At the close of the 19th century, Lord Kelvin, a celebrated scientist, stated that everything that was meant to be discovered or invented had already been discovered or invented by man. He and his fellow members of the Royal Society believed, without a drop of doubt, that they were living in the Golden Age. But, boy, were they wrong. The 20th century saw some remarkable advancements in science and technology. Classical Physics gave way to Quantum Physics. Telescopes gave way to moon missions. Black and white cameras eventually gave way to DSLRs. And today, a strange new possibility has everyone sitting firmly in their seats with seat belts on: cyborgs.
Until a few decades back, robots, androids and cyborgs only thrived in dystopian sci-fi novels. They, however, grasped the attention of many budding scientists, and engineers started wondering if, one day, robots and cyborgs could be brought to reality. Robots have existed for a while now. But possibilities of the future are well beyond the limits of just mechanical arms used in the factories today, and this unsurprisingly scares many. Today, bionic limbs are very common. Amputation hardly frightens or hinders anyone anymore.
But there is one big issue, that is, suppose Mr X has lost his legs to frostbite and he now has artificial legs, he can run to the grocery on a rainy Wednesday night to get veggies or even participate in the Paralympics and bring glory to his country, however, he cannot feel his legs. Cyborgs are not like that at all. They are partially organic and partly made of artificial parts. The technology is a part of the cyborg’s human body and maintains a symbiotic relationship with it. The artificial system, being embedded in the human frame, can feed information to the nervous system. As a result, this allows sensation. Make no mistake, the famous Saudi Arabian citizen, Sophia is very different from this. She is an android: a robot in the form of a human. A cyborg is a human with some technological parts meant to enhance or repair some of the person’s abilities.
If you think that something like this cannot exist beyond the pages of a fictional novel, then you are wrong. Technology like this already exists. One example being nanotechnology. This branch of technology has the potential to revolutionise technology as we know it today. In fact, active research is being conducted to figure out how it can be used to revolutionise the field of medicine. Nanobots are robots made of nanomaterials that have the ability to carry out a specific task. Scientists hope to use this technology to travel down the blood-stream and kill malignant cells or deliver drugs to a particular tissue (known as the target tissue). Various other nanotechnological procedures involve insertion of nano-materials or nano-machines into the human body to carry out a certain task. Apart from nanotechnology, we also have the developing fields of neuroscience and neurotechnology. Neuralink is among the pioneers in this field today.
Neuralink was set up in 2016 by the celebrated engineer and entrepreneur Elon Musk to develop a device like the ‘neural lace’ from Scottish author Iain M. Banks’ famous sci-fi novel series The Culture. Unlike most contemporary sci-fi novels, this series describes a utopian (and not dystopian) space society. Very recently, Neuralink was in the news for developing a computer chip that can enable paralysed people to move a cursor and type words using their brain. The chip is connected to very thin fibre-like electrodes and the wires are connected to thought transmitters to accomplish the task. Musk labelled this as a first step in the path to ‘symbiosis with artificial intelligence’, something that he believes is necessary for humans to remain relevant in this era of technology.
Today, so much in science is an ethics and morality debate and neuro and nanotechnology are no exceptions. It’s easy to see that the ultimate goal is human enhancement. But just because we are capable of doing something, doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be done. We have to delineate what kind of human enhancement should be strived for and what should not be strived for.
On one end of the spectrum, technology like Nueralink’s chips will definitely prove beneficial to those who suffer everyday due to some chronic or fatal disease or some kind of an amputation or genetic disorder. Sufferings due to health issues would cease to exist completely: no disabilities, no depression, zero neuro-diversity and of course, no discrimination on the basis of these. Different companies or universities still do not hire people with heart diseases or cancer today. Such problems would simply vanish. A new world free of bodily pain would be born. We would be able to fulfil our utopian vision of a biologically and socially (to some extent) egalitarian society. While this sounds like the best thing that could possibly happen to us, closer inspection reveals other problems.
One of the major issues that humans face today is a huge population. In the past, whenever there was a population boom, some incident or the other, like the Black Plague, brought it under control. Today, with the help of modern medicine, such disasters have been effectively averted. In addition, the life span of humans has increased by a considerable amount in the last few centuries. In a world where humans do not die of diseases or disabilities, this will become a much bigger issue. And once humans are replaced by cyborgs, the amount of time leading up to our doom will only get accelerated.
In the past, we have seen how dystopian sci-fi novels have eventually come true, at least to some extent. This includes atom bombs, waterbeds, the nuclear arms race and so on. Most novels involving cyborgs and robots end with these pieces of technology taking up arms against humans and replacing them as the most powerful ‘creatures’ (if I may use this word) on planet Earth. Many companies are currently conducting research to create robots who express emotions like humans or those which can be used as war tools. The future is difficult to predict. But we just cannot ignore the possibility of these novels becoming reality one day if proper regulations and checks are not put in place.
Another problem that arises is the problem of unequal distribution of technology. In the largely capitalist parts of the world, the divide between the rich and the poor is enormous. The poor are unable to afford a lot of things that the rich can afford very easily: luxurious housing, expensive sports cars and, of course, plastic surgery. If the availability of neurotechnology to the public ends up being anything like plastic surgery, the rich would exploit it to enhance themselves and eventually modify themselves into an unrecognisable species. All this while the poor would be unable to afford the simplest of technologies to even cure diseases. There will be a new divide, this time between super-humans (or cyborgs) and humans. Even if we consider a scenario where no human is greater or lesser than the other, it raises some very serious problems.
Unemployment in Japan is at its peak now. This is because of the fact that too many people are eligible and qualified for a particular job. Japan has an astonishing literacy rate of 99% and a population of 126 million. Both of these contribute to the country’s current condition. In a world of enhanced human beings, everyone would have eidetic memory and equally exceptional logical thinking skills. Everyone would be equally capable of everything. Unfortunately, unless the number of jobs is increased, this would create a very serious problem. Besides unemployment, there would be an equality crisis: employers would find it difficult to choose an employee because everyone would more or less be the same.
Culture today is highly dependent on human emotion. The best pieces of art are arguably born out of sadness. Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote In Memoriam after his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam who died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1833. The Ramayana, one of the greatest Indian epics, was born after Maharishi Valmiki witnessed the sad demise of a bird. Van Gogh is famous because of his depression and the creative expression born out of it. In a world free of pain, sadness, as we know it, would cease to exist and along with it, all the artistic pieces that would have otherwise inspired generations to come. The terms- ‘human’, ‘natural’ and ‘biological’, would no longer have a clear and distinct meaning.
For long, humans have wondered where we have come from and where we are headed. Dan Brown, in his novel Origin, explained how humans will eventually be replaced or more accurately evolve into a half-organic, half-artificial species and that would herald a truly utopian world. In spite of all the possible negative consequences, scientists continue to conduct research in this field with an aim to enhance human beings in the near future. Musk’s Neuralink plans on starting human testing very soon. While some believe that cyborg technology is ethical and tests on humans should be carried out at the earliest, many fear a dystopian future instead of the scientist-envisioned utopian one. There are many concerns surrounding human testing too. While proponents of this debate argue that it is a necessity for the greater good, others feel that ‘consent’ from patients who are crippled or terminally ill are born of desperation and cannot be counted as proper consent.
At every stage of progress, humans are faced with the dilemma of what is right and wrong. And at every step, humans have successfully taken a decision to preserve mankind. But today, we have come a long way, we have done things that would have been unimaginable a century back, and now, all of humanity is faced with a choice to alter the very thing that qualifies us as humans. However, it is up to us, up to our generation to follow a path that would lead us to a future. And that will determine if we are at all capable of making a right choice and living on.
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