By Frank Blechman
The Christmas/New Year’s holiday offer an extended time for reflection. Driving to visit far-flung family and friends gave me even more. And, the visits provided a time to compare my thoughts with those of others.
I took advantage of the occasions to ask older friends, “What change (technological, medical, theological, social, scientific, political or otherwise) in your lifetime has made the most difference in your life?” I got interesting answers ranging from “smoking bans” to “environmental awareness” to “computers” to “mail-order-everything.”
I asked my children and others of younger generations, “What changes (same list) in the next 20 years will have the most impact on your life? I got a range of answers from “global climate failure (with the collapse of civilization as we know it)” to “virtual travel” to “the robot apocalypse.”
In both situations, I probed to get folks to explain why that particular development or event had and likely would have such a profound personal impact. Mostly, I was told that the external change required the individual to change his or her personal beliefs or behavior (which is hard to do).
Among the most interesting discussions came from an unexpected direction.
Several highlighted that in their lifetime, technological/medical developments began changing the fabric of human life. The conversations followed an arc that went something like this:
- 1980s: Heart pacemakers (first tried in 1958) are implanted regularly.
- 1990s: Artificial joints (hips first, then knees, elbows, and finally shoulders) arrive.
- 2000s: Deep brain implants moderate epilepsy, Parkinson’s tremors, and aid communication in paralyzed patients.
- 2010s: Electromechanical prosthetics significantly change the functionality of artificial limbs.
- 2020s: We are on the brink of realizing the “bionic-man” fantasy (“…we can rebuild you; faster, stronger …”, from the 1970s TV show, the “Six Million Dollar Man”).
- 2030s: This is when computer whiz Ray Kurtzweil predicted that we would achieve “the singularity” allowing us to upload our consciousness to computers and thereafter live forever as virtual beings.
More and more people will find that they are made up of more and more parts that were not “original equipment.”
At the moment, I am not afraid that killer robots will take over the world. I am personally skeptical about these developments making us immortal, much less omniscient. But they do seem to suggest that more and more people will find that they are made up of more and more parts that were not “original equipment.” As more of us become more artificial (creatures that the sci-fi world calls “cyborgs”), as we live longer, and do more, does this change what it means to be human?
Sure it does.
For most of human history, human life meant living at one place, interacting with a very limited set of surroundings, understanding almost none of it, and dying young (by our standards). Today, travel and e-communications make everyone and everywhere some part of our environment. Yet we still think of ourselves as primarily a unique biological assemblage. We are who we are; linked by genetics to a few family members and relatives. Blood is still thicker than water.
At what point do artificial parts outweigh the original ones? At what point are we no longer ourselves? Will the “improved” version of humanity “look down on” and “discriminate” against their inferior biological predecessors? Will the cyborgs consent to co-exist with humans? Science-fiction writers have played with these themes for a hundred years, but most of us have been able to dismiss the philosophical and legal questions as irrelevant to our everyday lives.
The next 20 years will mark the full rise of the cyborgs.
I believe that the next 20 years will mark the full rise of the cyborgs. At first, I suspect that old-fashioned people will be tolerated for a while (until we die out), but that within a generation, un-enhanced humans will be seen as obsolete, and given our proclivity for violence, unacceptable neighbors. A few may be kept in zoos or preserves, as curiosities, but most will be eliminated. The cyborgs will rule, at least for a time, until the robots fully take over.
Happy New Year!