Some call it transhumanism. It’s not a philosophy cybernetics expert Kevin Warwick associates himself with, but he can’t deny he’s a cyborg… or was. Warwick had a 2.5cm-long radio frequency identification (RFID) chip implanted in his arm in 1998. Back then it was considered risky, even reckless. He went ahead anyway, creating a media circus as he demonstrated how the chip made him remotely traceable to a computer and allowed him to open the automated security doors at his University of Sheffield lab without touching them. Four years later, despite warnings from the surgeon, he had neural interfaces implanted that allowed him to control a robotic arm on another continent and communicate – nervous system to nervous system – with his wife, Irena, via electrodes in her arm.
“That was the most profound thing I did,” he says, recalling how he first felt the pulses of her transmitted signals in his finger.
Warwick eventually had his implants removed, but he remains, for some, the original cyborg. Others look upon such tampering with the human body simply as a progression of what’s been happening for thousands of years. For Liviu Babitz, co-founder of London-based company CyborgNest, which makes sensory enhancement devices, we’ve been integrating with technology since we started aiming arrows at bears. “Isn’t an arrow an extension of your hand?” he muses.
According to Babitz, “we’re all cyborgs at this stage,” though he admits the technological enhancements are becoming “more intimate” now.
Warwick’s later implants were certainly too intimate for most people, but biohackers are now getting similar RFID devices and magnets implanted. Some even get implants in their ears that function like internal headphones for playing music. Meanwhile, in the medical world, modifications such as hip replacements and prostheses offer benefits that outweigh the risks. These are intended as treatments rather than extensions of our human selves, but they cross a line when they offer enhanced or entirely new abilities, like James Young’s carbon fibre, gadget arm (see image, far right).
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