Thursday, July 19 , 2018, 4:08 pm | Fair 76º


Tam Hunt: Are We Inevitably Becoming iParasitized?

We’re in for an interesting ride amid the cyborgization of humanity

As I write I am surrounded by my iFamily: tapping on the keyboard of my MacBook Pro with my iPad next to me on my couch and my iPhone in my pocket. Across from me is my Apple TV, which allows me to stream Internet, music and video to my television. And I’ll soon purchase an iMac desktop computer to replace my increasingly wobbly desktop PC in my office.

I spent an hour or two while watching TV tonight updating my software with iOS 5 and the latest version of the Mac Lion operating system. Who needs real people when I have my iFamily of electronic gadgets to keep me busy? I have truly been iParasitized.

Are we inevitably all becoming iParasitized, or at least eParasitized (as in some form of electronic media parasitization)? It seems we are — and those who are not will eventually die off and leave the rest of us parasite hosts to keep up the good fight. Or will they?

It’s not all bad. Far from it. In fact, we are, as a consequence of eParasitism, more and more interconnected with those we love, as well as with some of those we hate, such as our bosses.

More profoundly, this latest form of parasitism is only beginning. Surely Steve Jobs, a towering figure in U.S. history and worthy of all the plaudits that went his way after his death, envisioned far greater integration of Apple products into our lives. And where Apple goes everyone else now seems to follow.

Isn’t it clear that by, let’s say, 2020, the iPhone 10, or whatever they call it then, will connect directly to our brain in some manner and will probably include a display that shines directly onto our retina, or least on an eyepiece attached to our head like sunglasses. Maybe it will be the iphone 10BC (for “brain connect”).

Siri, Apple’s new electronic “personal assistant,” is an exciting advance. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. With the dawn of useful Artificial Intelligence (AI) like Siri, and the increasing ease with which electronics can read brain waves (increasingly without invasive electrodes) it seems we are indeed just a few short years from integrating electronics wordlessly and wirelessly into our very brains.

We are quickly becoming cyborgs.

I remember little more than a decade ago when I scoffed at the idea of owning a cell phone. Why get a cell phone? I found out why before too long and never looked back. Then I scoffed at those weirdos who wore wireless earphones, until I realized how useful they can be. I won’t scoff at the first people who wear a brain-reading iPhone. I’ll probably be one of them.

More broadly, electronics and other artificial components will increasingly become part of us, and probably in a much more invasive manner than a brain-reading iPhone. Artificial hips, knees and organs are becoming more and more common. Amazingly, we can now grow new organs with stem cells from actual patients over an inert scaffolding from a dead donor. This type of organ transplant is becoming increasingly common, and scientists are working on growing functional hearts and lungs, building on existing successes with tracheas, bladders and other simpler organs. Are these organs artificial? They’re not electronic, but they surely should qualify as part of the “cyborgization” of humanity.

Perhaps the “bioelectronics revolution” is what this cyborgization will be known as when it starts to kick in seriously.

Beyond fixing medical ailments, the justifiable focus of most medical research in this era, a small number of scientists are working on rejuvenation techniques that will surely involve a mix of replacing failing organs, turning back the clock on existing cells, tissues and organs, and also incorporating artificial components where appropriate. An advantage of electronic or mechanical components is that they’re far easier to fix or replace than biological components.

The writing is also on the wall when it comes to including artificial intelligence in robots and having these become far more useful personal assistants than Siri version 1.0. Similarly, our homes, cars and offices will almost certainly become wired (wirelessly) with the same artificial intelligence that we keep in our pocket, allowing us to control our environments in many ways with a voice command and, soon, our minds alone.

The cyborgization of humanity seems all but assured, at least for those who can afford it, and then perhaps for the majority as costs come down. Most of those who don’t like such ideas will, again, die off and those who remain will be those who don’t mind the merging of man with machine. Or will neo-Luddites, modern-day Amish groups, spring up pervasively, announcing a line in the sand of cyborgization that they will not cross?

We can’t say, of course, how long this process will take, and I suspect it will be many decades, if not centuries, before it gets well under way (despite the claims of smart people like Ray Kurzweil). It seems to me that even though so many people have embraced the personal electronics revolution around the world, once we really start messing with mother nature with increasingly intrusive procedures that seriously blur the line between man and machine, there’s bound to be a backlash.

I’m personally quite torn about the seemingly inevitable march of bioelectronics and cyborgization. As mentioned, I’ve recently embraced the most recent manifestations of this trend, and I can see myself continuing to embrace future developments for a while. But when this march starts to truly blur the lines between the human organism and bioelectronics creations, I may start to balk. And I think a lot of others will, too. It will certainly be interesting to see how these events unfold, and I won’t be surprised if we do have many communities who decide cyborgization is not for them.

Legislation will probably be passed in some countries to prevent certain invasive technologies, as has been the case with human cloning in recent years. The lesson we’ve learned, however, from attempts to postpone such developments is that they’re only slowed down, never stopped. And eventually they become accepted as normal.

The next few decades promise to be interesting times. Kurzweil is one of a few thinkers who have pondered the deeper aspects, including spiritual aspects, of this transformation of humanity — at least a little. Before he became famous for his ideas on the Singularity he wrote a book called The Age of Spiritual Machines. Kurzweil describes his view that mankind will lose none of our spiritual capacity even as we move away from our strictly biological origins. But his understanding of spirituality seems rather limited in his book and his discussion isn’t particularly convincing.

Francis Fukuyama, best-known as a student of foreign policy, wrote a 2003 book, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, in which he sketches out some policy recommendations to mitigate the negative effects of our pending cyborgization. He appeals primarily to outmoded philosophical ideas such as an essential quality that makes us human, an idea going back to Aristotle, Plato and, of course, long before. As much as I like some of the Greek philosophers’ ideas, I don’t find much support at all in modern science or philosophy for any notion of an unchanging human essence.

Rather, it seems that “humanity,” as with almost everything in the universe, is a term we use to describe a constellation of always changing features. When does an embryo become a human? I won’t go down that rabbit hole. When does a human stop being a human? That’s perhaps an even harder question. When did the first human appear? Will humans ever evolve to a point where we don’t call ourselves humans anymore? This is, of course, what many thinkers are starting to suggest with the potential of the bioelectronics revolution to make us more than human, to transcend our humanity.

There is really just one question, though, that will determine the course of this profound transformation we’re currently undergoing as individuals and as a species: Are we happier with our ever-increasing electronic and biomedical interventions?

Judging by the exponential success of smart phones and iPads, there is a huge demand for this kind of iParasitism. I can personally attest to the enjoyments of instant electronic communication made possibly by my electronic toys, and the immense wealth of information at my fingertips at almost any moment.

I do, of course, feel a burden sometimes: the degree to which I feel like I need my electronic connections and those times when I reject them purely because I do feel addicted (try going a weekend or a week without your cell phone sometime — it’s hard!).

It is obvious but worth stating that as the benefits are outweighed by the downsides of our bioelectronics wizardry, we may start to see a wide-scale rejection of further cyborgization. But that threshold will be different for each individual, community and country, so all I can say now is that we’re in for an interesting ride in the coming decades.

My iFamily and I will be there to witness it.

— Tam Hunt is president of Community Renewable Solutions LLC, which is focused on community-scale renewables. He also is a lecturer on climate change law and policy at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. Click here for his blog, Thought, Spirit, Politik.

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