Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, November 6, 2009

Defining ‘Cyborg’ Down

Wired Science has a story by Brandon Keim featuring the work of University of Chicago geoscientist Patrick McGuire. McGuire is working on “wearable AI systems and digital eyes that see what human eyes can’t.” So equipped, “space explorers of the future could be not just astronauts, but ‘cyborg astrobiologists.’” That phrase — “cyborg astrobiologist” — comes from the title McGuire and his team gave to the paper reporting their early results. In their paper, they describe developing a “real-time computer-vision system” that has helped them successfully to identify “lichens as novel within a series of images acquired in semi‑arid desert environments.” Their system also quickly learned to distinguish between familiar and novel colored samples.

According to Keim, McGuire admits there is a long way to go before we get to the cyborg astrobiologist stage — a point that seems to have been missed by the folks at Wired Science, who gave Keim’s piece the headline “AI Spacesuits Turn Astronauts Into Cyborg Biologists” (note the present tense). But it’s true that the meaning of “cyborg” is contested ground. If Michael Chorost in his fine book Rebuilt (which I reviewed here) can decide that he is a cyborg because he has a cochlear implant, than perhaps those merely testing McGuire’s system are cyborg, too.

But my point now isn’t to be one of those sticklers who tries to argue with Humpty Dumpty that it is better if words don’t mean whatever we individually want them to mean. Rather, I’m wondering why McGuire should have used this phrase, “cyborg astrobiologists,” in this recent paper and a number of earlier ones. The word “cyborg” was originally used to describe something similar to what McGuire is attempting, as Adam Keiper has noted:

In 1960, at the height of interest in cybernetics, the word cyborg—short for “cybernetic organism”—was coined by researcher Manfred E. Clynes in a paper he co-wrote for the journal Astronautics. The paper was a theoretical consideration of various ways in which fragile human bodies could be technologically adapted and improved to better withstand the rigors of space exploration. (Clynes’s co-author said the word cyborg “sounds like a town in Denmark.”)

But McGuire doesn’t seem to be aware of the word’s original connection to space exploration — he doesn’t acknowledge it anywhere, as far as I can tell — and instead he seems to be using the word “cyborg” in its more recent and sensationalistic science-fiction-ish sense of part-man, part-machine. So why use that word? The simple answer, I suppose, is that academics are far from immune to the lure of attention-getting titles for their work. But it is still noteworthy that for McGuire and his audience, “cyborg” is apparently something to strive for, not a monstrous hybrid like most iconic cyborgs (think Darth Vader, the Borg, or the Terminators). Deliberately or not, McGuire is engaged in a revaluation of values. One wonders whether in a transhumanist future there will be any “monsters” at all; perhaps that word will share the fate of other terms of distinction that have become outmoded or politically incorrect. “Monster,” after all, implies some norm or standard, and transhumanism is in revolt against norms and standards.

Or perhaps the unenhanced human being will become the monster, the literal embodiment of all that right-thinking intelligence rebels against, a dead-end abortion of mere nature. Their obstinate persistence would be fearful if they themselves were not so pitiful. We came from that?

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