Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Cyborgs and Atomic Microscopes

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Cyborgs and Atomic Microscopes

Article excerpt

Much discussion is currently taking place about the ethics of intentionally modifying the human species. Fifty years ago, this same discussion was taking place, but it was not about intentional modification of DNA (the structure of which had just been discovered by Crick, Franklin, Watson, and Wilkins to be the basis of life); instead, it was about creating a hybrid of man and machine--that is, a cyborg.

The word "cyborg," shorthand for Cybernetic Organism, was introduced by Manfred Clynes in 1960. Nowadays we seldom hear the word, and we are even less likely to hear about cybernetics, although advances in nanotechnology may someday make cyborg a household word. Cybernetics as a field of study has been eclipsed by "Artificial Intelligence," a field of computer science enabled by the evolution of powerful digital computers. The study of artificial neural networks is essentially all that is left of cybernetics. Most of those studies now conform to an artificial-intelligence paradigm, in which intelligence is considered to be a quality that can be stored, rather than the cybernetic definition that considers intelligence to be an interaction.

The word "cybernetics," from the Greek word for steersman, was coined by Norbert Wiener in 1948. Wiener was a brilliant mathematics professor at MIT who used the term to describe the study of autonomous machines, especially those that incorporate a feedback mechanism to survey their surroundings and respond to it. Those were the days before ubiquitous digital computers, and Wiener's autonomous systems were simple electronic systems that performed such tasks as aiming artillery, an important application that he studied during World War II. Earlier, simple mechanical systems, such as the speed governor on steam engines, had performed a similar control function that amounts to simulating the actions of a human operator. Wiener, in his 1950 book, Human Use of Human Beings, proposed cybernetic machines as a way to free humans from many of the less interesting tasks of life, such as tending the hearth to achieve a comfortable room temperature.

The idea of a cyborg takes cybernetics a step further by making humans a part of a more efficient machine. Cyborg was likely the inspiration for the naming of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the idea of a human-machine hybrid does conjure images of the Borg for most people. The Borg, as hybrids of human and machine, have lost their humanity in proportion to the loss of human flesh. The Star Trek humans resist assimilation by the Borg because they see this conversion as a loss of their essential humanity. When I was a boy, an article was published in Life magazine about cyborgs. One image that I remember is a cyborg astronaut floating nearly naked in space with a fishbowl on his head. At that time, Clynes and his colleague, Nathan Kline, were investigating cyborg technology for NASA as a way for humans to conquer space, but one look at that illustration makes you wonder whether it was really humans doing the conquering.

The question of how much of the human remains in a cyborg leads us to the Socks Paradox. A particular sock is darned with new thread whenever it gets a hole. Eventually, all thread that was in the original sock has been replaced. Is it still the same sock? If not, when did it lose its identity? The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who wrote that you cannot step into the same river twice, would answer that the sock is always a different sock, not just after the first stitch, but after the first crease. …

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