Cyborgs are all around us. They’re larking around in the schoolyard, working in hospitals, running the country, indistinguishable from you and me. In fact, say some leading figures in the world of cognitive science, we are all cyborgs now - although perhaps not in the way you might think.
The dictionary definition of a cyborg is “an integrated man-machine system”. They turn up in movies as flesh and metal characters such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, Darth Vader from Star Wars or, for those of an older vintage, Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.
The term emerged in the 1960s, coined by researchers interested in how humans could adapt to space travel. The concept has evolved in the intervening decades to the point that we now have scientists such as Kevin Warwick at the University of Reading implanting silicon chips under their skin and calling themselves cyborgs.
But it’s not that kind of cyborg I am writing about today. Instead, I want to focus on a definition of cyborg that relates to our use of technology in a more general way. It is a definition that has sprung from a scientific view of the way our mind works and how its functions extend beyond our brains.
I started thinking about these issues a few weeks ago while at the pub, as often seems to be the case. It was a friend’s birthday party and I was trying to convince a very nice historian about how the internet and Google and so on might be thought of as a kind of extension to our minds. “You’re looking at it so unhistorically,” she said. “The internet’s no different really to a library. It’s a place where information is stored and retrieved.”
It was late, noisy and I’d had the odd glass of wine, so I wasn’t really in a fit state to put forward a cogent argument on the spot (again, as often happens), but the next day I sought help in the cleverness of others.
The man I most wanted to contact was a philosopher of cognitive science, Andy Clark, professor of logic and metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh, and a leading proponent of the idea of the extended mind. Two years ago, Clark published a book entitled Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies and the Future of Human Intelligence, which explored the way that human minds interact with technology - from the pencil to web-enabled mobile phones.
”As our worlds become smarter, and get to know us better and better,” Clark writes, “it becomes harder and harder to say where the world stops and the person begins.”
Just the man I needed. I tracked him down (via the internet, appropriately) and put to him my historian adversary’s point - that the internet is nothing more than a fancy library. “Not at all,” he replied to my e-mail. “Portable access and great search engines transform a mere library into a cognitive prosthetic.
”We have always been cyborgs, at least since language got a grip on the species,” he continued. “But new interfaces and robust, portable, soon-to-be implantable, technology makes it all the more dramatic.”
Clark argues that there is little significant conceptual difference between a highly accessible computer outside our body, and one implanted into our body. Technology we carry with us already blurs that boundary, he says - for example, simple versions of the Google search engine are now available for use on mobile telephones.
The critical step, according to Clark’s view, is easy access, as and when required. Whether such easy access is achieved by portable devices or pervasive computing, where every room in your house, office or wherever, has built-in computing power, is not important.
In fact, Clark sees our ability to enter into profound relationships with our technologies as a defining characteristic of being human - whether or not the connection is via the direct wiring of flesh, as in the case of the Terminator. He urges us to give up the idea that the only things that matter about our minds are what goes on inside “the ancient fortress of skin and skull”. Instead, technologies such as the internet should be seen as integral parts of the systems that constitute human intelligence.
”I think our great neural plasticity and long developmental period combine to make us more prone to prosthetic extensions than other species,” he told me. In fact, he is about to publish a paper in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy that touches on some of those subjects.
In it, he paints a new picture of what it is to be human, arguing that “human minds are not old-fashioned [computers] trapped in fixed and increasingly feeble corporeal shells. Instead, they are the surprisingly plastic minds of profoundly embodied agents: agents whose boundaries and components are forever negotiable, and for whom body, thinking and sensing are woven flexibly (and repeatedly) from the whole cloth of situated, intentional action.”
In this context, the development of easily accessible, perhaps implantable, internet technologies starts to sound more like a stage in human evolution than a high-tech library. Ultimately, I’m not sure what I make of it all, but it certainly makes you think.
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