Like Tears in Rain: Wearables, Prosthetics, Robots and People

If robotics, bionics, prosthetics and wearables are on the rise, we should prepare ourselves for the next big step.

I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like… tears… in… rain. Time… to die.

This monologue is probably one of the greatest speeches known in science fiction cinema.

It was pronounced by Roy Batty, a replicant played by Rutger Hauer, in the last scene of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, a cult classic that proposed many philosophical issues regarding transhumanism, androids and bioethics.

I was a kid back then, too young to watch Blade Runner, and had probably never heard the term cyborg. I did know – and love – robots and, as most of us did at first, thought of them mainly as anthropomorphic metallic machines. My mind would later be blown away.

Back then, I had a habit of using my teeth as tools for everyday tasks (of a kid maker), and my mom constantly urged me to stop doing so, specially when I used them as bottle openers, arguing that my teeth would eventually break or fall off (two of them did break).

Why does this matter, right? Because even though I was eight years old and had never heard the term cyborg, I innocently argued that by the time I was out of college I’d be able to replace all my teeth for fake (prosthetic) ones made from awesome materials.

I was also looking forward to the new limbs that I was sure would be available during my adulthood, which would allow me to jump higher, run faster, lift cars and do all those things many boys dream of thanks to popular sci-fi and superhero culture. I was seeing myself as a cyborg but did not know it.

These ideas were very upsetting to many people. And they still are.

The point is that the popularly known state of the art allows us to know intuitively what might come next. One generation dreams of something and the next one builds it. OK, sometimes it takes more than one generation, but it tends to happen that way, and sci-fi has always been great at promoting this process.

In our childhood, most of us (Gen X and Gen Y) saw The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Robotech and/or IronMan (probably the first non human-powered exoskeleton popularly known), so I guess most of us knew where this was going anyway, and many of us were eager to get there.

Now we not only have microchip implants, smart-watches, Google Glass, exoskeletons, bionic limbs and other wearables, we also have www.stopthecyborgs.org. Yes, as its name suggests, the site is an organization focused on banning Google Glass (and other wearable tech) from certain spaces based on privacy concerns. Talk about postmodern(ity)!

Prosthetics – conceptually – are a quite old subject. If we limit the use of the term to dictionaries, we’re talking about artificial body parts, some definitions limiting them to those that replace lost or impaired ones. From this point of view, prostheses have been around from as far back as ancient Egypt,

We also have new media’s or media arts’ point of view, where prosthetics are seen in a broader and more philosophical way as an extension of human capabilities. In this sense, we are all users of prosthesis – kind of cyborgs – since we use clothing and tools. And if you think that’s too broad, we could all be cyborgs since we use smartphones.

So where’s the limit?

Amber Case, Cyborg Anthropologist, has a very interesting point of view on this issue, which she very entertainingly illustrates in a TED talk.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1KJAXM3xYA[/youtube]

The word cyborg is a contraction of cybernetic organism. Semantically, if the tool – the cybernetic piece – is not part of the organism, it’s not a cyborg. But where’s the organism’s limit?

Does the cybernetic piece have to be embedded inside the organism, or partially fixed to it, in order for the system to be considered a cyborg, or can it be a removable accessory? If a bionic arm that connects by dermic contact to a neural interface on your shoulder and can be worn or removed when needed makes you a cyborg, why would a smartphone not be considered the same?

On the other hand, we need to be aware of the state of the art in robotics. The latest issue of The Economist features a piece titled Rise of the robots. This is no coincidence. Robotics, bionics and prosthetics are intimately interdependent developments, and they all depend on IT, MEMS, sensors, and other smaller and smaller hardware, which are the same elements that make wearables possible.

Basically, we are starting to have access to the exponential development of hardware technology as a consequence of the exponential development of IT, nanotech and new materials we’ve seen in recent years. 3D printing is a simpler example of this same process.

So if robotics, bionics, prosthetics and wearables are on the rise, we should prepare ourselves for the next big step. Transhumanists says it’s an evolutionary step, the market says it’s a new economy, the manufacturing industry sees it as a revolution. But how do we see it?

It’s understandable to be afraid. It really is the unknown. When humans, cyborgs and robots share the same sidewalks (possibly in a decade), sensors and batteries will not be an issue.

The big issues will be social, cultural, legal and ethical. As the aforementioned article describes robots, they – as well as cyborgs – are “immigrants from the future.”

Robot caretakers, people turning to become cyborgs in order to get jobs normal people can’t perform, segregated spaces for cyborgs and regular humans, as www.stopthecyborgs.org have already proposed. It’s going to be a tough world in the near future, and we need to be emotionally and legally prepared.

And let’s not forget Artificial Intelligence. We have no idea where AI will be in 10 or 20 years, but at some point, we’ll be arguing about the rights of machines with AI and whether they have consciousness. And regarding consciousness, as Dr. Michio Kaku mentions in his recent book The Future of the Mind, we will eventually be able to download it to an artificial recipient, which not only means changing our biological bodies for newer biological bodies or robotic ones while keeping our self but also signifies immortality. Disturbing to some.

Scientists, legislators, spiritual leaders, entrepreneurs, educators and the whole of society must start debating these issues ASAP, or they will sneak up on us when we are ill prepared to deal with them.

I would suggest our well-intended friends at www.stopthecyborgs.org use their network and intellect to begin a deeper and more transcendent debate regarding what’s to come. I agree on the importance of privacy while at a café or bar, but let’s face it: we lost most of our privacy way before Google Glass was even conceived.

Taking Amber Case’s idea, when we use technology seeking to expand our creative, making and communicating capabilities, we are not just increasing our power, we may well be increasing our humanness, too.