A cyborg is a cross between a human and a machine. By this definition, even wearing contact lenses makes someone a cyborg. In today’s tech-driven society, however, no one cares about that kind of human-machine hybrid. Science fiction has provided the world with too many cool cyborgs: RoboCop, Darth Vader, Inspector Gadget. And some really scary ones such as Star Trek's Borg. Not to mention good ol' Jean Claude Van Damme!
A convincing cyborg has to be more than a Google Glass schmuck who can look up Starbuck's locations while he meanders to work on his hoverboard. Some impressive real-life cyborgs walk among us right now. An awful lot of them are the way they are because of advances in medical technology. They are blind people with implants that let them see, amputees with artificial limbs that they can control like a regular arm, or bodymod extremists with subdermal microchips that grant them some kind of superpower. Those are all good things, right?
In fact, so many cyborgs now exist that they are starting to organize. That's right, they're not just on the margins of society anymore- they're everywhere! If you normals are wondering if you should be worried, read below and decide if the cyborgs are here for good or for evil.
Tim Cannon wanted to transmit his biometrical data directly from his body. Why? He is a biohacker, that’s why. The device he wanted to implant was not approved by American medical authorities, so he did the next best (?) thing- he went to a body modification conference in Germany and had Steve Howarth insert it. Howarth works for Grindhouse Wetware, manufacturer of the Circadia, a device that fit Cannon’s bill. The Circadia transmits data via Bluetooth, and the battery charges wirelessly: it's like having a cellphone implanted under your skin. Grindhouse also sells a product that lights up under your skin in case you want to illuminate a tattoo, say, or want to find the keys you dropped under your car at night.
Like Tim Cannon, Rich Lee considers himself to be a bodyhacker, aka biohacker, aka grinder. Grindhouse's Steve Haworth installed magnets in Lee's ears. These magnets aren't for keeping his headphones from falling off: they are the headset. With these magnets, Lee no longer needs headphones. Through the magic of electromagnetism (re: high school physics class), he can hear music when his mp3 player is hooked up to coils. Lee has a magnet in his fingertip too, and when he puts his finger in his ear and turns on his coil-mp3, he hears music through his finger. Lee is thinking of the future with this biomodification. He has lost some hearing, and quite possibly he will lose all of it. Lee wants to make it possible for him to use echolocation, just like bats use to “see” at night. How Lee might arrange to make himself bat-like remains TBD, but he hopes that one day he will become not just a real-life cyborg but a real-life Batman.
Amal Graafstra is a fan of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. RFIDs are those little chips that are inserted into pets in case they get lost or that newer credit cards contain to permit tapping rather than swiping at the check-out counter. In 2005 Graafstra implanted an RFID into one hand. He now has an RFID in each hand. With his magic hands the Seattle-based supergeek can open smart doors and unlock his car and phone without doing anything but be around them. This biohacking entrepreneur sells RFID products, including a do-it-yourself cyborg kit that helps you inject RFIDs into yourself.
Performance artist Stelios Arcadiou, or STELARC, as he is now known, explores the limits of the human body through art. In the past he has done fun things like inserted sculptures into his stomach and rigged his body with electrodes so someone could move his body via the Internet. Now STELARC has an ear on his arm. It is constructed out of living and artificial tissue, and it is part of his body. He makes it clear that the ear is not to help him hear. It’s for other people to hear through the conduit of his own body. He outfitted the ear with a microphone so that it can transmit sound to an external receiver. He has had to remove the microphone because it gave him an earache, but his future plan is to insert a different wireless transmitter that doesn't hurt so much so that he can act as a remote listening device.
Since cochlear implants have been around for a couple of decades, aural cyborgs are a little passé. A cochlear implant replaces damaged ear parts. A microphone attached outside the skull near the ear sends sound signals to the artificial mechanisms surgically installed inside the ear canal. The signal relays information to the auditory nerve, at which point the body takes over and communicates audio information to the brain. Having lost hearing in both ears, Michael Chorost has two of these implants. Chorost is noteworthy in that he is also a science writer. As a result, he has been able to articulate his experiences for those curious about what life as a cyborg is like.
Jesse Sullivan may be the world's first bionic man. In 2001, Sullivan was working as a lineman when he was accidentally jolted with more than 7,000 volts of electricity. The resulting burns were so severe that doctors had to amputate both of his arms. The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), which for years has been working on advancements in prosthetic engineering, has outfitted Sullivan with myoelectric arms.
In Sullivan’s case, nerve endings in his arms were surgically moved into his chest. The nerves grew into the muscle, so now when Sullivan thinks about moving his arms, the nerves cause the muscles in his chest to move. Electrodes in the prosthetic reacts to the muscle movement. In this way, Sullivan move his arms in a way that simulates the body’s natural means of moving limbs. As research continues, the arms’ abilities improve. Sullivan can now sense different temperatures, nevermind pick up objects, with his remarkable limbs.
Neil Harbisson was born with extreme color blindness. Most color-blind people can see color, but they can't distinguish some colours, such as red and green, very well from other colors. Harbisson, however, can only see in black and white. While he was in art school, he met tech guru Adam Montandon, who came up with an ingenious way of overcoming this disability. Harbisson has had implanted in his head a sensor that sees colors for him and then converts those colours into sound. This permanently implanted device allows Harbisson to hear 360 different colours (technically, hues, since his camera ignores saturation). The original “eyeborg,” as Montandon and Harbisson call it, involved a system of cables leading out of his head and attached to a laptop inside a backpack. The newest iteration is a simple microprocessor under the skin at the back of his head. Harbisson can detect EM waves we lesser beings cannot, such as ultraviolet and infrared. The light life isn’t all cherries and peaches, however. Because of his head-mounted camera, Harbisson often gets kicked out of buildings as a possible security threat.
In an extreme case of walking the walk, not just talking the talk, cybernetic professor Kevin Warwick has turned himself into a cyborg. In 1998, a medical doctor inserted a microchip transponder into Warwick’s arm. (Warwick was only under a local anaesthetic, by the way.) The chip monitored Warwick’s movements throughout the cybernetics department on University of Reading campus, so that simply by walking around he could operate lights, doors and computers. In 2002, a more elaborate computerized system was implanted in his arm and connected to nerve endings. Now Warwick goes about organizing Turing Test events, operating appliances with his body, conducting research on Parkinson’s disease, and sending self-described body hackers into swoons.
The things people do for their art. In the past, Spanish dancer, choreographer, and performance artist Moon Ribas has attached things temporarily to herself, such as a glove that measures the speed of objects around her. In 2013 she had an earthquake sensor permanently inserted under the skin of her arm for a project called Seismic Sense. Whenever an earthquake of at least 1 on the Richter Scale occurs in the world, the sensor vibrates, and an app registers the scale and location. In a more recent project, the artist and her audience waits around until an earthquake takes place somewhere. Ribas dances in the direction of the earthquake and attempts to communicate the intensity through her movement. At the same time, her co-performer, fellow cyborg Neil Harbisson (see above), translates the seismic readings into a light and music show.
Rob Spence lost his eye in a shooting accident when he was nine. For much of his life he has been able to cope with a traditional false eye. Naturally, this filmmaker dreamed of having a prosthetic eye that was also a camera. To achieve this admittedly cool goal, he gathered a team of tech mavens around an ocularist (prosthetic eye maker). Unlike Neil Harbisson’s eyeborg, the camera is not connected to a chip in the wearer’s brain. This eyeborg does, however, permit other people to see through Spence’s point of view. The camera contains a wireless transmitter that sends images to a handheld monitor. The eye camera has some drawbacks: it gets hot, so Spence can keep it in his head for only a couple of minutes at a time.
After Claudia Mitchell lost her left arm in a 2004 motorcycle accident, she learned about research towards the development of a prosthetic that would respond to brain signals. In 2006, the Marine Corps veteran was outfitted with her own arm, making her the first woman to have such a device. The prosthetic, designed by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, is connected to nerve endings on her body so that she can move it in a similar way as her other arm. The bionic arm also permits her to have a sense of touch. The prosthetic research is partly funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), famed for rumours of its "supersoldier" research. Though Mitchell is not a super soldier (she works for an Arkansas symphony orchestra), she continues to work with a research team on the development of this bionic technology.
Iceland has brought the world Bjork, volcanic-mud spas, and postapocalyptic landscapes to stare at during long airport layovers for polar-route flights. Now the island nation offers something else: prosthetic joints just like Mother Nature made. One problem with cyborg parts is that the human body does such an excellent job of transmitting brain signals to its constituent parts that technology just can’t compete. The joints on typical human legs can adjust for speed, terrain and orientation so quickly that people don’t even pay attention. A jointed prosthetic leg tends to be disappointing by comparison. Amputee Gudmundur Olafsson has recently had a technology upgrade that brought tears to his eyes. Iceland’s Ossur has recently outfitted him with a new version of its Proprio foot prosthetic. This upgrade allows him to control his ankle just by thinking. Try walking without having a moving ankle. It's hard.
Angel Giuffria considers herself to be a cyborg. She was born without a right hand, and from day one she has been a child star of advanced prosthetic devices. She was outfitted with her first bionic arm before she was one-year-old. Her current prosthetic is designed by Steeper, a British company that specializes in advanced prosthetic devices. With the bebionic3, Giuffria has excellent hand control. She can pick up objects and even crack an egg. She has appeared in many films that require actors with missing limbs. For example, she appeared in the film Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One and is appearing in Ben Affleck’s 2016 film The Accountant.
Anthony Andreottola found out he had retinitis pigmentosa when he was in his twenties. Ten years later he was completely blind. In October 2015, the 55-year-old American regained the ability to see thanks to John Hopkins Hospital and Second Sight’s Argus II. The Argus II is a compilation of devices including an electrode-laden chip at the back of the eye, a transmitter at the front of the eye, and a pair of glasses with a camera. The camera sends signals to the transmitter, which then allows the electrodes to stimulate the retina to make images. He doesn’t have 20/20 vision by any means, but he can identify the colour of the sweater his daughter is wearing, something he has never been able to do.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In 2012, James Young was pulled under a London train and his left foot was severed. Subsequently, his left arm had to be amputated. He wears prosthetics for both of his missing body parts, but his left arm is the masterpiece. Like many cybernetic amputees, he has a myoelectric arm, so he can use his muscles to manipulate his fingers as well as his arm. On top of that, Sophie de Oliveira Barata of the Alternative Limb Project designed the arm to look like Solid Snake’s arm in Metal Gears Solid. She added a few bonus features too. The arm is Bluetoothed and has a built-in smartwatch and USB port for phone recharging. And, just because, Young can make his arm light up in different colours. Best of all, the bionic arm has a built-in drone that Young can launch out of his shoulder.