September 30, 2011
Sarah Sydney: Where are all the cyborgs?
Prosthetics expert Sarah Sydney from the University of Bath joined us at Bestival and introduced us to the cyborgs that walk among us today, from people who can walk again thanks to prosthetic limbs, to the lucky recipients of bionic eyes. Thanks to engineers like her the deaf can hear, the blind may see, and the paralysed walk. Sometimes, human progress is an astounding thing.
“Darth Vader!” “The Borg.” “Robocop.” “Inspector Gadget!”
These were some of the answers to the question I posed to the Bestival-goers in the Guerilla Science tent: “Do you know any cyborgs?”
We all know cyborgs in science fiction. But where are the cyborgs in real life?
Well, technically, they’re everywhere. Anyone with a hearing aid, glasses, or a walking stick could be called a cyborg, because they are restoring or enhancing their body’s functions with mechanical or electrical aids.
But on that windy Sunday in the Guerilla Science tent, I wanted to talk about cutting-edge technology, where man and machine are interlinked and communicating. To explain how cyborg technology can be used to restore the body’s functions, I enlisted the help of Steve the Pirate.
Steve’s a typical buccaneer with a peg leg, missing eye, hand hook and a dodgy hip. By trying to turn him into a cyborg pirate, we got the chance to explore a few areas of prosthetic and bionic technology.
To get rid of the eye-patch, we looked at some bionic eyes, which are similar to cochlear implants for the inner ear, and can allow blind people to see shapes and images. This also afforded me the opportunity to show a brilliant gross-out video of a woman removing her prosthetic eye.
The hand hook also had to go. This could be replaced by a bionic hand with fingers that move independently (check out this amazing video from the BBC), or a whole mechatronic arm, controlled by muscles in the chest. We could also give Steve a custom hip replacement, and implant it with computer-navigated, robot-assisted surgery. And we could even replace his peg leg with a prosthetic leg – producing an entirely new Steve.
This brought us to the world of prosthetic legs, which have moved from wooden stumps to bionic prosthetic legs that can “learn” how their owner walks, and adapt accordingly.
We investigated some bizarre and unexpected applications of cyborg technology, such as the guy with a USB stick in his prosthetic finger.
Looking at military-led research led us to cyborg insects and remote-controlled sharks, as well as the latest progress on the “Iron-Man suit” exoskeleton.
“Could we have a loudspeaker implanted into our throats?” was one question posed by a curious festival-goer. Technically, yes we could. But do we want this kind of human augmentation? Transhumanists believe that we should be using technology to overcome human limitations, to expand our abilities and extend our life-spans, turning us into “posthumans”.
But, as I asked the audience, is this something we really want, and can the Earth sustain this kind of progress?
Gradually, new technology is bringing us closer to the cyborgs we see in science fiction. Eventually, it is possible that we will be able to create a cyborg body that will live indefinitely, man and machine intertwined, limited only by the lifespan of our brains.
But how far are we willing to go? This is something that neither I, nor the Bestival-goers, had the answer to…