Who's Ready to Be a Cyborg?
Marc Andreessen, true inventor of the Internet, noted venture capitalist and Silicon Valley man-about-town, thinks that there are three “next big things” in technology: Bitcoin, online education and health software. Google’s world-conquering execs Larry Page and Sergey Brin have made a bet on the self-driving car, while genius child-emperor Mark Zuckerberg has bet on virtual reality. Now those guys may be titans of tech, but dang it, I’m a sci-fi fan, and I read the news, which means that you should listen to my idea about what the Next Big Technology really is.
I think it’s cyborgs.
“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.
Like I said, I read the news. Barely a day goes by when I don’t read about some advance in cyborg tech. 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 couple of 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). You could browse the internet in your brain.
There are other big ones: artificial learning, augmented intelligence. But perhaps the most (literally) mind-bending possibility is desire modification (or “D-Mod”, as I called it in a blog post a while back). This means direct mechanical modification of one’s mood, motivation and even personality. That sounds scary -- and it is! -- but most of the ways we want to modify our desires are perfectly benign. We want to get rid of depression. We want to focus more at work. We want to be able to quell addiction, stick to our diets, calm down quickly when we get frightened or angry. We’ve actually been inventing technologies to try to do these things for millenniums -- meditation, drugs, etc. D-Mod technology will simply become more effective when it comes in a chip.
And remember: Cyborg technology won’t just be about these pieces of hardware. Once biomechanical implants are cleared for general use, they will become platforms, and the software that runs on them will become an enormous industry.
Now, when I say that cyborg tech is the “next big thing,” I don’t mean that it’s going to take the business world by storm tomorrow. Most of these technologies are still at the research stage; it’s up to Andreessen, Brin, Zuckerberg and the rest to decide on the right moment to invest and commercialize. But like I said, I’m a sci-fi fan, and I’m trying to think a couple steps ahead. Cyborg tech is inevitable, because information technology has improved, and our understanding of biology has improved, and there is simply a lot of stuff we can do by integrating the two.
The rest of us need to be thinking about the ethical and regulatory challenges. The Institute for the Future think tank has been thinking deep thoughts about the ethical side of things, and scientists have been calling for philosophers to help them deal with the possibilities of neuroengineering. But the regulatory side is equally important. Biology is the one area of technology where government regulation really has the power to stifle innovation utterly. If we treat cyborg technology as purely “medical” in nature, restricting its use to things that are defined as “disabilities,” we will miss huge opportunities for enhancement of human life. The pharmaceutical industry is already straining under research and development costs that now reach $5 billion per drug. If cyborg technology ends up requiring similar up-front outlays, our civilization could be shooting itself in the foot.
But in any case, watch this space. The cyborgs are coming, and you’re going to be one of them.
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Noah Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org
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