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Instead of fearing cyborgs, we should be working toward a future when everyone has access to human-enhancing technologies.
Fear is a powerful tool. It has served us well in the past, helping us evade dangers and question the unknown so we proceed cautiously. Yet, when it comes to technology, our capabilities have outpaced our evolutionary survival toolkit.
I am a cyborg. Many people are afraid of what that means — to me, to them, and to humanity in general. In 2005, I implanted two RFID transponders, one into each hand. They are similar to the implants dogs and cats get at the vet office, only mine were different in two simple ways. First, the chips I used were not animal chips, they had different capabilities. Second, they were implanted into a human being, not a pet or animal. For some reason, these two minor differences caused quite an uproar back then.
Fast forward 10 years and we’re rocketing toward a very exciting future. Amazing advances in biotech, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, advanced prosthetics, and brain/neural interfaces (to name a few) are advancing at speeds that are challenging not only our evolutionary toolkits — but even our social constructs regarding what it even means to be human.
On a very practical level, all technology enhances us as humans. You wear shoes so you can walk or run for long periods without hurting your feet. You drive a car so you can travel huge distances without even thinking twice. You pick up a smartphone and suddenly you have the power of the entire world’s communications networks and data repositories at your thumb-tips. You are a God among mere mortals, and some people believe that’s a problem — that a coming “technology gap” will divide humanity in more fundamental ways than simply who does or doesn’t have a smartphone.
The concern is centered around the idea that advances in biotech will come so rapidly, but at such great cost, that only the wealthy will be able to afford to take advantage of these new technologies. Examples given include gene therapies that makes your bones more dense and your muscles several times stronger; eye modifications or hearing systems that give you night vision or let you hear conversations going on across the room; or even implantable devices that give you superhuman cognitive abilities, making you many times smarter and connecting your brain directly to the power of the Internet.
There are several reasons a technology gap is not a valid concern. First, technology is iterative — it builds on itself. You can’t suddenly snap your fingers and have a brain implant that makes you learn kung-fu. Innovations are built on existing technologies that are already mainstream and affordable. You don’t see biotech labs looking for materials that are extremely exotic and therefore extremely expensive or impossible to obtain. Rule No.1 of developing anything is to first look for “off the shelf” parts you can build with so your innovative solution will also be cheap. If it’s not, one of the primary goals of any business is to always find ways to drive down cost.
Second, the gap between new technology introduction and mass adoption is falling extremely quickly. Simple public utility electricity took from the early 1900s to about 1960 — that’s 50 years — to see mass adoption at nearly 100 percent. But each subsequent innovation — from radios to cellphones — took less time to achieve ubiquity. Accessibility drives production quantities up, which drives costs down, which drives accessibility up. Technology and its adoption is interactive and cyclical, and it can only get cheaper and more accessible in the future.
The final reason the technology gap isn’t a valid concern is our social morality. The idea of what constitutes a “critical service” today includes many modern technologies. It’s possible for an low-income person — or even a zero-income person — to access the Internet, create an email account, obtain subsidized electricity service in a subsidized or provided home and get a free cellular telephone with free minutes and data. But let’s think for a moment about how we handle restorative technologies like cochlear implants, prosthetics for amputees, pacemakers for people with faulty hearts — those people are considered by the majority of society to be disabled, and should be given assistance if they can’t afford to access a restorative technology. Outside of the typical insurance company payment to cover those costs, there are social programs, charities, and other systems that help people get access to those restorative technologies.
Now consider a future where most of humanity has been upgraded — the new “normal” is a human with several augmentations that are considered just as essential to living a normal life in their society as electricity and telephones are to us today. Social programs, insurance companies, charities, and other types of social safety nets will still be there to offer these augmentations to people without them, and at a greatly reduced price — or maybe even free.
Instead of approaching the future with fear, we should all embrace it with wonder and excitement.
All views expressed are those of the author.