Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

I Want to Be a Cyborg the Melding of Man and Machine Is Happening before Our Eyes - and in Our Heads, Explains Professor Noah Smith

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

I Want to Be a Cyborg the Melding of Man and Machine Is Happening before Our Eyes - and in Our Heads, Explains Professor Noah Smith

Article excerpt

I read the news. Barely a day goes by when I don't read about some advance in cyborg technology.

Cyborg technology includes a number of different things: biomechanical engineering, mind-machine interface, neuroengineering and a number of other health-care technologies. The common thread is that they all involve the integration of living tissue with engineered machinery. It's not about building the Terminator; it's about improving the functioning of the human mind and body.

For example, a Stanford engineer just invented a way to safely transfer energy to biomechanical implants. A University of California-San Francisco team won a grant to build brain implants to fight depression and PTSD. There's a man who can hear colors, thanks to a mechanical implant. Brain-controlled flight is now real. Bionic implants are ending disability as we know it. And these are only a few of the cyborg headlines from the last few weeks.

This is enormous. It's absolutely history-ending, world-shaking stuff. And by and large, the press is ignoring it.

Why is cyborg tech so earth-shattering? Because it represents a qualitatively different kind of technology. Most of the things that humans make - houses, airplanes, nuclear weapons - are ways to "hack" the physical world around us. Virtual reality, and things such as video games and movies, are ways to hack into alternate worlds.

But cyborg technology is about hacking ourselves. It means a change not just in the way humans interact with their surroundings, but a change in what it means to be human in the first place.

What kind of things might we do with cyborg tech? Just off the top of my head, I can think of some mind-blowing possibilities.

For example, there's mind-machine interface. The people trying to build artificial intelligence from scratch must realize that our brains represent a fully intelligent platform waiting to be upgraded. As machines replace more and more of what our brains do, there will be increasing returns to the ability of humans to interface with machines - this is already happening, with the soaring salaries of software engineers. But direct mind-machine interface goes far beyond the keyboard-mouse-monitor nexus.

Another example is artificial memory. This is already possible with mice in a very limited form. Artificial memory is a cognitive enhancer, but it also represents an opportunity for a form of immortality - instead of uploading your mind to a computer (as Ray Kurzweil and others hope to do), you could just keep copying the memories that make you who you are, and gently integrating them into a new brain.

A third example is artificial sensory input. Imagine if you didn't have to strap on an Oculus Rift to experience virtual reality, or put on a Google Glass to experience augmented reality - imagine if sights and sounds were piped directly to your brain. You could see your house as a castle (while keeping your neighbor's house the same, of course). …

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