Would You, Could You, be a Cyborg?

If you could be more than human, would you? Serious question, there’s some weird ramifications on both sides, and it may become an issue pretty soon.

Ok, backing up. There’s this whole transhumanist movement.They’re all about improving the human condition through technology; limiting and then eliminating aging and suffering, and becoming more than we are through the technological advances of our race. Incredibly rapid, consciously-directed artificial evolution, one might say. You can see the beginnings of that today, with artificial limbs and crazy medicines and nanorobots (there’s supposed to be some that can live in your kidneys, keeping kidney stones from forming, but the paper on that requires a lengthy download).

This stuff is going to lead to a lot of problems in the future, by the way — Cory Doctorow gave a fantastic talk at this year’s DefCon about the legal issues that are going to emerge through computer chips being in everyfreakingthing and what that means based on the way our computer property laws are currently going, for example. And eventually, there will have to be a legal definition of human, assuming things get that far. It’s going to be a mess.

Then there’s the whole idea that perhaps after the Singularity, humans will have merged with computers or interfaced with them so much that they are no longer separable anyway.

Oh, right. The Singularity: the idea that, as technology and information get exponentially more powerful, crazy stuff will start happening, including the emergence of massive and inconceivable intelligence in our technology. Might happen in the next century… might not. It’s definitely one of the more plausible doomsday ideas I’ve heard.

Even putting aside for a second the plausibility of one huge event horizon of crazy technology converging into one huge, blinding doomy scenario (though it makes for quite a dramatic image, eh?) there’s still the possibility that we’ll be not quite human, in the traditional sense, pretty soon.

So if you’ve made it this far, I ask you again: if you could be more than human, would you?

It seems like kind of a no-brainer. But there’s such an ingrained and fundamental human reluctance to take that step, as you can see in our literature and movies and TV shows, that I always have to wonder.

Think about whenever you read a book/comic book or you watch a movie that is set against the backdrop of a world-altering villain. How often are the villain’s intentions couched in some flimsy “but I want the best for mankind” excuse so the valiant heroes can punch them in the face repeatedly? (Ok, that’s mostly movies and comic books.)

It’s always the baddies that think they’re going to transcend their humanity/physical limitations/death/whatever. Is this a metaphor for acceptance of yourself and not trying to change who we are at heart? Some sort of “be grateful for what you have and don’t any ideas” brand of morality tale? Or is there some fundamental sweetness to being human that would be irreparably lost in the transition to immortal computer cyborg thingy?

It makes me wonder, when there are so many great and wonderful minds that think the latter. I’ll use Star Trek as an example, since it’s a cultural icon I assume most people will be familiar with, and has a couple of different incarnations.

When the (mostly) all-powerful Q shows up for the first time, there’s this whole episode where he’s trying to give various people the power of the Q. Spoiler alert: everyone’s tempted, no one is willing to sacrifice their humanity for it. It’s a recurring theme: it’s better to trust in the universe than to try and take godlike powers into your own hands.

Then there’s Data, everyone’s favorite Pinocchio. (Maybe it’s just my thing for highly intellectual yet emotionally unavailable nerds?) He’s the epitome of the classic “something that is, in every sensible way, greater than human, but wants to be human anyway.” He is constantly dealing with that wish to be human, and it’s not just because other people are afraid of him or don’t think that he’s legally a person. He just wants to be a full-on human, even though it is demonstrated at one point that another person was an android for years and didn’t even know it.

What is it about us that makes us think this way? Is it just simple self-centered arrogance? Or is there something more to it? Is it just to make us feel better, that even though we are adrift in a galaxy full of inconceivable forces, that we have something special because we’re human? Perhaps it’s a simple as that it makes a good story, and a story about an all-powerful person would be boring. But it’s such a recurring theme throughout human history: human tries to become more than human, gods or nature intervene, even if rhe is successful, regret ensues. Time and time again in literature we find this, way before computers; the Singularity is to a certain extent just the newest incarnation of that eternal longing to become more than human and fear of the same.

Maybe it’s just because I started reading stories that feature these sorts of “good guys stay human, bad guys try to become immortal/all-powerful” themes before I even went to school, but it’s something that has troubled me during my life. I know many people that would upload into a computer without a thought, but I admit I’m a little nervous about it. The immortal always ends up miserable, in most every speculative work. And whether or not that’s just an interesting artifact of a good story, it definitely makes me nervous.

So I ask one final time: if given the chance to transcend your humanity — upload into a robot, cyborg yourself into an invincible body, or whatever magical means you can think of — would you?


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