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Our Cyborg selves

Our Cyborg selves

By Terry Dartnall - posted Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Recent research in cognitive science suggests that we are cyborgs anyway, not in the sense that we have modified our bodies, but in the deeper and more penetrating sense that we have modified our minds by extending and amplifying them with external technologies. We are so enmeshed with these technologies that removing them would be akin to brain damage. We are cyborgs now - and we always have been.

The philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark, who has pioneered much of this research, points out that our cyborg status solves various puzzles. One is the way in which, despite our genetic similarity to other species, there is something that makes us different and sets us apart. This is the cyborg modification of our minds with external, cognitive technologies.

The first cognitive technology was probably language, which enabled us to freeze our thoughts into stable objects that we could reflect upon and change. We were then drawn upwards in a virtuous circle as one cognitive technology led to another, upgrading our mindware from speech to writing, through increasingly flexible forms of printing. Until today, when we are engaging in an intimate relationship with machines. And the process is speeding up.


Even without our cognitive technologies we are what I call "bioborgs", with modular brains and onboard robot-like devices that we launch to do our bidding. When you go to the fridge for a beer you don't consciously move your left leg and then your right leg and then your left leg. You delegate responsibility to an onboard walking mechanism - I call it a "biobot". When you get to the fridge you launch a "get that bottle" routine, rather like launching a little onboard robot. You effectively say, "Get that bottle for me" - and the device gets it for you.

Our bioborg nature leaves us well placed for mechanical augmentation, for a seamless integration of our onboard abilities with technologies in the world.

From Bioborgs to Cyborgs

Our bioborg nature has operated in consort with our opportunistic brains to create out there cognitive technologies that complement our basic cognitive abilities. These technologies give us symbolic data stores in the world that we can manipulate and modify, and subsystems in the world that perform operations and processes by themselves - subsystems that are not in our heads but in the world.

The next stage is the computer. Suppose you have to write a paper or a talk. You scribble some ideas, cross some out and add new ones. You throw them into a Word document. There was something you wrote a few months ago that might be relevant, but you can't find the file. You click on Search and the computer finds it for you. You paste it across and print out the document. You get coffee, look at the document, scribble on it, and go back to the computer. You are engaged in a complex, creative loop with the computer.

These cases only tell part of the story, because they assume you already have language. And language is a technology in itself...


Language is what Clark calls a "transparent technology". We are so well integrated with it that it is almost invisible in use. We are surrounded by such technologies (pens, watches, computers, telephones...) and are rapidly developing new ones. "Pseudo-neural" implants in our bodies will communicate with one-another - where we are and how we are. Augmented reality will overlay our experience of the world with personalised information, beamed to us by satellite. Lost on campus we will enter "library", don an eyeglass and see a green arrow pointing to the library.

Our Cyborg selves

Our effortless integration with our technologies makes us characteristically and distinctively human. It gives us much that we cherish about our species, including art, science and creativity, and the ability to explore the universe and ourselves.

Our papers, pens, notebooks, diaries and computers complement our biological abilities. We would be impoverished - and less human - without them.


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