; and where society is connected and organised enough to be able to defend these powers from higher authorities. Only by considering the augmentations we already have, will we realise how important it is to bring these changes to those who do not have them.

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