Sunday, September 12, 2010

To 'borg or not to 'borg?

I would love to end up as the classic old man on the mountain with a robotic body, my virtually immortal brain and a high speed connection to the internet. I doubt the technology to make that happen will be invented at any point in my life, but it does make for an interesting fantasy.
But I don't think it's impossible. In fact, I think prostheses are actually making leaps and bounds (and allowing leaps and bounds that would otherwise be impossible) in this direction- still a long way off, to be sure, but far from the stuff of science fiction one would imagine when, say, the original Terminator came out.
What brought this all on was listening to a fantastic podcast called Rationally Speaking, specifically this episode, from Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef. Unfortunately, while they are consistently able to amaze me at how much information they can put into 30 minutes of audio, they didn't discuss my particular case, but I thought I'd take a look at it from the perspectives they did and see where it led me.
First, let's look at how feasible the technologies in question are.
Let's examine the successes first- they are pretty disappointing. Really. Legs hold a larger market share, and thus get more research dollars, but there are some promising, if disorganized, lines of research. I'm not going to cut my hand off a la Luke Skywalker in hoping for an improvement any time soon, but if it did happen to me, my life wouldn't completely suck. There is technology available that would help. Ironically, we have President Bush to thank, at least indirectly; one thing driving the research are the people who need the technology are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who were caught by roadside bombs. Legs, on the other hand, are actually doing very well- an Olympic runner was disqualified recently due to his artificial legs. That's actually really cool, if you think about it. People who lose the use of their legs due to something other than a spinal injury actually have a chance of having a significant advantage (at least in application in narrow fields)- and, one study at least says, the more of their legs replaced, the better! More leg lost, and thus, replaced, equals more leg function and less energy required.
Of course, none of the technology is across the line better than our mundane flesh and blood extremities. Yet. It may get there (again, probably not in our lifetimes), but there is a good chance that all we'll accomplish is making amputation somewhat less devastating. Also remember that we're only talking arms and legs here, not organs, which, at least right now, are completely useless for my old cyborg on the mountain dream (I'm just as well off hoping to become a vampire, werewolf, or swamp-thing analogue).
Organs are far more complex than arms and especially legs, and are proving much more difficult to simulate. So that doesn't look likely, at least not in the next century. A life support system for the brain? Maybe, but as Dr. Pigliucci eludes to in the podcast, the brain has this nasty happen of, well, dying really fast if you don't give it exactly what it needs. The blue screen of death would become a ghastly literal interpretation (I am experiencing joy and sadness simultaneously! SYSTEM ERROR)- life support systems would be costly, difficult to implement and incredibly dangerous. As death prone as our fleshy bodies are, at least they are relatively reliable, as long as you don't have a genetic disease that leads to an early demise, such as Tay- Sachs.
Well, since all of those are evidently quite a distance in the future, perhaps a better question is, should we try to get to the point where we can replace our squishy bits with superior, robotic replacements?
So, let's look at whether we should even consider it- e.g, is turning yourself into a cyborg a good idea? Here, a lot of the points that Dr. Pigliucci makes do apply. First, the haves and the have nots- would those with the money to afford this technology, or the insurance, turn themselves into gods, leaving the poor among us to grovel before their superior metallic forms? Personally, I doubt it. At least not when it was in the prostheses stage. I think this would be a case where a naturally growing technology eventually overtakes our natural, and hopefully the disparity, by that time, won't be quite as bad as it is now. But in terms of the life support systems? They would have to be costly. Think about it. You pay what, $100 for Windows? Let's be generous and say that works 99% of the time. If you want the server edition, you'll pay 5 times as much, but it works 99.9% of the time. If you want something better than that, such as something as reliable as a car's computer, or a commercial jet, or an F-16, you'll pay orders of magnitude more, and for diminishing returns in terms of reliability. But this is your life! It's worth it! And in this instance, at least, you will have the haves and the have-nots. Hopefully, though, the haves will be able to defeat any insurrections due to their superior mechanical forms, but even that is doubtful. Humans are notoriously tricky beasts, and we aren't improving the minds of the elite, only making them last longer and giving them more abilities. The same could be accomplished in other, more cost effective ways, but I'd be writing all night if I went into them.
Incidentally, I think this topic is probably the closest to the case of the "original" Pygmalion.
Suffice it to say, I think we're better off with minor implants that offer useful, affordable advantages (think of the Omni-tool in the Mass Effect series [Never played Mass Effect? Think of a Droid or an iPhone, only on steroids and embedded in your wrist {Like nested parenthetical statements? Me too}]) rather than full on, body replacing constructs. Perhaps, in many, many generations, our technology will get to the point where these questions, at least in this limited case of cyborg technology, are completely moot. Or not. The cool thing about the future is what we don't know. The mystery. And the hope.

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