John Hawthorn got in touch with us about his recent article on advances in cybernetics. It’s a great overview covering a broad range of what’s going on with both the hardware and software that’s allowing us to augment our lives in hitherto unimaginable ways.

Living cyborg Neil Harbisson, who has monochromatic vision and a cranial implant that allows him to experience colour via electrical impulses, gets a mention. As does Neurobridge who, in a similar vein to Elon Musk’s Nuralink, are researching mechanical interfaces with the human mind. But it’s Hawthorn’s reference to the growing number of people that have sub-dermal implants that is of most interest to our site.

Mark O’Connell’s book To Be a Machine is just one investigation into the growing sub-culture of Transhumanism. Within it he considers everything from wearable technology, through the use of chip implants to the ethical minefield of removing healthy limbs in favour of more powerful, versatile and longer-lasting prosthetics. In fact, when considering artificial limbs, the divide between fact and fiction has become wafer thin. Just consider these videos from Sarif Industries and Hero Arm and tell us which infomercial is a videogame promotion and which is a real company.

Exoskeletons are a near perfect vehicle for the contradictory elements within cybernetics, especially when you consider both the medical and military applications. Creating body armour that makes a single solider on the battlefield stronger, faster and more durable – as in Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow – raises issues of a combatative technocracy. Whereas the same technology applied to a bed-bound quadriplegic sudden becomes transformative.

No more so are the ethical boundaries contested than in the artificial enhancement of our own cognitive abilities. Scientists may still be deliberating whether sentient artificial intelligence is achievable, but that doesn’t stop theorists thrashing out the implications of encoding and uploading our consciousness into machines. Again, referring back to the idea of a technocracy, would such digitised immortality be the preserve of just the wealthy or tech savvy? Looking back at the principles of Eugenics in the late 19th Century, and it’s mutation into ethnic cleansing, it’s easy to map out totalitarian outcomes of these advancements – especially when you effectively remove the mortality of any given despot.

As ever, we’re on the cusp of these marginal technologies nudging their way towards the mainstream. But for every homemade, 3D printed hand, there’s a GoogleGlass languishing in the vault of failed experiments. It’s good that all these complexities are being worked through now, as heading back over the boundary between human and machine, once that threshold has been properly crossed, will be impossible.

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