The cyborgs among us

Last Friday, while many people in Toronto were putting on their costumes for some pre-Halloween festivities, Isa Gordon was showing off an outfit that could bring man and machine closer together.

Her demonstration included the Data Glove, which looked like a stylish take on a gargoyle’s claw. Hand-carved and modelled from wax for a custom fit, the joints in the glove are designed to facilitate the transfer of input signals to other parts of the suit. This is Gordon’s vision of the future interface, and it represented the result of some groundbreaking cybernetics research she is conducting with her partner, Jesse Jarrell.

The two of them discussed their efforts at the trendy Rivoli nightclub in downtown Toronto as part of a three-day conference called Body/Machine. The event explored the evolution of the cyborg and the future implications of animal-technology integration.

Though they are conducting their research with a grant from Arizona State University, Gordon and Jarrell are not scientists so much as performance artists with a scientific approach. Jarrell is designing the suit, which they call a psymbiote, and Gordon plans to wear it. “Jesse planted the seed, and I fertilized it,” she said, noting that they have been at work on the project since early 2000. “Given its complexity, it’s no wonder its gestation period is longer than that of a human.”

It may sound kooky, but Gordon’s lecture pointed out that cybernetics has already advanced on the territory staked out by science-fiction novels and films. Its history is longer than IT as we know it. The phrase cybernetics was actually coined in 1948 to describe the way we exchange information with our machines. The word “cyborg” came later, in 1961, but still long before the advent of RoboCop or Universal Soldier. In the real world, Gordon said about 10 per cent of the population are already technically cyborgs, if you include those who use pacemakers to control their heartbeat or have sockets connecting to their optic nerve to improve sight. Then there are what Gordon calls the “metaphorical cyborgs,” who are glued to their keyboards day and night. Don’t laugh: the crippling effects of long-term keyboard use are precisely why Gordon believes cybernetics will flourish. “It’s going to become critical that we adapt these machines to our bodies and not the other way around,” she said, making a link between ergonomic devices and the sort of wearable computers developed by IBM. “All of this is aimed at a deeper integration of the interface. The boundaries between body and tool are going to begin to blur.”

As someone who has actually tried on IBM’s wearable PC (it was at a NetVista product launch; I felt like a character in a William Gibson novel) I think there’s a difference between a pacemaker user and the Terminator. A surgically implanted device does not make someone a half-robot. It tries to help them function like regular human beings.

Gordon, however, thinks the next stage of cybernetics will take us beyond “normalization” to enhancements that improve our abilities. A project in the United States is already looking at ways to artificially build up the strength of its army, for example, and plastic surgery is becoming more sophisticated in how it can reshape our bodies. “We live in a market-driven economy. There are going to be people who are excited about having these options,” she said.

Gordon and Jarrell want their psymbiote performances to raise important questions about who will get access to these potentially superhuman abilities. Given the relatively slow adoption of biometric security, that problem may be far off, but they are worth thinking about now. Already, Wired has published the story of Kevin Warwick, who lives with a silicon chip in his arm that can open doors in his office building. We can put homing devices in pets. My definition of a cyborg is more narrow, perhaps — I believe a true cyborg would combine the brain of a human with a machine — but we are not nearly prepared to grapple with the privacy and IT management issues that even today’s technology poses. Dr. Frankenstein didn’t learn how to deal with his monster until after he’d created it. Let’s learn from his mistake.

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Shane Schick
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