Cyborg Identity

Jean Luc Picard as Borg

Another recent Smithsonian lecture I attended was on cyborgs—past, present, and future. A cyborg is a genetically enhanced human, a person with both biological and artificial parts—and they’re everywhere now, not just in science fiction movies!


Perhaps the first representation of a cyborg in media was the monster Frankenstein, who was created from reanimated dead tissue. Later, Edgar Allen Poe dealt with that issue in The Man That Was Used Up about a man with extensive prostheses. In 1960, the term was coined to use in relation to space flight. It was decided that it would be best/most efficient to modify man to adapt to space versus adapting an environment in space to human needs. The question then became how to merge technology into the body. This possibility of reengineering the human body was investigated extensively in the 1960s with NASA’s “Engineering Man for Space”, the 1963 Cyborg Study.

diagram of NASA's cyborg study

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s up until present day, cyborgs have been popping up in television shows and movies more and more: Star Wars’ Darth Vader, Star Trek’s Data and Borg, Battlestar Gallactica’s cylons, the Terminator, the Six Million Dollar Man, Gattaca, Iron Man, and many others.


Now, artificial limbs and hearts, implants, knee replacements, pacemakers, and cochlear implants, among other medical advances, are accepted as quite common. What will the future hold? Transhumanism? A larger role for artificial intelligence and augmented reality? Cryogenics? Natural evolution? Only time will tell.


Transcendent Man: Transhumanism and the Future of Human Identity

Transcendent Man Movie PosterI recently watched the documentary film Transcendent Man, which follows inventor, genius, futurist Ray Kurzweil in his life, accomplishments, and insights into the future of humanity. Kurzweil, an artificial intelligence scientist and winner of 24 patents, believes that by 2029 computers will have consciousness. In his book The Singularity is Near, he makes future predictions such as this based on exponential technological growth. Three areas he sees increasing in importance and advancement: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. He sees a point in roughly 40 years where artificial intelligence will take over from human intelligence.

Sentient RobotTranshumanism, or the transforming of humans through technology to eliminate aging and enhance intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities, is a result of humanity’s age-old search for the Fountain of Youth. It focuses on topics such as life extension strategies, mind uploading/uploading human intelligence into the Internet, and cryonics (preserving humans in cold states for a future period when  their disease/illness can be treated).

Michaelangelo AI Fusion PaintingArguments and controversy against a futurist/transhumanistic evolution of humanity include: impossibility/infeasibility, playing God with life, genetic divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” (e.g., Gattaca), dehumanization (e.g. Frankenstein), and an “artilect war”/security risks to humans where there is the potential for artificial intelligence to wipe out humans (e.g. Terminator).

How do you think humanity will be different in 50, 100, 200+ years from now?