Elon Musk has made the argument that humans are already cyborgs, and in a sense, it’s true. We use technology to extend our mental and physical powers on a daily basis, and while our smartphones aren’t built directly into our hands, they’re more or less attached to us. Like it or not, the relationship between humans and technology is getting a lot more personal, and that’s not even counting the advances being made in genetic engineering. If you’re the type of person who’s more excited than creeped out by the possibility of becoming a cyborg, though, you’re in luck: you can start now!
Implanted RFID chips
If you’ve ever had a pet, you might have opted to get an RFID microchip put under their skin so they could be scanned and returned if they got lost. Now, that same technology is here for humans: it’s already being used in Sweden to unlock doors and pay for train rides, and a few people are working to bring the tech mainstream. Implantable RFID chips, relatively easy to put in and take out, are for sale right now, doing everything from unlocking your phone to monitoring your vital signs.
Fans of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “Doctor Who,” “Star Trek” and other multi-lingual sci-fi universes will be familiar with the idea of real-time translation devices. It’s not science fiction anymore, though: using a machine learning technique called Neural Machine Translation, Google Translate can now predict how likely it is that someone is saying a certain sequence of words, enabling them to process and deliver translations to you while someone is talking. For now you need Google Assistant-enabled headphones and an Android phone to make it work, but now that the technology is out there, your own personal babel fish isn’t far.
Smart contact lenses
The idea behind Google Glass, integrating our technology with our in-the-minute visual experience, wasn’t bad. The execution wasn’t so great, though, which is why some companies, like Mojo Vision, believe a contact lens with a display directly on your eye might be more interesting for people. The smartest contact lens we’ve gotten so far has been an on-again-off-again project to monitor glucose levels for diabetics, but it’s worth keeping an eye on this technology. Or, more accurately, keeping this technology on your eye. This is the sort of device that augmented reality really needs before it can take off.
Implanting new senses
Getting an RFID chip implanted is a good first step towards going cyborg, but if that’s just not enough of an upgrade, why not get a whole new physical sense? CyborgNest makes a sensor called “The North Sense” that works pretty simply: it gets attached to you by running two small titanium rods under your skin, and whenever you face north, it vibrates. Want to sense magnetic fields? Get some tiny magnets put in your fingers (seems that it is easy to become Magneto in the X-Men). Another idea, not yet commercially available, is wearing a vibrating vest that constantly feeds you patterns of information — everything from stock markets to human speech. The philosophy behind it is that if we can expand our perceptions of the world around us through technology, why not?
In a similar vein are hearing aids for people who don’t have major hearing problems, like Nuheara. Our ears work pretty well, but they miss a lot, too, and we can’t really adjust them to our exact specifications. These wireless earbuds let you blend the sound however you want: turn down the background noise and turn up conversation, blend your music with noise from the outside world, and do whatever else you feel like with the noise around you. That’s pretty cyborg.
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs)
You can’t really get these off the shelf yet, but BCIs are sort of the pinnacle of cyborg-ness. The most common applications are to help people with disabilities, such as those who are paralyzed, blind, or otherwise incapacitated, but all that research into controlling wheelchairs, exoskeletons, and computers with your mind has a very wide range of possible uses. Some are working on reading human thoughts and memories, while others could possibly facilitate direct brain-to-brain communication. Kernel and Elon Musk’s Neuralink are hoping to develop a direct line of communication between the human brain and AI in an upload/download sort of system, enabling us to literally increase our brain’s computing power.
If you’re thinking, “This could go badly,” you’re definitely right. What if you could hack into someone’s brain or develop some kind of malware for it? What happens when the information inside your head can be taken out? The potential benefits are amazing, but it’s a highly sensitive area and will need to be handled with a lot of care.
Resistance is futile. The singularity is inevitable.
Sometime in the future, there realistically might be a time where the line between human and machine is blurred to the point where we don’t know where one ends and the other begins. That change isn’t going to happen all at once, though. Even if the technology currently existed, there would be massive practical and ethical questions we would have to ask and new norms we have to create. Will governments in the future chip and track their citizens? Will companies sponsor your augmented-reality mirror world and shape what you see? Will brains be as hackable as computers? Humanity’s cyborg journey has already begun, and regardless of whether you want to join in, we’ll have a lot of interesting questions to answer as a species.