Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cyborg Tech is the Next Really Big Thing

On Bloomberg, I again bang the drum for cyborg technology:
Marc Andreessen, true inventor of the Internet, noted venture capitalist and Silicon Valley man-about-town, thinks that there are three “next big things” in technology: Bitcoin, online education and health software. Google’s world-conquering execs Larry Page and Sergey Brin have made a bet on the self-driving car, while genius child-emperor Mark Zuckerberg has bet on virtual reality. Now those guys may be titans of tech, but dang it, I’m a sci-fi fan, and I read the news, which means that you should listen to my idea about what the Next Big Technology really is.  
I think it’s cyborgs.  
“Cyborg technology” includes a number of different things: biomechanical engineering, mind-machine interface, neuroengineering, and a number of other health-care technologies. The common thread is that they all involve the integration of living tissue with engineered machinery. It's not about building the Terminator; it's about improving the functioning of the human mind and body. 
Like I said, I read the news. Barely a day goes by when I don’t read about some advance in cyborg tech. For example, a Stanford engineerjust invented a way to safely transfer energy to biomechanical implants. A University of California-San Francisco team won a grant to build brain implants to fight depression and PTSD. There’s a man who can hear colors, thanks to a mechanical implant. Brain-controlled flight is now real. Bionic implants are ending disability as we know it. And these are only a few of the cyborg headlines from the last couple of weeks... 

I stupidly left out the second "s" in Marc Andreessen's name, but luckily the folks at Bloomberg caught it.


  1. The reason it costs upwards of $5 billion to bring a drug to market is that the public demands an astonishingly low level of risk. To prevent another Vioxx, you need to run trials involving tens of thousands of people, and lasting for years. Its easy to show that Zetia reduces cholesterol, but that's no longer enough have to show that the lower levels of cholesterol lead to fewer cardiac events. Again, tens of thousands of patients and so far 5 years and counting for that trial. These requirements weren't thought up by the regulators. For Vioxx, it was the public outcry about heart attach risk. For Zetia, it was market-based pressures.

    If similar levels of risk are demanded for cyborg technology, it will be similarly expensive. Sorry.

  2. Anonymous2:37 AM

    As a fellow sci-fi fan and econ lover... Yes!! So much yes.

  3. I don't know... I grew up with Star Trek TNG and Terminator, the echoes of Star Wars, Blade Runner and the like.... I thought I was promised some really great stuff like Starships and artificial intelligence, but that hasn't happened. We do have the internet now which is awesome even though it brings us closer to the total surveillance state. But the internet is something you can simply turn off.... The whole big jump in telecommunications technology is more a gradual development, not revolutionary. It only impacts your life as much as you want it. Cyborg technology... hmm... I think it would be too radical for most people. And robotics have been a disappointing source of awesome new technology. I hope some kind of energy revolution is underway. Free, clean, unlimited energy (as long as there is the sun) would be amazing. The golden age of post World War II growth ended with an oil shortage. If that constraint went away, it would be great.

    1. Oh, and one more thing: quantum computers:

  4. The Internet was arguably invented in 1968. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Text-based web browsers (e.g., Lynx) existed before Marc Andreessen developed a graphical-based browser (i.e., Mosaic) at UIUC. Does anybody claim that Andressen invented the Internet?

    1. Hey! Noah is young so he probably did not know all that!

      Noah should have said Marc A. popularized Internet (by giving away Netscape for free).

    2. Phil Koop8:18 AM

      The Berners-Lee browser was also graphical (and supported WYSIWYG editing, not just access), but only ran on NeXT. So the English translation of Noah's "inventor of the internet" is "first to write a popular graphical web browser."

    3. Many people can legitimately claim to have created the Internet, and this includes the WWW people, because the WWW was the magical application that transformed the internet - in the space of only a couple years - from something used almost exclusively by students and engineers, to something your grandmother knew all about.

  5. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


  6. yes pls

    I've often said that the only reason that we don't regard smartphones as cyborg technology is that they're not implanted in any way. In science fiction we often imagined such devices being implanted into, say, the hand or the wrist, but for simple reasons of risk, cost, and impending obsolescence it turned out to be easier just to put it in your pocket.

  7. What advantages do 'direct neural interfaces' have over hands when it comes to manipulating the external environment? None, that I can see. And no reason to suspect that evolution has made provisions for this.

  8. Anonymous12:02 PM

    For the foreseeable future, it's going to be awfully hard to convince people to undergo highly invasive and likely dangerous surgery to implant into their bodies technology that will almost certainly be somewhat dated in six months, and hopelessly obsolete in a couple of years. Without some good medical reason, anyway. And the artificial "modification" of their "desires" via implanted technology is not going to cut it as a reason for most people, who will find the notion creepy and repugnant. (But then I'm not much of a science fiction fan. I've lived long enough that I've now arrived in the future we dreamed about as kids. And while the future has delivered some pretty wondrous technology as well as some pretty appalling stuff, I've never seen SF prove to be a particularly valuable source of insight about either one. Or even a particularly accurate predictor of technological developments, if one wants to set the bar that low.)

  9. Shadow_Nirvana1:34 PM

    It's mostly technological progress that's driving the income inequalities, unemployment etc (locally and internationally). But sure, why shouldn't we love and wait for something that is going to cheapen labour and drive us into poverty?

    The whole transhumanism schtick is only going to be available for the rich anyway. Although a lot of it will be used in the military, I guess. We will be able to invade and strip other countries' resources more easily. Ain't life grand?

  10. Anonymous6:09 PM

    Umm seeing there is no other place Noah why has the this article of yours
    been taken down? There has been no comment on why just curious given that I was a commenter. I get the whiff of something here.

  11. Anonymous6:29 AM

    "Marc Andreessen, true inventor of the Internet,"

    You are not serious, are you?

    Cyborg? Fantasies.