It’s not just science fiction anymore. Like it or not, we’ve already started blending machinery with human beings. Cyborgs are actually becoming a thing, and once you’ve learned how to do a little of something, humanity’s track record indicates that you’ll be doing it a lot. Over at Fox News, one professor from Jerusalem is predicting that the day is coming far sooner than you might think, along with a huge load of ethical and moral questions that accompany the technology.
In a not-so-distant future, humans will merge with machines.
Although that seems like something cooked up by a science fiction writer, according to a prominent historian it’s a reality that’s not very far away — especially given how much Big Tech has disrupted everything from commerce (Amazon) to relationships (Facebook) and media (Google and Facebook).
“It’s increasingly hard to tell where I end and where the computer begins,” Yuval Harari, a professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told the audience at the Fast Company European Innovation Festival this week. “In the future, it is likely that the smartphone will not be separated from you at all. It may be embedded in your body or brain, constantly scanning your biometric data and your emotions.”
We’re already being told we spend too much time looking at our phones when they’re just in our pockets. (To the point where we may or may not be growing bone spikes on our heads as a result.) So how do you feel about the idea of the phone being embedded in your body? Or even inside your brain and just flashing your text messages directly into your cerebral cortex?
I’m adding that to the list of things I’m glad I probably won’t live long enough to see. But for the generation just being born now? That may be the most normal thing in the world. Imagine the annoying thirteen-year-old pestering her parents about not wanting to wait until she’s sixteen to get her implants.
Harari points out that all the way from the stone age until today, we’ve been progressively improving our tools, but we’re still basically the same people. The design hasn’t changed all that much. But once we start adding in machinery, “it will change the human being itself.”
But is that really true? I would argue that Harari is off base here on a couple of points. First, from a strictly definitional standpoint, if you were truly “changing the human being,” those changes would be inheritable. And yet no matter how many devices you implant into your body, your child won’t be born with them. We’ve been putting peg legs on amputees for most of recorded history, but to the best of my knowledge, no baby has ever been born with one.
If we’re looking at it from the more philosophical angle, can any true change come from without? Perhaps someday you will indeed be able to make phone calls from a device planted in your brain or even speed up your computational power. But all of those improvements (if you consider them as such) are still being done by an added external bit of technology. The underlying human is still just as limited as ever. The only difference is that you buried the tool in your skull instead of holding it in your hand.
And what if these implants eventually allow to vastly extend the human lifespan? Will we do that for everyone or just the very wealthy? When people stop dying for a long time the population explosion will be unmanageable. Will we be forced to produce fewer children? And all of this brings us back to the moral questions surround creating a race of superhuman cyborgs. We’re continuing our headlong rush into the future, but there will no doubt be consequences we neglected to anticipate.