Cyborgs, in the modern sense, have existed in fiction since E.V. Odle’s 1923 novel “The Clockwork Man”. The concept took hold of the popular imagination and proliferated across pulps, radio serials, movies, and television. By the 1980s researchers like William Dobelle, creator of the “Dobelle Eye,” had begun laying the groundwork that would bring cyborgs out of the realm of fantasy and into reality. Finally, in 1997, Dr. Philip Kennedy designed and implanted a neurotrophic electrode in the brain of disabled veteran Johnny Ray. The implant allowed Ray to control a computer interface using only his mind, effectively making him the first true human cyborg.
Almost 20 years later the wonder of cyborgs has been replaced by future shock. We’re now at a point where society has to deal head-on with the realities of cybernetic enhancements and the ethical questions they pose. Last fall a children’s toy called “RoboRoach” entered the market. The kit allows you to control a living cockroach via an iPhone app by clipping the insect’s antennae and attaching electrodes to the exposed nerves. The makers of the kit, a company called Backyard Brains, insist that the roaches are not killed in the process and that the kit is a valuable learning tool for children interested in cybernetics. The humane society disagrees.
A more chilling example of possible things to come happened in the Summer of 2012. Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto known as “the father of wearable computing”, was in Paris with his family when they decided to get lunch at a McDonalds. Mann has a surgically implanted augmented reality device covering his right eye. He was approached by three employees who demanded he remove it. Mann explained that the implant is part of his body and supplied documentation from his physician. The employees proceeded to destroy his medical paperwork and attempted to rip Mann’s eyepiece from his skull before pushing him out of the building and into the street.
Is the future going to be a dystopia of anti-cyborg hate crimes contrasted against a slippery slope of ethically ambiguous experimentation? We’re at a turning point where it’s up to us to decide what the next course of human evolution looks like.
To get a glimpse into that future I assembled a group of first generation “citizen-cyborgs” with different types of augmentations and asked them questions about their experiences.
Amal Graafstra is the author of “RFID Toys: Cool Projects for Home, Office, and Entertainment” and the founder of Dangerous Things, a company which distributes human RFID implantation materials. He was also one of the first people to have an RFID chip implanted in his own body and he’s spoken at TEDx about his experiences.
Dekker: When you first started experimenting with RFID implants it was for access key purposes, opening doors with a hand wave, that kind of thing. I’ve seen your TEDx talk and your excitement comes through, but did you have any fears about making the leap and doing the actual implant?
Amal: No, not really actually. The thought just kind of occurred to me that pets have been getting these things for a long time and it wasn’t really an issue because, I mean, there would have been issues with pets and it would come up and it would have been discontinued or updated or whatever. So, I mean, really, the idea of fear around putting something in the body is kind of a strange one because it centers around how you consider the body. Is it a spiritual vessel or not? And we’ve kind of covered that in the Ted Talk.
But really, it’s on how people don’t have any problems considering doing an ear piercing, or if you’re not into ear piercing, doing something like a dental implant, like, I have a dental implant in my upper jaw. Some kind of medical implant, people don’t really get squeamish about that kind of thing. They might be squeamish about the procedure but not the idea or the concept of doing it. It’s very common. People do it.
I think just the novelty of this particular type of device going in the body makes people a little bit squeamish. But no, I had no fear at all.
Dekker: What did your friends and family think about you getting the implant?
Amal: The initial reaction was “What?” It was kind of like “Why did you do this?” and I think they didn’t understand the technology so they didn’t understand why anybody would even bother with it. You know, if somebody puts an earring in or something that looks a certain way people get it because they think it’s aesthetic, but this they didn’t, because they didn’t understand the purpose of it or the function.
They didn’t really identify with why somebody would want to do it. It would be kind of the equivalent to them of “Hey, I put a rock under my skin. I went out into the yard and picked a rock up and I had it surgically implanted,” and it would be like “Why?” So it was kind of the same concept.
So, beyond that, family members that had religious background were concerned about the Mark of the Beast kind of stuff. The Christian background, religion, Book of Revelation talks about Mark of the Beast, and I listened to them, their complaints about it, and politely said “Okay,” but it didn’t really matter to me. Really, it was all about age limit. So anybody younger than 30, 40 or whatever, they thought it was cool. Anybody older than that was like “Oh my God, what are you doing?” I mean, it’s not an exact line, but you know it’s in there. So 20-somethings and below were like “Great, this is cool. What does it do? What can you do?” People over that are like “Oh, better watch out.” So it’s kind of interesting.
Dekker: Both your book and your company are about empowering people to experiment with RFID technology in their bodies. What are the most surprising things you’ve seen done?
Amal: You know, a lot of people ask me about “What are the surprising things people have done?” and I always draw a blank, but I was thinking about this the other day, and this guy, Mikey Sklar, he’s a really creative dude, really, really cool guy. He built this thing he calls The High-Lighter and you can look up “Sklar High-Lighter”, and it’s basically a trampoline with flame throwers, not under it, but next to it, and when you jump on the trampoline and it bends down, there’s a sensor, a proximity sensor, and as it gets closer the flames go higher. So it, like, shoots up flames, an obviously very dangerous device. And so he put authentication on it and he uses the implant to turn it on. So unless he turns it on with his implant, there’s no fire. So that’s a really awesome use, I think, of the technology beyond, like, getting in the house and doing all that kind of common stuff.
Dekker: In popular culture there’s an idea that having a microchip implanted in your body is a very bad thing. As someone who is a kind of spokesperson for human implantation have you ever felt threatened by people who don’t understand the technology?
Amal: Yes. I mean, I have been threatened. I haven’t really felt threatened by it, maybe a couple times I’ve felt threatened, but the very first threat I got was days after, kind of the story broke, in 2005, after I got my first implant in my right hand, or my left hand, rather. I got an email that was just large font, saying “You are the devil’s mouthpiece,” and that was it, and I kind of laughed a little bit.
But yeah, since then I’ve had a few direct death threats, many indirect death threats, indirect being an article comes out, comments below the article akin to “These people should be rounded up and killed,” or whatever. The article’s about me, so I’m assuming they meant me. So anyway, that kind of stuff has happened, and it kind of died down. It hasn’t really cropped up.
I also get a lot of people contacting me thinking that they’ve been implanted against their will and they have implants and they’re hearing voices and, obviously, some mentally ill people out there. I always reply politely and I say “The first thing you need to do if you think you have an implant in you is go get an x-ray. Here’s my x-ray. Here’s what it looks like. It’s very easy to identify. Any radiography place should be able to take an x-ray and see it. So go do that.” And so far nobody’s ever come back with “I found one.” So, kind of interesting.
Dekker: Tell me what the future of human augmentation looks like to you.
Amal: There’s a cyborg anthropologist, Amber Case. I really like her work. So, she talks about ambient intimacy, and the idea that we all have these smartphones in our pockets, we can pull them out at any time, contact any of our friends at a moment’s notice. It gives a sense of ambient intimacy, where if that cell phone is gone you feel lost. You feel disconnected because you don’t have that option anymore. It’s not about communicating with everybody all the time. It’s about having the option… always feeling that person’s close. And so I think in terms of augmentation, eventually it’s going to get to the point where we can just think about a person and be able to have a more intimate connection with them at any time without having to pull out this device and then use this really bad interface. So that’s going to be a very interesting thing.
Alexis Mass Borochoff has had to wear hearing aids since she was a baby. She now has a cochlear implant, a surgically installed hearing device that directly stimulates the auditory nerve system.
Dekker: Tell me about when you decided to get your cochlear implant.
Alexis: I got my first hearing aids at one year old and then I got my cochlear implant at 21 years old. I’m 29 now. As I got older, my hearing was gradually declining to the point where hearing aids were no longer working well enough for me. I became depressed because I didn’t identify with being deaf at the time and was coming to terms with the idea of giving up music and other difficulties with life that comes without hearing. I went to an audiologist who told me I qualified for a cochlear implant. I didn’t when I was a baby because I had “too much hearing” at the time. I opted for the surgery and luckily my insurance approved. I never thought I would be so happy to get my skull cracked.
After my surgery, I had to wait two weeks for the scars to heal before they could activate the implant. When they first turned it on, I almost fell off my chair and had a mild seizure. They turned it off and adjusted it to a “more appropriate level”. The second time they turned it on I didn’t have a seizure. Everyone sounded like Darth Vader because my brain was not able to identify and interpret the sounds naturally yet. I could hear people talking in hallways and I could hear myself breathe… which was disgusting by the way. I prepared myself to hear so many sounds, but it really didn’t hit home to me that everything makes sounds, that I could hear the air vents and vending machines. I had massive headaches for months. I couldn’t wear it for more than 10-20 minutes a day, until over time I could increase my time of wearing my implant until I wore it all day. Now I have no problem wearing them and I don’t even notice the background sounds like breathing or the air vents anymore.
Dekker: Do you consider yourself post-human?
Alexis: I joke around about the implant often referring to myself as a cyborg. Because my implant has a magnet, my friends used to take refrigerator magnets and put them on my head as a joke. I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity, although I wish this procedure came in a pill form. I think at first, after the surgery, I felt more like a prey with a parasite inside of me than a cyborg. Because I wasn’t used to feeling this foreign object on top of my skull. I could feel it latching onto me, as if it was sucking me. That was a difficult feeling to ignore, I kept feeling like I wanted to rip my skin apart and pry it off me. Nowadays I feel it is more of a fancy permanent bluetooth. I wear it throughout the day and take the outside part off at night to charge it overnight. As for post-human, I do believe I am partaking in an evolutionary process toward perfected hearing. I’m an advocate of stem cells research because I believe it can eventually lead to replacing damaged cells in my inner ear. This implant is great, but I still struggle with hearing. I wouldn’t say I am “all the way there yet”.
Dekker: How do people react to your dramatically improved hearing?
Alexis: A lot of people are still very confused about what the cochlear implant actually does and think it means that I’m cured. The implant helps me to hear a lot more than I ever have, but I still depend on lip reading most of the time. I like it when people ask me questions because it shows that they’re interested in knowing more about it than just assuming. Most of my close hearing friends and family forget I’m deaf. The only negative experience I’ve dealt with is from other deaf people who view the implant as a threat to the deaf culture, which I can understand but I don’t view it that way. The way I see it, I have the best of both worlds — I can communicate with both my hearing and deaf friends.
Spencer Kleyweg is a high school student from California who was among the first people in the world to purchase Google Glass, the much-hyped wearable computer, through Google’s invite-only “explorer” program.
Dekker: What made you apply to Google’s Explorer program?
Spencer: I decided to get Google Glass for a couple reasons. First off I am a total tech geek and I love having the newest technology first. It made me feel special that I have a whole new platform of technology before consumers. Secondly, I felt that I could use Glass to help develop apps for this new platform.
Dekker: Glass has already started to attract some interesting reactions. What do people say when you wear it?
Spencer: I get many different reactions from the public when wearing Glass. Every single reaction is positive except for one man who asked if I had a mental condition that forced me to wear Glass. That was the most awkward encounter with Glass. Most of the conversations about Glass go, “What does it do?”, “That is so cool!”, “Can I try it on?”.
Dekker: Has Glass changed the way you think about privacy?
Spencer: At this moment in time Glass has not raised any privacy doubts within me but it has for others around me.
Dekker: Can you elaborate?
Spencer: Some members of my family and a few friends are still skeptical about Glass even after trying it on and showing them every feature. They believe that I am recording them when I am not and they think that I can scan their faces for information. I understand why they raise these privacy concerns because it is a scary technology to many, however I feel that after trying it on they would disregard those concerns.
Dekker: Have you had any experiences that wouldn’t have been possible without glass?
Spencer: I have had many beautiful moments that happened because of Glass. To name a few that would be hands free pictures and video, pictures of things I couldn’t take without Glass, and most of all meeting amazing people. I have made lifelong friends because of Glass and Glass has the most amazing community I have ever seen. Great people from all over America that all share a passion for one piece of technology is singlehandedly the best thing about Glass.
Dekker: What do you see for the future of this kind of technology?
Spencer: I feel like augmented reality in every piece of technology is coming whether we like it or not. I think this technology will hit it’s stride in the next 5-10 years. I believe that society will become even more reliant on technology once we have screens in front of our eyes that tell us our texts and calendar appointments.
Anthony Antonellis is an artist who has been implanted with an NFC (near field communication) chip which he uses as a storage device to transform his body into a living art gallery. Anthony’s procedure was documented by Animal New York and his project has been featured on BBC World Service.
Dekker: I love the idea of using your body as an art gallery. Can you walk me through how the concept evolved?
Anthony: The implant gallery is the successor to Credit Card Curation where I curate my credit card designs as an exhibition space. I have two cards and two new artists are invited to exhibit every 30 days. I also ask that each artist send additional elements to augment the card image when it’s presented online; these have been videos, writings, as well as various forms of net art. Through Credit Card Curation I became interested in forms of micro-curation and the implant curatorial developed off of this concept.
Dekker: I’ve already heard about social stigmas to having a computing device inside of you. What kind of criticism have you experienced?
Anthony: Definitely, there was a pre-existing anti-RFID movement that got ahold of the project early on. It is fueled equally by a subset of fundamentalist Christians, who believe it signifies the mark of the beast, and conspiracy theorists who believe chipping is part of a new world order plot. I was accused of being hired by the government to make chipping seem cool, lots of YouTube videos popped up denouncing me, crazy came in from all over the spectrum. I dealt with it by making a tumblr dedicated to the negative comments.
Dekker: Many people define themselves by the brands they wear and the music they listen to; essentially they’re already living mass storage devices for cultural information. Can you see a time in the near future when the data we keep on implanted devices becomes a major part of how we define ourselves? What might that future look like?
Anthony: I expect some form of popular wearable storage to hit the market, only time will tell which products will eventually become adopted into everyday use. I don’t see subcutaneous implants making inroads; it’ll likely be less invasive forms like epidermal devices or wearable devices that arrive in the near future. With the projected market expansion of wearable technology the phrase “quantified self” will probably make a few word-of-the-year lists in 2014.
Ultimately, there’s something comforting in how ordinary the experiences of people living the extraordinary are. Like all evolution it’s an iterative process, not a sudden radical change. We’ll probably see more Steve Mann-type incidents, but they’ll be far outweighed by the number of people living their lives in a new way. We can’t forget that post-human is still “human” and the devices we use can enrich our lives and bring us closer together. Amal, Alexis, Spencer, and Anthony are just the front of a wave that will eventually move millions, if not billions, of us toward a tomorrow that will be at once familiar and radically strange.