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Roger Clarke's 'Cyborgs Today'

Cyborgs Today

Interview of 4 October 2017
For Jay-Anna Mobbs and National Radio News

Roger Clarke **

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J-AM: 1. Can you please just briefly give me a definition of what a cyborg is?

RC: A cyborg is a hybrid, comprising a human and artefacts, i.e. human-made elements. More helpfully perhaps, a cyborg is a human being who has been augmented by one or more technological artefacts that are more or less integrated with the physical person.

The effect of the artefact may be to repair, adapt and/or enhance the person's functions. The word 'prosthesis' is commonly used to refer to an artefact that replaces lost functionality (e.g. an artificial leg) or overcomes defective functionality (a stent that props open an artery). I use the word 'orthosis' to distinguish an artefact that supplements or extends a human's capabilities. There will also be artefacts that impair a human's capabilities, but I'm not aware of a common term for that concept. Yet.

2. Cyborg is not a new term, but are we seeing more cyborgs within society? Why is this?

The term was coined in 1960, to refer to an enhanced human being who could survive on other planets and in space. By 1970, it had been adopted by futurists. For some years, the term was primarily used to promote sci-fi books and films, and in some of the wilder kinds of postmodernist media theory.

During the last decade or so, some good examples of working prostheses and orthoses have become prominent. Notable among them are heart-pacemakers, cochlear implants (which are hearing aids that are integrated with the body), and knee-joints with embedded chips that assist with balance.

Some devices worn on, or external to, the human body - such as 'wearables' and 3D goggles - are also having the effect of augmenting human experiences, capabilities, or ability to interact with devices.

To some extent, implanted chips have also attracted attention - although so far the main selling-point seems to have been that lazy people don't have to find a key to open a door.

3. What are some examples that prove humans are becoming sub-human?

I'm not comfortable with the 'sub-human' tag. As I'll explain, I think we're in dire danger of compromising our humanness. And that would create the risk that the powerful would deny some of us some of our human rights. But it's a bit premature to start talking about 'sub-humans'.

The majority of the people who are working on cyborgisation are motivated to 'improve' people. Most of the examples I referred to earlier would be perceived by most people as 'good things'.

But there are various ways in which harm (and potentially serious harm) might come about. One is where good things go badly wrong. An example of this might be an implanted artefact that, for example, controls particular chemical balances in the body, but which turns out to be badly programmed, or whose settings can be modified by people who lack the competence to do the job properly.

Another problem is the imposition of artefacts on people. This may be as simple as the embedment of tracking functionality in devices each of which is installed in, or at least is very closely associated with, an individual. That particular nightmare has already arrived. Tracking functionality is already being exploited by companies, by governments, and by other individuals, to the detriment of users of mobile-phones and tablets.

Some of us think that the situation is already grim. It becomes worse to the extent that people allow themselves to be attracted, and later forced, to have implants that, for example, periodically measure aspects of the person's body and report anomalies, or perhaps even a continual stream of data, to some organisation.

It will soon be proposed that microchips be injected into sex offenders as a condition of release on parole, so that they can be 'geo-fenced'. This would detect if they go outside their permitted areas, or approach a place they have been prohibited from going. The relevant authority would already know, and could take action, or quite possibly delegate a predetermined action to a device. Dogs can be given an electric shock, so why not deviants?

Of course, once the installation of such devices has been normalised in relation to 'bad people', it will be acceptable to propose that 'good people' be injected as well, probably starting with patients with dementia.

Close surveillance and control of individuals would have been very attractive in the 1960s and 1970s to governments in such places as East Germany and Mao's China. Technologies have developed enormously in the last 50 years. Capabilities now exist whereby powerful organisations can deter individuals from exercising freedom of social, cultural and political expression.

Corporations have become more powerful than governments, and the near-future corporatised State will have the means to ensure that noisy people quieten down.

4. Is it reasonable to assume the more technology advances, the more we become cyborg?

Providers of the kinds of artefacts that we're talking about have expertise in playing on people's weaknesses. They make even very threatening technologies appear convenient, attractive, desirable and even essential.

5. Do you believe this increase in cyborg's/sub-humans are a positive or negative thing? Why is this?

There are positives in most technologies. I've spent 50 years in the IT industry. Like a lot of other people, I've helped develop, improve and apply many different technologies. We didn't do that because we were scared of it, but because we thought it could do a lot of good. And we were right.

Unfortunately, there are also negatives in all technologies. And many of the technologies we're talking about are very powerful, and multi-faceted. And the designers are wilfully ignorant of their negative impacts. And unless the public wakes up and starts thinking about what they're buying and installing in their handhelds, their homes, their cars, and their bodies, humankind is going to have a far less free, open and enjoyable future.

6. Does being sub-human benefit the health of an individual? How so?

Some artefacts are designed to assist with health, and some are already very effective at doing so.

But whether those artefacts will continue to do that and only that, is not guaranteed.

Something as simple as a heart pacemaker can be extended to gather data, and to publish the data, the identity of itself and hence of the person it's implanted in, and the locations that it's been in.

Automated location, tracking and surveillance of behaviour will be very easy 'add-ons' that can be smuggled into artefacts without consent, and used by other parties against the person's interests.

7. Are people pressured into buying things that are meant to improve their health? For example, prescription glasses.

The capabilities of equipment salespeople are way better than that. People don't perceive 'pressure'. They're encouraged instead to perceive convenience, features, fashion and desirability. What was once called 'peer pressure' is now 'the network effect' - the same, but with positive spin.

Associations with 'wellness' are only one of many triggers that are used to con consumers into renting, installing, implanting, and auto-updating.

8. Is there anything you would like to add on this topic or that may relate?

If that quick outline hasn't alarmed people enough to make them think harder about what their technology providers are already doing to them, adding anything more to the discussion won't make any difference.


Clarke R. (1993) 'Asimov's Laws of Robotics: Implications for Information Technology' IEEE Computer 26,12 (December 1993) 53-61 and 27,1 (January 1994) 57-66, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2005a) 'Human-Artefact Hybridisation: Forms and Consequences', Proc. Ars Electronica 2005 Symposium on Hybrid - Living in Paradox, Linz, Austria, 2-3 September 2005, version of May 2005, at

Clarke R. (2005b) 'Human-Artefact Hybridisation and the Digital Persona', Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, May 2005, at

Clarke R. (2005c) 'Hybridity - Elements of a Theory', Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, May 2005, at

Clarke R. (2011) 'Cyborg Rights' IEEE Technology and Society 30, 3 (Fall 2011) 49-57. PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2014) 'Cyborgism and Drones', s.5 of 'What Drones Inherit from Their Ancestors' Computer Law & Security Review 30, 3 (June 2014) 247-262, PrePrint at

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in Cyberspace Law & Policy at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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