The dream of the cyborg is coming true at an exhilarating rate. As humans gets better and better at making machines, we keep attaching those machines to our bodies to make ourselves better humans. It seems at times that the only question left is if we can put a human brain in a robotic frame. Actually, it's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when.
This week, social psychologist Bertold Meyer's been traveling around the country with a contraption that looks like a cross between a Halloween mask and Johnny Number Five. It's the subject of a new documentary by the Smithsonian Channel called The Incredible Bionic Man. Meyer makes for a great spokesman, since he was born without the lower part of his left arm and now wears a bionic prosthesis. He is, by definition, a cyborg—but only partially.
So just how close are we to a fully formed cyborg? And even more curiously, what will it look like?
What is a cyborg?
Let's take a second to agree on what exactly it means to be bionic and what it means to be a cyborg. In many ways, the two words are interchangeable, and both came into usage around the same time in 1960s. Whereas "bionic" borrows the "bi-" from biology and "-onic" from electronic, "cyborg" is a portmanteau of cybernetic and organism. Both refer to living organisms that are aided or enhanced by artificial means. Often these means amount to electronic or mechanical devices, much like the mind-controlled prosthetic hand that Meyer wears on his left arm. For now, let's just stick with cyborg for simplicity's sake.
The term "cyborg" probably brings to mind images of Robocop or Darth Vadar. But in fact, it doesn't have to be so extreme. When Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline coined the term in a 1960 article about "altering man's bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments," they explored chemistry as much as they did mechanical engineering. In this sense, even Lance Armstrong was a cyborg back in his juicing days. But for all intents and purposes, cyborgs these days use machines to help them regain lost capabilities—like amputees returning from Afghanistan—or to gain new ones—like soldiers armed with exoskeletons.
Our current capabilities
Those examples in mind, you have to admit that sometimes it feels we live in a sci-fi reality. But that's only because we do. The so-called incredible Bionic Man that Meyers paraded around Washington DC last Thursday represents the sum of cyborg parts that have been in development for over half a century, many of which showed up in science fiction books in the interim. All things told, this TV-ready cyborg has between 60 and 70 percent of the function of a human being. It even has blood. But blood does not a cyborg make.
To begin thinking about what it might mean to have a fully formed cyborgs, let's go through our current capabilities in cyborg tech—starting with our most advanced capabilities.
The robot featured in the Smithsonian documentary has the same model of prosthetic arm as Meyer, mechanical marvel made by Touch Bionics. He can move each of the fingers by activating two electrodes that connect to muscles in the residual limb. This is hardly as good as it gets, though.