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We are all Cyborgs

the cyborg and the cemetery cover art


This morning I asked my son what a cyborg was. He answered, as I suspect most people would, "A person with robot body parts." Then he cocked his head and added, "Well, technically a cyborg used to mean a person who's half-man, half-machine."

He's hit on something important there.

The public conception of a cyborg is changing. Where we once thought of cyborgs as overtly mechanical, like the Borg or the Bionic Woman, most people would now consider a pacemaker, an auditory implant, or a motorized prosthesis as qualifying factors. The prosthesis is particularly interesting. Although it is overtly mechanical, it does not interface directly with the wearer's body. In a similar vein, online articles about cyborgs have cited mobile phones and bluetooth headsets as qualifying cyborg technology.

The trend is clear. In in our modern parlance, you can become a cyborg just by wearing something.

I'm fascinated by this cultural shift, particularly in contrast to analogous trends regarding AI. Whereas artificial intelligence seems to be a receding target - defined almost exclusively as "things computers can't yet do" - the definition of cyborg is advancing at a phenomenal rate. Is everyone with a bluetooth headset a cyborg? What about wristwatches? What about pencils? They are all, in a sense, technological augmentations of our natural abilities. And we have interfaced with modern wireless tech so effectively that we are arguably unable to function effectively without it. (I dare you: Take away GPS, and watch modern society crumble.)

I first explored these ideas while writing The Cyborg and the Cemetery. Barry Bradfield is a cyborg by the old-fashioned definition, complete with neural implants and an artificially intelligent leg. But he's also dying, and it's made him a bit of a philosopher. He holds to the view that artificial augmentation is artificial augmentation, no matter whether it's a crutch, a walking stick, or a hunk of high-tech electronic polymer that does the augmenting.

I like Barry. I think I would have enjoyed having lunch with him in real life.

And quite unconsciously, I seem to have handed Barry the logical extrapolation of today's views on cyborgs. I thought I was creating an intellectual rebel, someone who pushed a logical argument to ridiculous extremes. Instead, I now wonder whether readers thirty years down the line will look at Barry's line of reasoning and think, "Well, duh."

I'm not too worried about becoming outdated, though. The Oxford online dictionary still declares cyborgs to be fictional. By my reckoning, that means I've got at least a decade before anyone dares call me trite.

Comments

(Anonymous)
Sep. 17th, 2015 04:37 am (UTC)
How we become cyborgs
We become cyborgs not all at once but by degrees. Do you remember the phone numbers of all your family and friends or does your phone do that for you? Has not the phone become an extension of your memory? Today our views are constrained by the visions of cyborgs of past generations. A cybernetic arm or leg is easy to envision. What about the little things that no one could see? A prosthetic kidney. A cybernetic heart. Miles Vorkorsigan had his brittle bones replaced (with titanium I think). Has Lois McMasters Bujold made the hero of the series a cyborg? I wonder. If we can replace the memory, can we replace the whole brain? Ian McDonald wrote of a man who replaced his whole body and brain with a machine in "Christian" and transferred his memories and feelings over. Is he still the man he was? (Ian did not ask that question nor did he answer it.) Good question, Nancy. Stimulating. Kudos. PS Like the puzzle CAPTCHA.
nancyfulda
Sep. 17th, 2015 02:55 pm (UTC)
Re: How we become cyborgs
Ha, that's funny -- I never thought of Miles as a cyborg. If I recall correctly, he not only has titanium bone replacements, but also ends up with a neurostimulator wired into his brain to help him manage his post-cryogenic seizures.

There's a fabulous book called "The Mind's I" by Douglas R. Hofstadter, that deals with a bunch of questions like this. My favorite is the essay on distributed neurons: if you take a single neuron out of the brain and replace its input/output channels with a simulation of the way the rest of the brain would behave, is it still experiencing sentient thought? What if you do the same thing with every single neuron in the brain?

Weird stuff. Fascinating, but weird. :)

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Nancy Fulda is a 2012 Hugo and Nebula Nominee, a Phobos Award winner and a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient. She is the first (and so far only) female recipient of the Jim Baen Memorial Award. Her fiction has appeared in a number of professional venues.

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