If you spend any time reading about human augmentation or touch on transhumanist topics, the word “cyborg” is going to come up a lot. It’s also a word that gets bandied about in science fiction films and literature all the time too. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day famously described himself as a “cybernetic organism” with “living tissue over metal endoskeleton”.
At the most basic level, a cyborg is any organism that has both organic and artificial components integrated with each other. Crucially, there must be a feedback loop between the two types of parts. Having a peg-leg therefore does not qualify one as a cyborg because there is no feedback between the organic and artificial. In fact, it’s also arguable whether a simple prosthetic is really “integrated” at all.
Why Do Transhumanists Care about Cybernetics?
Cybernetics is probably the area most people think of when you mention transhumanism. It’s the most obvious way in which a human being can change themselves into something other than human. I think cybernetics has caught the imagination of the general public, thanks to its common use in films and literature. We’ve had super-popular characters such as the Terminator that I just mentioned, but also RoboCop, the Borg from Star Trek, and Darth Vader himself.
They are often portrayed as scary or grotesque for dramatic effect, but the truth is that cybernetics (and the related field of bionics) will play a major role in the uplifting of mankind during the 21st century.
What’s the Big Idea
The idea of augmenting, repairing, enhancing or modifying organic systems, such as the human body, with artificial parts has been around a long time in science fiction literature. There are multiple examples from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Of course, the word “cyborg” and “cybernetics” comes from the Greek word for “self-governance”. This refers to the way that systems regulate themselves with regard to signals. Even before we succeeded in making devices that merge with organic systems, the idea was already there. It’s important to note that cybernetics as a whole does not necessarily relate to organic and machine fusion, but to the theories of signaling and communication as a whole.
So, as a field it applies to things like computer networks, social structures, and more. There’s even a field of psychotherapy that’s cybernetic. It’s called “systems” therapy and is usually used to treat entire dysfunctional families as a system. For the purpose of this site, I’ll be thinking about cybernetics in a way closer to that depicted in films and literature.
I’m also incorporating another area distinct from but related to cybernetics – bionics. Cybernetics is more concerned about the system as a whole and the way that the parts communicate and self-regulate. Bionics is a field of study that deals specifically with technology built to mimic the form and/or function of natural biological systems. So an artificial organ is bionic, but if you put it into a human, that human becomes a cyborg. So really, this section should be called “cybernetics and bionics” but, for practical purposes, rolling it all under the cybernetics banner is OK.
What You’ll Find in This Section
This is the section that deals with the future technologies that will affect us in the most personal ways – technologies that will visibly and noticeably change our bodies. Some of the cybernetic and bionic things I cover can be scary and invasive; others are much more subtle. You’ll find articles about brain implants that let you directly control technology, and others that make you smarter. Artificial organs and limbs are obviously covered here as well.
Thanks to the rather advanced state of cybernetics and bionics, I get to talk about a lot of real tech that’s actually been tested in humans. Despite what many people may think, this is one of the least “theoretical” sections on the site. There’s a good chance that if you need an organ or limb someday, its ancestor would have been discussed right here. Personally, this is one of my favorite topics, so I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!