Evolution is staring the human species in the face. For decades, science fiction writers have fantasized about the unification of humans and machines. Never before has that fantasy started to look like a reality, and it could take humans beyond our species.
The incorporation of technology into humans can be seen most apparently in the world of prosthetics. Here, artificial limbs have become controllable by thought alone. There are also cochlear implants, retinal implants, artificial joints and artificial hearts. Some of these devices are crude or not yet near the equivalent of current human capacity. However, artificial limbs could be adapted to specialized tasks, and, with modification, enable people, who might have once been considered at a disadvantage, to harness specialized super-human abilities.
One group of early adopters of integrating technology has been biohackers who are working to figure out how to tweak genetics and other enhancing techniques. One sub-group of biohackers, called grinders or biopunks, is busy carrying out DIY self-experimentation that has led to increased night vision and a sixth sense of magnetic fields. They have done this by incorporating a special chlorophyll into the eye in the first case and implanting magnets under the skin in the second. Experiments have so far been limited to these, but some have proposed implanting a device that could always tell someone which direction north is.
Biohacking is part of a more philosophical movement called transhumanism that embraces the purposeful integration of technology. It is a movement that embraces this concept encouraging the fusion of the human and technology up to being able to actually transfer human consciousness to a computer, greatly expanding life, and possibly even cheating death.
Other areas where these advances in technology can be seen is in industry. Here, defense companies have developed exoskeletons that allow humans to lift far more than they could on their own. Google Glass, while horrible looking, is an integration of technology that augments reality with data. There is also the automobile which has not only been manufactured by robots, but, in higher-end cars, are more like driving partners than a dumb machine. It will not be long before the car no longer needs any human input, allowing us to text, apply makeup and read the newspaper without potentially injuring or killing each other in the process.
Robotics and artificial intelligence are the most abstract fusion of human and machine. Here we have created machines that are increasingly being able to carry out complicated and nuanced tasks. They are also becoming able to make their own decisions and operate autonomously. This creation is a product of our intellect, elevating humanity into the once mythological realm as we become the very gods we once worshiped by creating what could soon be considered conscious, independent life forms.
This leads to the question — is that a good thing? What if the machines we are creating become super-human without the problems that plague humanity? Evolution may render homo-sapiens irrelevant with homo-machina taking its place as the dominant species on this planet.
Of course, there are more practical issues that are raised by this field of research and development. The most obvious is that robots pose an interesting challenge to our current economic system. As robot technology continues to advance, these machines will begin to take over tasks that are now considered off limits to robots. If enough robots replace humans, we will have to find ways to engage people in new forms of economic activity. Or, could this technology liberate people from meaningless toil and re-engage humans in political, philosophical and community-based activities where people can find greater fulfillment? These are both ideal possibilities when compared with another more likely situation, the weaponization of these machines and an abuse of the new power that could emanate from them.
The course we take with these machines requires thoughtful analysis and application of our generation’s great abilities and concern for long-term consequences of our actions.
Collegian Columnist Ryan Deuschle can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @engageinlife.