Cyborgism at its most extreme. Full artificiality in an unlikely human form.

This article from io9 doesn’t really amount to much. It talks about a museum curator named Roger Launius who is pretty convinced we need to step up the cyborg revolution if we want to survive in space. Okay, and?

The thing about this is that it’s a far less controversial issue than it’s made out to be. People imagine some huge change from being the bipedal ape-like animals we are now to some kind of brain-in-a-box or tin man as the culmination of the movement toward cyborgism. These are ridiculous expectations in a world where there are already multitudes of cyborgs. People with pacemakers and cochlear implants, examples Roger Launius points out, are already cyborgs in a meaningful and precise sense. It stands to reason that the first major motions toward artificiality in the human body will be medical followed by subtle, probably cosmetic, changes. I’m sure there’s a strong argument to be made that breast implants make one a cyborg but usually we want to define the term as including actual machinery, not simply any “implant” or prosthesis. I would argue that prostheses do make us cyborgs but I don’t even need to add that to make my point since pacemakers and cochlear implants already exist.

At any rate, a movement toward artificiality in the body shouldn’t surprise us. Humans have artificially molded ourselves for as long as we’ve been around, from piercings and tattoos and on to makeup and modern cosmetic surgeries including those improbable and fringe alterations which lend an inhuman countenance.

Such as:

And more of this sort of thing can be found here.

Certainly the idea of utterly replacing our organs and eventually the structural components (bones, skin) of our bodies with artificial materials is a far cry from piercings, gauged earlobes and even bone modifications that currently represent the furthest fringe of body modification. That said, I would argue that it’s not that far a cry. I mean, right now some eccentric types are doing this stuff to be in control of their appearance. It has little value beyond that and simply represents an extreme version of the types of body modification (including breast augmentation, botox, etc) that we more easily accept in the mainstream. This is because appearance is a highly valued commodity in our civilization and while some would enhance themselves along normative lines to improve their profile within that context (ie: making themselves more attractive), others mock this custom whether intentionally or not by making of themselves what some might call monsters or “freaks”.

Where I’m going with this is that, at some point, functional modifications that have a secondary or perhaps negligible effect on appearance will be available for other-than-medical purposes. Right now, any examples I could name would seem the stuff of science fiction. Rather than becoming cyborgs when we replace our blown out knees with prostheses, we might someday become cyborgs beforehand by replacing our knees early on in an athletic career so that they never become worn or cost us that career. That kind of thing sidesteps the issue of ethics in athletic enhancement by not being a truly performance-enhancing step as much as a performance-maintaining one. This seems a mundane platform for such a technological advance when compared to space travel but I am saying only that this is how it could begin.

Launius is right when he says we need to seriously explore this. That said, I’m sure military research in nations all over the planet are already charting advances in this field. How long before that new liquid armor that reacts to bullets is simply applied to human skin via sweat or something like that? The military will probably be yards ahead on this, but there’s no reason not to assume advances that apply to other fields such as construction, labour, and eventually space travel, won’t be shared.

Okay so what have we got out of this, Evan?

Well, I’m trying to show that body modification and artificiality isn’t surprising, new, or controversial in itself. I’m also saying that the type of cyborgism most likely to be developed won’t be as dramatic as the picture that fronts this article. Especially not in the next few decades. You won’t hear about astronauts with robot arms, by my reckoning, even if some level of roboticism is required to produce limbs capable of surviving without normal degeneration in zero-G environments (assuming they don’t crack artificial gravity first).

If I can speculate even more, I’d wager that the cyborg implants most useful would have more to do with producing and regulating certain kinds of chemicals that would alleviate, reduce, and potentially eliminate some of the physiological problems associated with long-term space habitation. Perhaps nanomachine technology will take off before we get to a point where we’re seriously considering sending people to Mars and further.

Beyond these more practical concerns is a philosophical problem that is touched on by the end of the io9 article. The main question is whether or not humans will have to cease being human in order to become a space-faring species. While the size of the environments in question make the leap into space seem all the more dramatic, I think we should consider the species of animals that evolved to live on land which eventually led to us. This is to say that evolving and adapting to a previously inhospitable environment is nothing new conceptually. Space may seem inhospitable to life as we know it, but that’s only as we know it, in our very limited frame of reference.

It is also true that “human” is as a constructed concept contingent fully on our experience to this point. Is adapting the notion of “human” logically necessary prior to adapting the biology? Probably. But this shouldn’t be as difficult as it is sometimes made out to be. The sensationalizing of the issue is often a tactic for pundits who, for whatever reason, want to maintain a dramatically conservative and totally unrealistic version of what humans are. This includes religious “authorities” who seem to contradict their own metaphysics when becoming preoccupied with the body. A little critical thought on this subject will yield some guidance as to whether or not certain types of positions are valid or even useful.

Science fiction writers have for years speculated about the new forms human life might acquire. Often this has been conceived as digitization of the mind, or “uploading fantasies” which suggest the body is like the hardware of a computer while the conscious self is a software web which should be transferable to other hardware platforms, yadda yadda.Other times, and somewhat more creatively if not as likely, authors have conjured images of dramatically re-engineered post-humans fit for survival off-planet. Kim Stanley Robinson’s MarsTrilogy hits on some plausible examples of this sort of thing. Charles Stross also writes fairly out-there books related to post-humanism with a large degree of interest in other-than-human body models.

It’s certainly an interesting thing to consider. I say that the limitations of concepts like “human” are only set by our imaginations and the wherewithal to make what we imagine into reality. This has been the grand project of the human species since the beginning. To reach out into the stars and make new homes seems a logical enterprise. A suitable metaphor might be the transition from caterpillar to butterfly, as the trappings and contexts of one form give way to another as a natural eventuality of a life-cycle. We know not nearly enough about ourselves or the universe to say what is and isn’t natural to us.

So let’s play jazz.