The Human-Machine Boundary

I recently had this rather strange revelation: my mom is slowly turning into the Bionic Woman. About a month ago she underwent cataract surgery, a procedure that replaces the natural lenses in her eye with artificial ones. Her natural lenses had developed cataracts, essentially spots where the lens loses its transparency, which resulted in her vision becoming cloudy. The artificial lenses implanted by the surgeon not only corrected the cloudiness, they also corrected her vision for the most part. The new lenses were made with the same corrective curvature as the lenses in the glasses she had worn for most of her life. So she pretty much has bionic eyes now.

Well, OK, maybe they aren’t quite as cool as Steve Austin’s super-telescopic eyes in the Six Million Dollar Man, but they are a step in that direction. In the future, it might be possible for those artificial lenses to have additional features, like zooming, automatic shading in bright environments, or the ability to project text and graphics over the field of vision. When they do develop such things, people might not want to wait until they develop cataracts before they get their lenses replaced. Perhaps it will become just a standard corporeal upgrade, like getting braces to straighten your teeth, or plastic surgery to reshape some part of your body.

Interestingly, the ability to project text and graphics over the field of vision is already being worked on. Researchers at the University of Washington and Aalto University in Finland have developed a prototype contact lens, controlled by a wireless signal, that can project a single pixel into the eye. A single pixel might not sound terribly impressive, but it is an important proof of concept—it will likely be only a matter of time before they develop the techniques necessary to project enough pixels to fill your field of vision with relevant textual and graphical information. Imagine having a person’s name and relevant life details automatically appear next to his or her head when you meet them; or having the kind of information displayed today on your GPS navigation system’s screen merged with your view of the actual road.

Does this sound frightening to you, or at least a bit disturbing? Perhaps it should. But then again, haven’t we slowly been moving towards this sort of thing for a long time now? After all, what is the difference between wearing eye glasses, and replacing one’s natural eye lenses with artificial ones? In both cases, we are employing a bit of technology to correct someone’s eyesight. The former is worn while the latter is surgically implanted, but is that a difference of kind, or only of degree?

There are of course other kinds of bodily problems that we’ve been addressing for some time with surgically-implanted devices: artificial limbs and joints restore mobility; implants in the ear enable hearing again; stents reopen blocked arteries; pacemakers keep hearts beating at a normal rate; and in extreme cases like Dick Cheney, surgeons have implanted mechanical pumps to circulate the blood instead of relying on the patient’s beating heart muscle. In each of these cases, a bit of technology is added to the human body in order to correct a problem or flaw, blurring the boundary between human and machine.

One distinction we could try to draw here is between implanted devices that correct a problem, and those that would enhance what would be considered “normal” human ability. Today’s artificial lenses correct cataracts and myopia, but if those same lenses gained some super-human features, we could say that they enhance normal human eyesight. But even that distinction can be a bit fuzzy. If we were to acknowledge that it is “normal” for human eyesight to get worse with age, then even today’s artificial lenses could be considered an “enhancement.”

Another interesting case is that of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter who has flexible carbon-fiber blades for legs. He was initially disqualified from the 2008 Olympics because the committee felt that his springy artificial legs gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes. Although this decision was later overturned, it demonstrates the difficulty of drawing a clean distinction between “correction” and “enhancement.”

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that able-bodied sprinters will soon elect to replace their own human legs with artificial ones, but there is a distinct possibility that in the future, people will choose to receive other kinds of surgical implants that are designed solely to enhance their abilities to super-human levels. Essentially, you might get the chance to become the bionic man or woman…without the need for that tragic test flight or parachute accident.

So if researchers were able to develop these kinds of super-human bodily enhancements, would you be interested? Which kinds of things would you entertain, and which would you rule out? Or would you be opposed to anything beyond corrective devices as a matter of principle?

3 thoughts on “The Human-Machine Boundary

  1. Frank

    I am not sure.
    I always thought that the eye was fascinating as it isn’t just like any other body part and quite sensitive too.
    It is a good question you raise about medical advancement, if they either reinstate the former natural function or actually enhance it to a different level.
    In one way or another, I predict that we all be a bit bionic at some stage.

    Frank

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  2. Rosie Perera

    Here’s a cool example of what can be done if one accepts bionic parts: The EyeBorg Project. I have often wished I could take photographs from the perspective of my eyeball so that I could photograph reflections I see, which cannot be done with a camera without the camera showing up in the reflection. I don’t think I would ever go so far as to have a camera implanted though, even if I were to have some accident and lose an eye. There’s something creepy about having that thing always there, always on, always recording. Well, I suppose you could turn it off. And I suppose if it were removable (if you could pop the camera eyeball in and out), I might give it a try.

    There was that NYU professor who had a camera implanted in the back of his head (http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-02/nyu-professors-body-rejects-his-implanted-camera). His body rejected it. Somehow I think when we mess too much with life, it is right and just that we get bitten back.

    There’s also a whole sub-culture of people who engage in body hacking, having magnets embedded in their fingertips and such, to enhance their abilities to experience the world. I wish I could recall the name of the woman who gave a talk on that subject who had gone to some extremes and was giving advice about how to do it, warning people repeatedly that it is not safe, so don’t do it unless you’re willing to take major risks.

    There is another kind of body hacking which has become increasingly popular and is much less creepy than having bionic parts implanted, and that is self-quantification. I’ve experimented a bit with this. I bought a Zeo which is a device that measures the quality and quantity of your sleep while you sleep. I used it for a week, got some interesting data, but gave up on it as I found the intrusive measuring device (a strap around my forehead) uncomfortable. I don’t think it told me anything I couldn’t intuit anyway (e.g., had too much caffeine late in the day –> took longer than normal to fall asleep). Peter Vajda has written up a very thoughtful response to the phenomenon here: http://slowtech.org/2011/06/body-hacking/#comment-2.

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