Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Rise of the cyborgs

People have been requesting that I do more futurist posts, so here's a bit of holiday optimism.

A lot of recent futurist discussion in the media and blogosphere has revolved around either the technological stagnation thesis, or the question of whether robots will replace humans. Elsewhere, people are toying with the implications of more far-out technologies like brain emulation and desire modification, or following the ongoing mini-booms in natural gas fracking and 3-D printing.

But it occurs to me that people may be overlooking something big: another technological revolution that is right under our noses, about to change our world in a big way. I'm talking about the rise of biomechanical engineering...or, to use a more catchy term, cyborg technology. The cyborg revolution is not a far-future sci-fi conjecture; it is upon us even as I write these words.

For a taste of how cyborg technology may soon change our world, check out this BBC article. The key technology is the integration of human brains with computers. Here are some extrapolations of technologies that currently exist:

1. Direct mental control of machines (also called Mind-Machine Interface, or MMI). Non-invasive ways of controlling machines with one's mind have already been developed and will soon be commercialized. The biggest benefit of this, of course, will be for physically impaired people, but it will also probably allow us to write a lot faster; just think words, and they appear on the page. Writing speed is probably a significant constraint on productivity, so MMI may have the potential to raise service-industry productivity, which has been lagging in recent decades. Of course, MMI may also be a much easier and more fun way to play video games, control your mobile devices, etc., than punching buttons.

Another aspect of this is mind-internet interface. Obviously, this is scary, since you don't want your brain getting hacked by jerky teenagers halfway around the globe. So I'm not sure if this will ever be done, especially because sight is already a very fast way to assimilate information from the net.

2. Augmented intelligence. Artificial intelligence is one of the most-talked-about technologies, but if you think about it, it's probably easier and more natural to begin with the intelligence we already have, and simply augment it with computers. The BBC article I cited discusses experiments in which artificial devices have already served as functioning brain structures in rats, in particular as artificial memory centers; expect this technology to improve rapidly.

If we can store human memories in artificial brain structures, the implications are enormous. First of all, it would vastly expand the knowledge base and expertise of a human knowledge worker; if we could store vastly expanded amounts of knowledge, we would no longer be constrained to specialize in one incredibly narrow field. This might unlock huge innovative potential, as individual humans could do the kind of creative work that now require teams of humans.

If these artificial brain structures can be exchanged between people (a nontrivial task, obviously!), then we get human memory transfer, and the possibilities are even more enormous. Instant education, as expertise is copied and transferred from human to human. Functional immortality, as full sets of memories are transferred to cloned brains (Note: This is an idea I got from Miles Kimball; he explains it in this post). Etc.

Artificial brain structures might also allow boosted cognitive ability. Imagine humans with the processing power of computers at their beck and call. This, of course, is a more speculative technology...but maybe not so speculative, to wit:

3. Augmented learning. This sounds very pie-in-the-sky, until you read the BBC article and find that it is already real and may even be available over the counter:

Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is a way of running electrical current through the brain with electrodes attached to the outside of the skull. The US Defence Advanced Research Agency (Darpa) currently uses tDCS to improve the learning speed of snipers, claiming it cuts the learning curve by a factor of 2.5. There are issues, though. "They learn more quickly but they don't have a good intuitive or introspective sense about why,” says Vincent Clark, neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico. 
Such devices were initially expensive, but now GoFlow sells a DIY kit for $99, which consists of two electrodes, cables and a 9-volt battery. So, in theory, everybody can try and tune his or her own brain at home. But if it is not applied correctly, anything could happen – from enhancing intelligence (intended), rewiring our brains (who knows?) through to electrocuting ourselves (not intended). Neuroscientist Roi Cohen Kadosh from Oxford University says he wouldn’t buy the DIY kit, because he thinks it is premature to distribute it to non-experts. “People might feel like they should stimulate their brain as much as they want, but just as buying a medicine on the counter, you need to know when to use it, how often, in what conditions and in what cases you should not take it.”
There is no word to describe this except for "amazing". I fully expect other bloggers to buy the kit, try it out, and tell me how it goes...

Of course, another possible application of this exact same type of technology is:

4. Mood modification. We already know how to stimulate certain emotions with direct brain stimulation; noninvasive methods, of the type currently being developed for artificial learning, would revolutionize the applications of this technology. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy currently relies on human attention and vigilance to replace negative thoughts with positive ones (thus alleviating depression and anxiety); if this process could be automated, it could help cure some of the great psychological scourges of modern society.

But why stop there? People with phobias could get rid of the phobias by counteracting fear responses at high speed; as soon as you see the thing you fear (a dog, or an enclosed space), a computer will see your fear response spiking and stimulate feelings of safety and security instead. Poof, phobia gone! Not to mention social anxiety; imagine how easy it would be to talk to cute girls at parties if your mobile device could zap you with artificial self-confidence every time you started to get scared.

Of course, at this point, mood modification becomes a rudimentary form of my "holy grail" technology of Desire Modification. The thing to understand is that non-invasive external stimulation of emotional responses is not very far away; we're talking a few years, not a few decades.

5. Artificial sensory input. This already exists and is on the market, in the form of cochlear impants (artificial ears) and visual prostheses (artificial eyes). The technology is improving very rapidly. At the point where artificial senses become as good as (or better than!) natural ones, whole new worlds of possibility open up.

For example: artificial eyes and ears would replace all input devices. You would never need a television screen, a phone, Google Goggles, or a speaker of any kind. All you would need would be your own artificial eyes. You could play video games in perfect, pure augmented reality. Imagine the possibilities for video-conferencing, or hanging out with friends half a world away!

And why stop there? If you wanted, you could perceive the buildings around you as castles, or the inside of a spaceship. The whole world could look and sound however you wanted.

(Of course, brain chips that could feed artificial input to the sensory perception centers of the brain - the technology of The Matrix - could accomplish this task even better. But this might be farther away.)

OK, time to stop. Of course, I haven't come close to encompassing the full set of possibilities available from brain-computer interface, but I think I've shown that many cyborg technologies that currently exist have the potential to quickly and dramatically reshape human life. I leave it to you to fill out the list.

What will this mean for the economy? Well, unlike media and information technologies (which can usually be copied without cost), biomechanical technologies are good old manufactured goods; their inclusion into the economy will show up in the GDP statistics, unlike Facebook or Craigslist. And because these technologies have the potential to vastly improve the human experience, we can expect them to become near-universal consumer goods, provided our legal institutions allow it.

Also, cyborg technologies have the potential to improve human productivity quite a bit, as my examples above have hopefully shown. Humans who can store vast amounts of knowledge and expertise, who can directly interface with machines, and who can make themselves more well-adjusted and motivated at the touch of a (mental) button will be valuable employees indeed, and will prove useful complements to the much-discussed army of robots.

All this means that cyborg technologies, if they become widespread, will do much to quiet the fears of the stagnationists. But this, of course, requires institutions that allow these technologies to become universal. Currently, I feel that institutions like the FDA and the health care system are biased toward treating the "sick", and place way too little value on technologies to improve the average human experience above its baseline (witness how we push antidepressants on everyone, but ban even weak recreational pleasure drugs like marijuana). I fear that our society will collectively decide that anything that improves on "natural" humanity is unsafe for public consumption. This would sacrifice huge amounts of growth potential on the altar of what is essentially a pointless, semantic distinction (Isn't it "natural" for old men to become impotent? But we still allow Viagra...).

In any case, the cyborg revolution is upon us. Pay attention, futurists. This could be very, very big.

Update: Just to clarify, I think that: A) cyborg technologies that affect the mind are going to be far, far more important than ones that affect mainly the body, and B) Noninvasive methods of brain-computer interface definitely count as "cyborg" technology; you don't have to have robot parts in your head to be a cyborg.

Update 2: In this must-read piece, io9's George Dvorsky lists 16 science fiction predictions that actually came true just in 2012. Cyborg technology dominates the list; see items 1, 3, 10, 13, and 15. The cyborg revolution is upon us!

Update 3: A TED talk on cyborgs just came out. Like I said, this is bigger than anyone realizes, and is right now in the process of exploding into the public consciousness.

Update 4: Futurist Ramez Naam has an article in Forbes summarizing a lot of the new cyborg tech and speculating about where it might take us.


  1. This is why I think our future society will seem "magical" in many ways, like how it must have been for people who believed that they lived in a sea of spirits and deities. Imagine being to walk around in augmented reality, while all manner of computers and the like show up as avatars. A child might see them as cute friends, while an adult might see them as people.

  2. 1. We already have a mind-internet interface. It is mediated by our eyes and hands. We also have augmented intelligence and memory, at least since the days of papyrus, or even before that with stone counting.

    2. A brain is not a computer and consciousness is not computation.

    1. "consciousness is not computation"

      Either consciousness is a computation or a supernatural "soul" exists outside of the laws of physics. One or the other - there is no third choice.

    2. to assert as fact that there is no third choice in the ocean of infinite unknowns we inhabit is an error. What we don't know is stupefyingly immense.

    3. Bill Ellis2:21 PM

      I have the same kind of feeling about it as you. But I am not sure about it at all.
      If everything we are has as its origin or essence a manifestation in the knowable physical world ... then can't it/we be exactly emulated... in theory ? And if so, then can't that manifestation be digitalized ?

      I don't know. But the part of me that has an open mind about the possibility of theological or supernatural aspects of reality reflexively rejects the Idea that consciousness is computation.

      There are big challenges ahead to conventional theologies if Noah is right.

    4. Apparently there are indeed 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary arithmetic and those who don't. :-)

    5. Chris8:27 PM

      Consciousness is probably computation. A good book for understanding how that could be is Good and Real by Gary Drescher. Check it out!

    6. Must agree with Absalon on this - either we are biological computers or we are not. There doesn't seem to be a third option. As an atheist I must say if it turns out we are more than just a collection of cells it will be a life changing event for me.

    7. If consciousness is computation, then you guys must feel pretty horrible about throwing out old calculators and laptops and phones. If you don't, then perhaps you can explain at what point computation becomes consciousness? When it is reflexive, and examines itself? Plenty of engineered systems do that. I can set up a computer with a thermocouple and have it reduce its rate of computation to prevent overheating. Is it now conscious?

      Computation is analogical to some aspects of consciousness, but they are far from isomorphic and the analogy can become misleading. If you think that you are a biological computer but you think that there is something qualitatively different between you and a computer (such that, for example, you can ethically justify ever switching a powerful computer off), then you are the one who has a hole in your theory.

      A good book to read is 'Encountering the World: Toward an Ecological Psychology', by Ed Reed.

    8. CM: Most of your arguments fall apart if consciousness is a proper subset of computation, which is the more common version of the idea.

    9. Joshua: I think this is an interesting point, and getting somewhere, but what subset? That makes the problem much more explicit. Saying "consciousness is computation" has relatively little explanatory power, phenomenologically or behaviorally. Consciousness might (in contrast to some, I would say does) have aspects that are like computation, but it is clear that most people recognise that computation is not the same as consciousness. Given this, the question is, what distinguishes computation that creates/correlates with/whatever consciousness from that which does not? Is that even a scientific question?

      Absalon: If you think that consciousness as computation is the only argument, or that in saying this I am advocating some kind of mystical anti-science, you just aren't very widely read. And if you think I don't understand your weak binary joke, you might want to consider that I have published on neural dynamics and computation. But why stop laughing when you already know everything?

    10. CM

      I usually try to not feed the trolls but go ahead and enlighten me and prove how smart and well read you think you are.

      If there is some third choice explanation for consciousness other than a "computation" or some supernatural/religious/outside the laws of physics explanation tell us. Saying that consciousness arises from physical processes but cannot be emulated in real time on current computers due to lack of processing power does not mean that consciousness is not a computation.

    11. @da55id: given the immensity of the universe that we _know_ exists, I agree with you that the barest speck of it which we have explored (here on earth and in our immediate galactic neighborhood) doesn't give us any basis whatsoever for foreclosing on other possibilities regarding the nature of consciousness.

    12. Third choice? Perhaps you can actually articulate what the first two are coherently?

      What is consciousness? What are sufficient conditions for computation to render consciousness? If you don't know the answer to that, it is chutzpah beyond belief to say that computation is the only possible basis for consciousness. In fact, it sounds very much like the mysticism you claim to disavow. Suddenly (magically?) one crosses a threshold in computational power and consciousness arises? I'm sure that's not what you think, so apologies for the caricature, but if you are going to accuse me of mysticism you might want to spell out what this single coherent idea of consciousness is (and why you can so confidently proscribe all other possibilities with no empirical evidence at all).

      It's particularly funny, by the way, that you invoke computation as a physicalist explanation for consciousness. The principles of computation are not physically instantiated. As with consciousness for behavior (in my opinion), you can't show me a system where computation must be invoked to explain the system's output. The electrons move around according to the laws of physics, etc. At no point does one need to invoke computation to explain a system's behavior. It might be convenient (in a levels of explanation sense) though.

      People through history have a tendency to conceive of consciousness as analogous to the most complex technology they understand.

  3. > I fully expect other bloggers to buy the kit, try it out, and tell me how it goes...

    LOL! Meanwhile they, of course, are waiting for you.

    Autonomous machines are still a better deal than augmented humans for nearly businesses, though. Robots don't get sick, or have any of those pesky family members to take them away from work or make them refuse promotions that require relocation.

    Bigger objections: the production of autonomous machines is scalable at will. Surgery isn't, and it is besides costly in money, time, and side-effects. Machines don't lose focus or need 75% down-time as do humans, enhanced as above or not.

    And issues of ownership are much more clear with machines. (If the company you work for installs artificial eyes in you, what happens when you leave? _Can_ you leave?)

    I think the benefit cost analysis will pretty much always come out on the side of using machines whenever that becomes possible.

    1. You don't necessarily need implants for many of these things. They might be attachable devices (like Google Glass), or things that can affect your mind without invasive surgery (there are some experiments being done in security video watching where you wear a helmet, and the machine reads your brainwaves).

      In fact, I suspect that the issues with invasive surgery and replacement mean that non-medical implants will scarce on the ground for a while. Your attachable augmented reality glasses might not be as immersive as getting implants put directly into your eyes, but the glasses don't need you to go into the surgeon every time something goes wrong (and don't face the rejection issues that a lot of implants have, where the body builds up scar tissue and the like around them).

  4. Anonymous12:33 AM

    To say nothing of the possibilities in automatically suppressing doubts about the imminent arrival of the proletarian paradise... er, I mean the Objectivist ideal... er, I mean the Kenyan Socialist Ideal Society... er, I mean...

  5. Steve T5:26 AM

    I'd urge everyone to read the book "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future"

    It is all about the impact of robots/automation on jobs and the economy. It makes the basic point that machines do not drive consumer spending. As more jobs are eliminated, could a smaller and smaller percentage of the population sustain consumer spending and the economy? Would we want that?

    Whether you agree with the book's conclusions or not, it raises many important and fascinating questions. Questions that are are really not being addressed elsewhere. Check out the reviews on Amazon (over 100 with many strongly opposed views).

  6. Great post, Noah...fwiw, the GoFlow DIY kit isn't quite available yet--there's just an email notification signup so far. I'm no blogger, but I will totally report back to you once I've tried it.

    1. Thanks, please do!!

    2. They ran into the predictable legal/regulatory problems. Who knows when shipped units will actually arrive?

      Of course, you can buy professional research kits, or stuff manufactured in China, but their price-points are in the thousands or multiple hundreds of dollars (respectively). That's why most anecdotes you see online are from self-made kits.

  7. The greatest obstacles to the "rise of cyborgs" might not lie in any technological problems. Instead they may revolve around cultural, societal, and legal issues.

  8. Anonymous12:25 PM

    What is the point of raising "productivity" when the issues of the day are not that workers aren't productive enough, but that productive capability lies fallow and the global distribution of goods and services is grossly unequal and leaves billions in poverty? Our current stagnation is not technological, its social and political.

    1. Some productive capacity lies fallow, but most is being used.

    2. Anonymous2:23 PM

      The biggest gains in overall human living standards will not be driven by enhancing the productivity of service labor markets in the first world, which is what these cyborg techs would make the biggest changes, but by improving the productivity of the agricultural sectors in the Third world. That can be done with current technology but wit would upend the social and political systems of the third world. These regions could then industrialize further, but beyond the resource and energy constraints that haven't gone away, the future for industry lies in mechanization, not with cyborgs. After all, why maintain any human weakness in the sector when unnecessary? Cyborgs still need to eat, can get sick, might want to have lives outside of work, so forth. So we are left with more production but fewer opportunities for individuals to earn the money they need to have access to this new production, something that is a social and political and not technological problem.

  9. For the most part I liked this post, but the dig at antidepressants is gratuitous and misplaced. SSRIs are not always effective, and they certainly work much better in combination with other treatments. But they are absolutely a reasonable first-line treatment for depression, a serious illness which is badly under-diagnosed. The "we push antidepressants and suppress weed!" line (you used to hear it constantly about Ritalin, too,) sounds a lot smarter and more skeptical than it actually is.

    1. Well, I've looked into this subject quite a lot, and concluded that antidepressants are not very effective. Additionally, they never did anything for me.

      And it's undeniable that psychiatrists and counseling psychologists heavily encourage antidepressant use.

      So I think my statement is perfectly justified, and probably a lot milder than the truth.

    2. As a stop gap anti-depressants can be a life saver. On the other hand I have seen "weed" severely impair two promising young lives.

    3. An SSRI has worked wonders for me when dealing with health related anxiety. Whether they work on depression I have no idea.

  10. Bill Ellis2:25 PM


    There are big challenges ahead to conventional theologies if your musings are right.

    1. I am not seeing the challenges what are they?

  11. Anonymous5:39 PM

    "imagine how easy it would be to talk to cute girls at parties if your mobile device could zap you with artificial self-confidence every time you started to get scared"..
    - This is a terrible idea. I'd be surrounded by a roomfull of artificially self-confident chicks trying to talk to me, so I'd have way less time that usual talking to the cute ones.

    "Desire Modification"..
    - We have that already. But the US is having a war with it.

    "OK, time to stop"..
    - Yep, time to get back to economics!

  12. Wow, everybody's into scientific prognostication this season.
    Oh well, we were anticipating a "cliff;" it was drilled into us using currently available subliminal technology.

    So, probably, the ideaemporium of Dr.Smith/Krugman is just a helpful congnitive-behavioral therapy to counter the blows we received during this year's battle with Mordor.

    OK, the "cliff" was imaginary so we are free to imagine ourselves anywhere.

    Wonder if it means anything?

    We know it is good fun!
    Proven, by Websters:
    Wilcox, K,, Hagtvedt, H., & Kocher, B. (2012), Encouraging Ideal Behavior by Imagining Luxury Consumption. Presented Association for Consumer Research North American Conference. Vancouver, BC. October.

    But, watch out!
    Gino, F. Norton, M. I., & Ariely, D. (2010). The counterfeit self: the deceptive costs of faking it. Psychological Science. 21:5. 712-20.

    They used designer sunglasses. When people learned their Brand-name glasses were actually knockoffs, "Those wearing fake sunglasses cheated more across multiple tasks than did participants wearing authentic sunglasses..."

    Also, sorry to say, science fiction really bloomed during the 1930s, and those of us who kept reading during the good years kind of saw this coming.


    Now instruments are of various sorts; some are living, others lifeless; in the rudder, the pilot of a ship has a lifeless, in the look-out man, a living instrument. ...
    … the servant is himself an instrument which takes precedence of all other instruments. For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet,
    "of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods;"
    if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.

    Politics, of course, Aristotle.

    So, how does it continue? Perhaps by once again assigning, "Economic prospects for our grandchildren," a work virtually none of my students has ever been able to read.

  13. Anonymous5:34 AM

    This is really an interesting blog as it focuses on the very important topic.

    HIFU therapy

  14. Anonymous4:36 PM

    To be honest I'm not excited about cyborgs.

    I would love to be some mutant human though. Like a human with superpowers? Coool.

  15. "The whole world could look and sound however you wanted."Already happpnimg e.g. Republican 'Reality' - Fox-Limbaugh type