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Roger Clarke **
Version of 9 May 2005
Prepared for an Invited Presentation to the Ars Electronica 2005 Symposium on Hybrid - Living in Paradox, Linz, Austria, 2-3 September 2005
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Considerable progress has been made in integrating man-made components into humans, variously in the mechanical, biological and neurological realms, to the point that the notion of a 'cyborg' no longer appears to be fantasy. Parallel developments have implications for hybridisation, including robotics, so-called 'artificial intelligence', and so-called 'artificial life'. Whether or not some of the speculative extensions to those technologies actually come about, hybridisation presents challenges to 21st century mankind that have potentially dramatic impacts on our conception of the individual, and on society as a whole.
This paper reviews hybridisation between humans and artefacts, and its implications.
"Human beings define themselves in biological, social, and spiritual terms. Biologically, humans are classified as the species Homo sapiens (Latin for 'knowing man'): a bipedal primate ... " (Wikipedia entry). Elsewhere in that entry, the species' conservation status is declared to be "Secure", which means "no immediate threat to the survival of the species", arising from "its own actions (for example because of pollution, or the use of nuclear weapons) or because of a natural disaster". This paper, in considering the impact of rapidly-developing technologies, will throw some doubt on that proposition.
A view that has become conventional since the mid-nineteenth century is that the human species has risen to dominance over all others as a result of superior intelligence, which arose from physical characteristics that enabled the use of tools, which encouraged the development of intelligence, which led to the ability to fashion basic tools, and then more intelligence, and then more sophisticated tools, which then set the species, and the tools, on a spiral which most claim to have been upward. (Douglas Adams' dolphins, and others, dissent from that view).
The term 'tool' refers to a device that provides a mechanical or mental advantage in accomplishing a task. In the analysis to be conducted in this paper, it would be preferable to avoid a term that implies that purposiveness is a necessary characteristic. The term 'machine' is tenable (as in the expression 'man-machine interface'), but a machine generally involves the conversion of energy, which is not central to the issues at hand. The bland word 'artefact' is therefore used in this paper, implying anything arising from human activity, whether purposive or otherwise.
The inter-relationship between humans and artefacts has become closer and more intricate in recent decades. This paper considers whether and when it will be appropriate to consider humans and artefacts tot have given rise to hybrid forms.
The term 'hybrid' originates in biology, but has been generalised to refer to any recognisable entity that is made up of elements drawn from multiple sources. Considerably more is required than mere 'interfacing', 'interaction' or even symbiosis among the disparate elements. To be recognised as a hybrid, a new entity needs to have come into existence that integrates those elements in such a manner as to create significant new potentials. Hence the process of hybridisation may possible involve mere mimicry, but generally requires more substantial adaptation, equivalent to grafting, transplantation, cross-fertilisation or mutation. In addition to the definitional characteristics, hybrids have a number of other characteristics of importance, including functionality, viability and replicability. These questions are further discussed in Clarke (2005a).
In focussing on human-artefact hybridisation, a number of potentially very interesting investigations are left aside, including the integration of one or more artefacts with more than one human, interactions among humans that are mediated by artefacts, and all forms of group-artefact hybridisation, where groups may be associations, corporations and/or government agencies.
The paper commences by reviewing the various forms of currently feasible human-artefact integration, including physical, biological and neurological prosthetics, repairs and enhancements, and the gradual emergence of entities that can reasonably be described as 'cyborgs'. This necessitates consideration also of several categories of artefact technologies, in particular robotics, attempts to complexify computation sufficiently to synthesise intelligence, and experimental work in the creation of artificial life.
A variety of speculative literatures are also taken into account, particularly in science fiction, but also academic, para-psychological and semi-spiritualist writings. Implications of human-artefact hybridisation are considered, and the conclusion drawn that these areas of human endeavour may be a source of considerable turbulence in the coming years.
Much of this paper necessarily deals with ideas that are exciting and/or daunting, depending on the extent to which the reader is wedded to their current conceptions of human-ness. It is therefore appropriate to start the survey with 'the biological we', and examine the extent to which we have come to depend on support technologies.
A prosthesis is an artefact that replaces part of a human body. The earliest form may have been wooden legs (Herr et al. 2003). They were not merely cosmetic, as a glass eye is, because they provided some degree of replacement for the lost function. Artificial limb technologies have reached high levels of sophistication, enabling, for example, above-the-knee amputees to average 30 kph over 100 metres. Spectacles, binoculars and telescopes, and more recently contact lenses, hearing aids and directional microphones, have been appreciated by millions of people. Those kinds of artefacts might reasonably be called 'exo-prostheses'.
Other artefacts have been developed that are external to the human body, but connected with it in some way. Examples of what might be termed 'external prostheses' include renal dialysis machines, iron lungs, and blood circulation machines used during heart surgery.
In addition to prostheses at and beyond the outer edges of the human body, 'endo-prostheses' have been proliferating. Our structural weaknesses are addressed by shoulder reconstructions, hip-joint replacements, knee replacements and stents; the lenses in our eyes can be replaced; and our heart-rate can be adjusted by pacemakers. Hospital patients increasingly expect to be connected to machines by tubes and wires, and not only in Intensive Care Units (ICUs); and are comforted by the attention that machines pay to them, and their apparent reliability compared to human observers.
To complement ICU artefacts, nurses are becoming 'unwired', not in the already dated sense of not being connected, but in the new sense of being connected by wireless means. Devices that detect abnormalities in patients' conditions can draw them to the attention of the few, harried nurses currently on the ward (e.g. by calling them on their mobile phone).
There is evidence that society has taken this accumulation of early examples of hybridisation in its stride: over a generation ago, an outline of prosthetisation called 'The Cyborgs Among Us' was one of the lesser 'future shocks' (Toffler 1970, pp. 193-199).
Not content with merely replacing lost body functions, humankind has developed orthoses that supplement and extend human capabilities. Simple examples of 'exo-orthoses' include walking sticks, cricket bats, golf clubs and snorkels. More substantial artefacts are 'exo-skeletons' such as suits of armour, SCUBA gear and space-suits.
A substantial movement whose existence needs to be acknowledged commonly goes under the name 'body modification'. To date, its adherents have focussed on tattoos, decorative body-piercing and breast implants, and shown little tendency towards adaptations that have instrumentalist purposes, or that otherwise appear likely to significantly alter the human race or society. That might change.
Meanwhile, 'external orthoses' have come into existence in such forms as decompression chambers to recover from nitrogen narcosis. Later sections of this paper investigate the emergence of 'endo-orthoses', involving artefacts designed to augment humans. These represent clear tendencies towards human-artefact hybridisation.
In addition to the physical forms discussed so far, there are possibilities of digital prostheses and orthoses. Some sophisticated instances are discussed in a later sub-section. A simple example, however, is the integration between software agents and their human principals, by means of computer-initiated calls to pagers and mobile phones.
Another example is an 'avatar'. The contemporary use of that term refers to a visual representation of a role in a shared virtual reality, such as an online game or a discussion-space: "the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse" (Stephenson 1992). Many possible applications exist. For example, a person who is seriously disfigured could participate remotely in face-to-face meetings, with a manipulated or substituted image or video projected onto a screen visible to the meeting participants. This could be a way of life, e.g. for a person with a seriously deficient immune system (who needs to minimise contact with people and the bacteria they carry), or a haemophiliac (who needs to minimise the risk of injury and hence limits their movement).
This first sub-section has focussed largely on familiar artefacts, mostly mechanical in nature. The following two sections catalogue deeper interventions into the human body, later at the level of neurology, but first of biology.
There have been untold numbers of attempts to influence natural biological reproduction. A longstanding technique has been repetitive, controlled acts of natural sexual and asexual reproduction followed by selection of instances and inter-breeding among them. This has been complemented by the encouragement of mutations through chemical or radiation treatment.
Society applauds the application of these practices to wheat, peas and flowers, although propertisation of the resulting life-forms is much more contentious. Society is also very accepting of their use on animals, particularly pets and livestock. For example, labradoodles are being bred in Australia as 'seeing-eye dogs', in order to achieve the steadiness of the labrador, the non-shedding coat of the poodle, and the intelligence of both.
Controlled breeding of humans in such a manner as to achieve some objective (typically to favour or disfavour some feature or cluster of features) is referred to as eugenics. It has been nominally taboo since the experiments of Germany and Japan in the second quarter of the previous century. But eugenics is actually quite widely applied, particularly through the screening of babies in the womb for 'defects', e.g. Alpha-FetoProtein (AFP) screening , and the use of the information in decisions about termination. It also being actively used in in vitro fertilisation (IVF) programs, under the title Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD).
Historically, eugenics has involved social, political and medical processes rather than the deeper-nested levels of biology. During recent decades, however, increased understanding of molecular biology has enabled experiments to be undertaken in gene therapy, whereby 'defective' genes are 'corrected'. A common approach is to use viruses that have been manufactured or engineered in order to achieve the desired effect. It may also be feasible to apply gene cloning. Early work focussed on disorders believed to be associated with a single gene, such as cystic fibrosis.
Intervention in the genetics of an individual requires a measure of arrogance. (Based on what criteria is the current state judged to be 'defective' and the intended future state 'corrected'? The conventional concept of 'dis-abled' is challenged by some, who prefer the much less pejorative 'diff-abled', or at least the gentler German term 'Behinderte'). The initiative has to date delivered relatively little. But it may well lead somewhere, or perhaps in many directions. If it does make progress, genetic treatments will inevitably lead to a broader notion of 'genetic intervention', whereby the genetic structures of existing cells will be adapted, whether or not the current state is 'defective'. The aging rich are in a position to influence the agenda, and priority is likely to be given to improving resistance to internal and external threats of structural breakdown and disease in the elderly.
A further prospect is genetic engineering, with the purpose of introducing new characteristics to a biological entity. This results in what is referred to as a transgenic organism. Although the techniques have to date been applied primarily to plants and animals, there are doubtless already many scientists and investors who are sorely tempted to extend it to humans.
In all of these cases, the interventions are most commonly restricted to the individual. If, however, the manipulations are to 'germline' cells, then the prospect exists of the manipulated genes being passed to the person's progeny through natural reproductive processes.
A further possibility is the emergence of nanotechnology, a term coined to refer to very small-scale engineering. Although nanotechnology's origins are associated with Feynman (1960), it was anticipated in science fiction, in the form of an 'autofac' (Dick 1955). To date it is largely speculative, but large sums of money are being pumped into it in the expectation that it may prove feasible, and some progress appears to be being made in materials sciences.
A sub-branch of the field that has considerable potential relevance to biological repairs is molecular nanotechnology. At this stage it is purely speculative, but it has been heavily 'hyped', thanks to the works of Drexler (in particular, 1986) and the credulous journalism they have spawned. If progress were made in this area, it would appear likely that organic molecules would be attractive to researchers, and some relationship between genetics and molecular nanotechnology would be the likely result.
The next sub-section considers one particular division of biology that is particularly critical - the means whereby organisms detect, process and respond to information.
Natural systems are subject to entropy, which is the tendency toward decay and disorder. Malfunctions within an entity need to be detected, and action taken. In addition, the entity must interact with the rest of existence. Both of these crucial functions are dependent upon means of detecting states, and taking action to influence them. In military contexts, the compound function 'command, control, communications and intelligence' is commonly referred to as 'C3I'. This expression usefully summarises the key functions (although 'intelligence' needs to be understood in its restricted sense of 'information').
In biological organisms, these functions are performed by the neurological system. Artefacts need mechanisms to perform these functions. General systems theory suggests that the military notion of C3I is more usefully re-cast as IC3 - information, communications, control and command. Information about the organism or its environment is generated in detectors or sensors. The information is communicated as afferent signals to components that have the capacity to process them. Efferent signals are generated, and passed in the other direction, carrying instructions for actions to be taken by effectors or (in the terms used in robotics) actuators.
The control of complex organisms demands requisitely complex mechanisms (Ashby 1956), featuring both sympathetic (positive feedback) and parasympathetic (negative feedback, or damping) capabilities, to achieve dynamic equilibrium or homeostasis.
The scale of natural neurological systems is immense, and technologies to adapt and repair them in situ are in their infancy. There are, however, active attempts to mimic them in silicon, and to augment them. One approach is to extend human capabilities by overlaying them with purpose-designed artefacts. A well-established example is Steve Mann's extensions of human vision across space - through the transmission of images from and to an individual's headset; and across time - through video archival and recall (Mann 1997, 2001).
An even more ambitious undertaking is the integration of the human neurological system with external detectors and effectors. The concept of a digital prosthesis was introduced earlier. An example of such digital endo-prostheses would combine a sensor that detects light within the human-visible spectrum, with means of feeding a signal to a blind person's body in such a way as to convey the information-content of the signal.
A similar approach to sound within the normal human range, detected and communicated for a deaf person, was once speculative; but no longer. The technology of bionic earpieces is well-established. Work on retinal implants may be bearing fruit. Research has been conducted into linking artifical limbs with the individual's nervous system. All of these generally require mediation between digital silicon technology and wet-carbon chemistry. The term 'biomechatronics' has been coined to describe this field. See Herr et al. (2003) and Lok (2005).
Although the primary focus of neurosurgical research has been on the repair of existing bodily functions, some people are seeking to use hybridisation with artefacts to extend human capabilities. For example, Kevin Warwick has inserted silicon chips into his body. In his initial experiments, he was merely a rather large, wet, passive RFID tag, whose presence could be recognised by the building's door-security system. He has subsequently connected the implanted chip to a major nerve in the upper arm, initially only to monitor neurological traffic, but with the intention of learning how to intervene, by manipulating both afferent and efferent signals (Warwick 2000, 2002).
There is no inherent reason why light-detection cannot be extended to the infra-red and ultra-violet bands, and sound-detection extended beyond the human auditory range. Artefacts that feed signals directly to the person's body to convey the information-content of such measurements would be properly described as digital endo-orthoses.
In parallel with science and engineering, performance art has been operating in much the same space, particularly through the work of Stelarc. His 'amplified body' is "a choreography of controlled, constrained and involuntary motions of internal rhythms and external gestures ... an interplay between physiological control and electronic modulation, of human functions and machine enhancement" (Stelarc 1990-). Clark (2003b) reports that "Stelarc ... has sometimes performed with a third hand attached, the third arm attached to his biological arm and in order to move that what he has to do is to give commands to his abdominal muscles because you know they're the muscles that are then wired up to control the electronic arm. But he says that now it doesn't feel like giving a command to his abdominal muscles. It just feels like telling the electronic hand to move".
The previous sub-sections have reviewed a number of threads. The question arises as to whether they are largely independent, or whether some or all of them will be drawn together into something even more substantial.
In popular parlance, a human into whom mechanical and/or electronic parts have been integrated is referred to as a 'cyborg', a contraction of 'cybernetic organism'. The origin of the term is commonly attributed to New York research scientists Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in 1960, who used it to refer to an enhanced human being who could survive in extraterrestrial environments (Clynes & Kline 1960).
The term 'cybernetics' was coined by Norbert Wiener in 1948, to refer to the emergent phenomenon of process control through feedback and response in natural organisms, and in mechanical and electrical systems (Wiener 1948, 1949). He derived it from the Greek word for 'steersman'. It is closely associated with General Systems Theory, which emerged around the same time, and sought to abstract, primarily from biological systems, general principles that are applicable to systems of all kinds (e.g. von Bertalanffy 1968). The ideas have subsequently been applied to social and economic systems, with varying degrees of success (e.g. Forrester 1961, Beer 1962, 1975).
In fictional literatures and films, the term 'cybernetics' quickly came to be associated with soulless machines, or perhaps beings, comprising at least computers, perhaps humans, but usually also robotic components capable of operating on their environment. The pretended integration of such artefacts into biological forms produces a hybrid more chilling to audiences than either a mere human, or a mere machine, because it can be conceived so as to consolidate the strengths of each, to avoid the weaknesses of each, and at the same time to behave in ways that both challenge and confuse human ethics.
These ideas had been anticipated: "humans involved in colonizing space should take control of their evolutionary destiny through genetic engineering, prosthetic surgery, and hard-wired electric interfaces between humans and machines that would allow them to attach a new sense organ or ... a new mechanism ..." (Bernal 1929, p. 26, quoted in Gray 1999).
The cyborg notion has spawned various threads in the philosophy and postmodernist humanities literatures (e.g. Clark 2003a). At least in part because it has been hijacked from its technological origins, the term appears to be little-used to date within the instrumentalist disciplines. The emergent architectures and techniques listed earlier in this section currently lack a unifying term, and 'cyborg' may emerge as that nucleus. (The term 'robot' was also originally stigmatised, but was nevertheless adopted by technologists).
This section has focussed on human-artefact hybridisation which produces individual entities, each merely a single instance. The question arises as to how multiple instances would be produced, in order to result in a new category of entity (or, in biological terms, a race or species).
Multiple prosthesetised humans can only arise through repetition of the original process using a new artefact-human pair, or possibly an improved process, or an alternative process that is superior in some manner (such as success rate, reliability or costs). Biological repairs and enhancements can be achieved by repetition as well, but other alternatives exist. Natural reproduction may be feasible, and can be assisted. Moreover, biological and genetic technologies such as cloning may be developed.
This section has reviewed various threads of work on the augmentation of humans with artefacts. Additional insights are available from artefact engineering, and the following sections accordingly consider robotics, the problematic field of 'artificial intelligence', and the challenging concept of 'artificial life'.
The design of prosthetics, and of biological and neurological interventions and augmentations, naturally reflects the capabilities of nearby sciences and technologies. Some of these, such as the materials sciences, are important, but not so important as to demand close attention in an article of this nature. Several do, however. This section considers in turn robotics, 'artificial intelligence' and 'artificial life'.
Various categories of artefact are capable of purposive action in, and on, the real world. The most commonly used term for such devices, 'robot', was coined by Czech playwright Karel Çapek in 1918 in a short story, and used again in his 1921 play 'R.U.R.'. The play was translated into English and other languages, and quickly became well-known worldwide. The word is drawn from the Czech word 'robota', meaning forced work or compulsory service, or 'robotnik', meaning serf. The term 'robotics' was coined by Isaac Asimov in 1942, again in support of fiction (Clarke R. 1993-94).
Literatures since then have drawn on two longstanding traditions:
Robots were conceived, in works of fiction, as artefacts threatening to humankind. But, from 1942 onwards, Isaac Asimov portrayed them as engineered devices, subject to the (fictional) Laws of Robotics. This spawned technologies and an industry - albeit one that to date has provided more promises than successes.
As currently defined, a robot is either a machine that has been computer-enhanced, or a computer with sophisticated input/output devices capable of taking physical actions. In either conception, a robot exhibits two fundamental features:
These give rise to flexibility, in that it can operate using a range of programs and manipulate its environment in a variety of ways.
Asimov's fiction predicted that people would be largely accepting of carefully-designed robots, and could even warm to them. The tamagotchi phenomenon of the mid-to-late 1990s confirmed that human affection could be invested in even the most un-humanlike of digital pets - a key-ring attachment with a very low resolution black-and-white display.
Both robotics engineering and most fictional literature have followed Asimov in applying combinations of mechanical and electronic technologies. On the other hand, Çapek's original fictional 'robots', although artefacts, were organic; and Arthur C. Clarke's fiction also features biological robots or 'biots' (e.g. Clarke A.C. 1973 pp. 196-199, 202, although the term appears to have been separately coined by Conrad in 1983).
Biological elements may offer advantages to future robotics engineers, not least because, at least at this stage, the majority of humans long outlast the majority of machines, especially when adaptation is necessary to new environments. There are also particular features of living species that attract engineers' attention (e.g. rhinoceros hide, and the means whereby spiders produce webs and worms produce silk). The advances in bio-engineering during the last decades make it very likely that attempts will be made to fashion biological artefacts, and to blend biological with mechanical and electronic components into multi-hybridised artefacts.
There has been considerable progress in simple forms of robotics, such as specific-purpose mechanical arms and welders in car-factories, which require only a moderate amount of spatial sense, and adaptability to a narrow range of environmental variations. The higher aspirations of robotics, on the other hand, have not been achieved, and mobile robotics continues to be primarily a research domain and perennial media opportunity, rather than an industry. There remain many basic tests that cannot be satisfactorily passed, such as hand-eye coordination, navigation in complex and changing environments, learning, and the most rudimentary 'common sense'.
This may change. For example, a futurologist argued some time ago that substantial progress could be expected in sensors during the first decade of the current century, coining the term 'smartifacts' for artefacts that combine effectors with sufficient sensory and processing capability to interact with their environment (Saffo 1997).
A further technology that may influence human-artefact hybridisation is the endeavour to use computers to produce intelligence.
In its original context, that of human behaviour, intelligence is "the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas and language, and learn" (Wikipedia entry). During the second half of the twentieth century, a movement called 'artificial intelligence' (AI) endeavoured to create artefacts that exhibit intelligence. It applied silicon-based, digital technologies and von Neumann processor architectures, although in more recent years use has been made of extended multi-processor architectures featuring both local and shared memory, and of simulated processor arrays usually referred to as 'neural networks'.
Presumptions underpinning AI appear to have been that:
The movement generated useful byproducts, such as a brute-force computational approach to chess-playing very different from that used by humans, which now outplays the (human) world champion. But AI has ground to a halt, because it delivered very little of what it promised. It was in any case based on the assumption that "intelligence can be disembodied and then automated" (Angell 1993. See also Dreyfus 1992). The AI movement evidenced a strong orientation towards reductionism, including the presumptions that:
The more reasonable conclusions from the premises appear to be that:
I argued in Clarke (1989) that there was a need to "deflect the focus away from the somewhat unnecessary notion of 'artificial intelligence', toward the concepts of 'complementary intelligence' and 'silicon workmates'. We will be commercially (and probably also philosophically) better served by conceiving our machines to complement human strengths and weaknesses, rather than to compete with them".
Again, in Clarke (1993-94), I reasoned: "Because robot and human capabilities differ, for the foreseeable future at least, each will have specific comparative advantages. Information technologists must delineate the relationship between robots and people by applying the concept of decision structuredness to blend computer-based and human elements advantageously. The goal should be to achieve complementary intelligence rather than to continue pursuing the chimera of unneeded artificial intelligence. As Wyndham put it: "Surely man and machine are natural complements: They assist one another." (Wyndham 1932)". But no research domain of 'complementary intelligence' appears to have emerged as yet.
A jumble of movements that are currently jostling for attention have been collectively referred to as 'biologically-inspired computing'. This is still reductionist in tone, but applies developmental and evolutionary logic rather than deterministic formulae. A particular form of it is considered in more detail in the following section.
The efforts to engineer something comparable to intelligence have been paralleled by proposals for models of the mind, based on the insights of the computational sciences. One important example is Minsky's 'society of mind' theory, which posits that mind comprises a diverse set of mechanims, which he referred to as agents (Minsky 1986. See also Singh 2003). Progress in that body of theory might at some stage fold back into the theory and practice of complementary intelligence, into robot design, and into human-artefact hybridisation.
A further development may have implications for the trajectory of human-artefact hybridisation. The concept of 'artificial life' involves models of key aspects of biology and especially ecology. The primary purpose is most commonly to enable simulation of real-world systems, in order to learn about them, and conduct experiments on a small scale, inexpensively, and without damaging the real world; but there is a considerable element of entertainment and enjoyment in the movement. See Levy (1992).
But 'artificial life' might come to have more substantial impacts than that. Research in such areas as aerodynamics, nuclear energy, physical chemistry and meteorology has become predominantly digital, and only secondarily genuinely empirical. There has been evidence of increasing confusion in the language used by people writing in these areas, as platonic idealism holds sway, the digital model comes to be perceived as the real 'real world', and the physical world is admonished for its intractability - as indeed it was in Forster (1909).
This has led to speculation among sci-fi authors of a cross-over from the digital to the analogue world. Greg Egan's 'Permutation City' (1994) envisages the 'autoverse', in which virtual chemistry is used to model the synthesis of organic molecules, and then to produce an 'autobacterium', whose self-replication is sufficiently diverse that it provides a virtual demonstration of post-Darwinian evolution.
Generally, research in this area uses and develops algorithms that endeavour to reflect the behaviour of successful biological life. But in the Tierra model (in which digital entities compete for computational resources) the life-like behaviour emerges from the digital world's architecture, rather than through the exercise of expressly designed algorithms. Moreover, "the [artificial life] researcher does not view the computer as a tool for modeling organic life. Rather the computer is seen as an environment that can be inhabited by non-carbon based life" (Ray 1996); and "Artificial Life (AL) extends the field of biology by allowing us to study living forms other than those occurring naturally on Earth" (Ray 2001).
Uncomfortable as it is to the conventions of most people, and of many disciplines, the possibility needs to be acknowledged that a convincing correlate of carbon-based life and ecology might at some stage be synthesised in silicon form.
The preceding sections have drawn primarily on actual instances and formal research. Inevitably, entrepreneurs have 'hyped' their (future) products, and scientists and engineers have gone beyond their data; but, to the extent practicable, the text above has been kept free of pure guesswork and wishful thinking.
On the other hand, to avoid fictional and speculative literatures would risk missing premonitions about the disjunctions and discontinuities that will inevitably arise in these areas. This section identifies ideas that, although less well founded in contemporary scientific knowledge and engineering feasibility, may have some prospect of realisation, someday.
In the world of human-artefact hybridisation, there is no need for the new entity to be constrained to the same limited set of sensors and effectors that humans possess. As noted in the comments on digital endo-prostheses, sight and hearing can extend beyond the limited visible and audible spectra, into the infra-red and the ultra-violet, and to higher and lower pitched sounds.
But there may be possibilities beyond mere enhancements to existing capabilities. Additional, known physical properties could be harnessed, such as magnetic and electrical fields, and gravity, including the gentle variations caused by the moon's passage around the earth. Some animals may already be sensitive to some of them (Watson 1973).
The field of parapsychology deals with human perception and action that are unexplained by conventional science. The primary example of a possible additional sensory power is telepathy - human communication over distance. Possible additional effector capabilities include telekinesis - the ability to move objects from distance. Although deprecated by most scientists, there is evidence of these phenomena that contemporary science is far from explaining (e.g. Koestler 1972).
There could be considerable scope for hybridisation-enabled capabilities in areas such as artificial telepathy. Kevin Warwick has been reported as having exchanged with his wife signals emanating from their nervous systems (e.g. Stonehouse 2003). If the signals that are exchanged are instead the alpha and beta waves measured by an electroencephalogram, life-partners could apply existing game-playing techniques to test whether they really are soulmates.
The last quarter-century's sci-fi was particularly fertile. John Brunner's 'The Shockwave Rider' (1974) conceived of a digital persona being dependent on the net, and this at a time when the pre-Internet ARPAnet had only a few dozen nodes, and TCP/IP was still a decade away.
McLuhan (1964) had floated the notion of the central nervous system being extruded to the global telecommunications network. Later, Vernor Vinge had the advantage of a clearer idea of the nature of the emergent Internet, and in 'True Names', he launched the tradition of humans directly connecting to it: "He powered up his processors, settled back in his favorite chair, and carefully attached the Portal's five sucker electrodes to his scalp. ... And just as a daydreamer forgets his actual surroundings, and sees other realities, so Pollack drifted, detached, his subconscious interpreting the status of the West Coast communications and data services as a vague thicket for his conscious mind to inspect and interrogate for the safest path" (Vinge 1981).
Bruce Sterling's 'The Artificial Kid' (1980) drew in the theme of biological adaptation, and the scene was set for William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' (1984) which, together with Sterling's edited collection 'Mirrorshades' (1986), is widely regarded as the definitive work of the 'cyberpunk' genre. Neuromancer consolidates many ideas, not least 'jacking into the net', being at-one with the data, projecting oneself through another entity, and an extension of the digital persona called a 'construct', referred to in a later story as a 'recorded personality'. Gibson's rendition of 'jacking into cyberspace' is generally regarded as authoritative: Case's deck "projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination known as the matrix ... a consensual hallucination experienced by millions ... a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system ... lines of light ranged in the nonspace of mind, clusters and constellations of data" (pp. 12, 67).
Cyberpunk stories are mostly apocalyptic. Technologists working on various aspects of human-artefact hybridisation are likely to feel closer affinity to the 'postcyberpunk' genre, which is much more accepting of what are perceived as inevitable impacts of technology on humanity, and whose "viewpoint is not outside the fishbowl looking in, but inside the fishbowl looking around" (Person 1999). Sterling's 'Islands in the Net' (1988) and Stephenson's 'The Diamond Age' (1995) don't quite represent a return to the almost bucolic 'engineered robots' vision of Asimov's fiction from 1942 to 1992; but they lie between that and the confrontations and discomforts of cyberpunk. There may also be sources of inspiration, or perhaps merely entertainment, in an emergent 'biopunk' genre (Newitz 2001).
Other threads in the sci-fi literature envisage human contact becoming entirely technology-mediated. The idea can be traced to at least Forster (1909), where people never touched one another. They were buffered from the world as well, and if they ventured out, they risked being "seized with the terrors of direct experience". In the 1960s, a novel by Arthur C. Clarke (no relation) depicts people living vast distances from one another. Procreation no longer depends on copulation, and teledildonics has been perfected. Given the risk that bacterial and viral contamination will shorten one's centuries life-span, physical contact is not only unnecessary, but also inadvisable.
Devotees of the Walkman, the Internet, mobile-phones, SMS'ing and iPods - phenomena that emerged only in the 1990s - appear to the observer to be detached from their immediate surroundings, intricately entwined with the device and the virtual world it affords, and at least as comfortable with virtual human contact as with physical. This could be interpreted as evidence of progress towards the vision of Forster and Arthur C. Clarke.
Various propositions by 'futurists' and visionaries are difficult to distinguish from sci-fi, involve wild extrapolations or leaps of faith or both, or bear the hallmarks of wishful thinking. But it may prove better to appreciate some of these ideas than to entirely ignore them.
In sci-fi, it is mainstream for future societies not only to feature robots, but to comprise largely robots, and even to comprise only robots, with humans having successively become obsolete, bequeathed their legacy to robots, and become extinct. These speculations have not been limited to sci-fi authors and the sci-fi literature, however. See, for example, Moravec (1988, 1991 and 1998) and Minsky (1994). Moravec's prognostications are particularly confidently expressed, with the point of human obsolescence only three to five decades from now.
A movement exists that focusses on the hypothetical posthuman, who (or perhaps which) would transcend the limitations of current humans. Technology is vaguely assumed to provide the means whereby the state could be achieved, but the movement is short on specifics, such as whether posthumans are robots or the result of human-artefact hybridisation.
A transhuman (transitional or transitory human) is posited as an intermediate form, en route towards posthumanity. The notion is attributed to Esfandiary aka FM-2030 (1989). Bostrom (2002-05)'s FAQ for the Transhumanist Society claims that biotechnology, genetic engineering, stem cells, and cloning technologies have the potential to enable humans to overcome key limitations. This is enlarged upon by Sanders (2000).
One proto-technology is 'mind uploading', whereby the contents and/or processes of an individual human's mind would be able to be transferred into a differently but complementarily architected artificial brain, presumably silicon, but possibly organic (Strout 2002). The origins of the uploading notion are difficult to trace. Several sources suggest that it was first enunciated in the novel 'Lord of Light' (Zalazny 1968). But McCaffrey's 'The Ship Who Sang' (1961, 1969) anticipates it, with a woman's brain separated from her severely disabled body, and used as the controller of a space-ship. McCaffrey's idea was originally published before the purely electronic HAL of Clarke & Kubrick's '2001', which appeared only in 1968.
In Bear's 'Eon' (1985), digital personae have become so comprehensive that they are routinely detached from individuals: disembodied 'partials' are created to perform specific tasks on their owners' behalf, and 'ghosts' of biologically dead people are rejuvenated from the city databank. The idea was further developed in Greg Egan's sci-fi novel 'Permutation City' (1994), where (rich) individuals self-perpetuate themselves through 'copies'. Moravec (1998, pp. 109-110) envisaged a procedure to achieve uploading. In 'Kil'n People' (Brin 2002), humans upload to disposable clay 'dittos'. Unlike previous conceptions, Brin's dittos have little power and no rights. Their role is to perform menial or dangerous functions on the human's behalf. The experiences of a ditto can be backloaded (if it was sent to gather data, or of something interesting happens to it). The inter-weaving between genres is either thrilling or chilling, depending on your point of view.
At the extremity, impious hopes have combined with impish humour, in the notion of a 'singularity'. This would be a point at which the rate of technology-induced progress is so rapid that dramatic transformation will occur, marking a major discontinuity in existence (Vinge 1981, 1993. See also Broderick 1997). It might be thought of as a digital equivalent of rapture. It had been anticipated in an ultra-short sci-fi story, published little more than a decade after the first electronic computer became operational, and before they were capable of inter-communication. In Brown (1954), scientists connect "all of the monster computing machines of all the populated planets in the universe", and ask the question "Is there a God?". The response is given "Yes, now there is a God". In Asimov's later robotics fiction, humankind has become largely irrelevant, and discussions about God take place between robots.
There has been a longstanding tendency to imagine hybridised human-artefact entities, whether human-based cyborg or machine-based robot, as existing within a single housing.
There is no reason why this need be the case, and there are many reasons why hybridisation will avoid the limitations and inherent risks of locating all capabilities and information in a single place: "With the merging of computers, telecommunications networks, robotics, and distributed systems software, and the multiorganizational application of the hybrid technology, the distinction between computers and robots may become increasingly arbitrary. In some cases it would be more convenient to conceive of a principal intelligence with dispersed sensors and effectors, each with subsidiary intelligence (a robotics-enhanced computer system). In others, it would be more realistic to think in terms of multiple devices, each with appropriate sensory, processing, and motor capabilities, all subjected to some form of coordination (an integrated multi-robot system)" (Clarke R. 1993-94). Minsky's 'society of mind' concept, referred to above, parallels the multi-entity robot notion with a multi-agent intelligence.
This survey of human-artefact hybridisation has encompassed a great many threads, whose inter-twining during the coming years creates an enormous range of potential futures. Drawing conclusions in such circumstances is fraught with danger, but an attempt needs to be made.
The march of the tools continues, in three broad dimensions:
There are therefore real prospects that, at some point in time, the conditions will have been satisfied for a hybridised cyborg to be recognised. Given that considerable progress has already been made, this may come sooner rather than later. The following sub-sections consider firstly possible impacts at the level of the individual human, and then the potential implications for society as a whole.
Cyborgisation is likely to have substantial impacts on way in which individuals regard themselves and one another. Most individuals have an ego-centric world view, and this will be enhanced to the extent that the individual uses artefacts as capability-enhancing orthoses; but also shaken to the extent that other individuals attain greater apparent power.
It seems unlikely that the first cyborgs will cede any of their 'human' rights. They, and their sponsors, would seem more likely to seek additional rights, by virtue of their evident superiority. But it is far from certain that the advantages of hybridisation will be equally available to all. The rich are one likely category of 'early movers'. Given the need for substantial research and development funding, the strong prospect exists that the first cyborgs will be enhanced in such a way as to serve interests in the areas of security or defence (or more likely defense). Hence the 'additional rights' gained by the first hybrids appear likely to relate to violence against adversaries, the assets of adversaries, and prisoners.
Another area of impact on individuals is in relation to the digital persona (Clarke 1994). A projected digital persona is an image of one's self that an individual conveys to others by means of data. Existing opportunities in such forms as email-addresses and personal web-sites are being supplemented by entries in so-called 'social networking services', and reputation gained in electronic fora. Role-playing games and avatars offer greater scope, particularly as agents become capable of action in the real world on behalf of their principals. Body modification is likely to be intricately involved to such developments.
Meanwhile, external agents are increasingly able to impose a digital persona on an individual, in order to make judgements about them, and take action affecting them. Click-trails, cookies and spyware are current tools used by marketers. Hybridisation raises the prospect that artefacts inserted into people may either provide government agencies and corporations with the ability to monitor or interfere with the individual's behaviour, or may even be inserted at such organisations' behest.
Human-artefact hybridisation has the capacity to empower individuals; but it appears more likely to be under the control of the powerful from the outset. Further discussion of the application of hybridisation to projected and imposed digital personae is in Clarke (2005b).
Starting from the beginning of the 21st century, a range of scenarios can be developed. The first two are 'low road' or conservative possibilities:
There may be further prosthetisation of humans, or some delivery on the promises of genetic engineering, or advances in at least the sensor and effector aspects of robotics, and perhaps mobility. A less likely eventuality is some kind of breakthrough in the fifty-year log-jam that has been AI, which would be more feasible if it redefined itself and sought instead something achievable and useful.
Some years ago, I drew attention to a whole flotilla of challenges that arise from just one of those threads, robotics (Clarke 1993-94). Each of the other threads require comparable examination. It appears likely that many of them would give rise to challenges far more threatening, but also far more subtle, than those arising from robotics.
In the second scenario, the one or two threads that develop could use the conventional path adopted by proponents of threatening new technologies in the past. Trojan horses can entrench the technology in largely unseen applications, so that it can later be argued that implementation of the technology is a fait accompli, and already has public acceptance. Alternatively, or in parallel, initial applications can be 'loss leaders'. The ideal application utilises ideas in good standing (such as health or children, especially starving children in developing countries), and offers to deliver them unarguably 'good things'. Opposition to the technology is quelled, because of the opponents' fear of being depicted as churlish, unworthy and paranoid.
These techniques may be less effective than with previous campaigns to smooth the path for technological innovations. The developments embody threats to humans' self-conception, and they are moving very quickly. People haven't yet assimilated the lessons of the last 50 years of change, and already they need to face up to the possibility of much more substantial revolutions.
The second pair of scenarios present the 'high road', up-beat possibilities:
In distinguishing the cyberpunk genre from its sci-fi predecessors, Person (1999) said "The future isn't 'just one damn thing after another', it's every damn thing all at the same time". That's the essence of the multi-thread / cross-fertilised scenario for human-artefact hybridisation, because it features uncontrollable fermentation in a multi-dimensional witches' brew.
The compounding of the threads leads to moral challenges that approach the imponderable. Seen from the political perspective, multiple threads running at once, and interleaving, create a much higher chance of a coalition among opponents of the various threads. Within the organic domain, many people resist the incursions of technologists, and reject the application of mechanistic notions and techniques such as design, specification, architecture and patentability. In the computational domain, resistance is engendered in quite different groups each time reductionists revert to the idea that human intelligence is replicable in digital form. Advanced forms of prosthetisation and intelligent robotics are likely to stimulate shared nightmares.
These changes are very likely to catch humanity unprepared for the onslaught against cherished values. Even quite simple developments in hybridisation techniques could have massive consequences for human society - let alone the substantial prosthetisation of humans, or their obsolescence through advances in materials, instrumental reasoning and meta-design technologies. These threads are confronting to all of our conceptions of human-ness: the uniqueness of the human intellect, and the sanctity of life (carbon-based life that is, usually only human, and often only of one's own race or ethnic group).
The more dynamic scenarios move very quickly. They offer a wide variety of outcomes that are readily argued to be beneficial. They also lead to an apocalyptic sub-path. In almost all of the novels in the dystopia genre, advanced technology was at least a major part of the problem, and often the culprit. The thread runs from Butler's Erewhon in 1872 (in which the fear is expressed that machines could rapidly evolve and take over the world), via Forster's Machine in 1909 (in which they already had), Zamyatin's listening membranes in 1922, and Huxley's biotechnology in 1932, to Orwell's telescreens in 1948. See Clarke (1993).
Far fewer novelists have envisaged future societies in which there were no advanced technologies, and complex artefacts were instead objects of archaeological interest. 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' (Miller 1959), however, was based on the premise of a nuclear holocaust followed by a backlash against technology ('the simplification'). The world was largely rid of technology, which set civilisation back many centuries - or not, depending on your point of view.
It is very difficult to find descriptions of future societies that have thrown off the presumption that there is a technological imperative, and followed an alternative path. Yet Europe experienced a 'Dark Ages', with close to two millennia separating the heliocentric cosmologies of Aristarchus in Ancient Greece in c. 250BC/BCE, and of Copernicus early in the sixteenth century. That huge gap in the accretion of knowledge arose in a context of ongoing political instability, and intellectual life dominated by a highly conservative institution.
In the context of human-artefact hybridisation, anti-technology dystopian scenarios are tenable. For example: Fundamentalist Christianity becomes as widespread and at least as violent in its scripture-driven Luddite behaviour as fundamentalist Islam. The practitioners of biological and genetic engineering find themselves rejected by societies for whom these forms of 'progress' are seriously unattractive. So too do the theorists behind them, and the philosophers, media commentators and pundits that applaud the new directions. The stochastic computationalists and artificial-life devotees suffer the same fate. The irresistible force of the technological imperative comes up against the immovable object of individual and social conservatism.
There will be many re-readings of Mary Shelley's 'Prometheus', both fear-ridden and constructive, in an endeavour to cope with the commercial and legal fallout, and the social and moral implications. Whichever path human-artefact hybridisation takes, we are assured of interesting times.
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Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, Visiting Professor in the Baker & McKenzie Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.
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