The Future from Thousands of Years in the Past

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Cyborgs. They a dream of the future – such a dream of the future, in fact, that the spell check didn’t have “cyborg” in its lexicon.

But they’re not a dream of the future. The word was coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes as a combination of cybernetics and organism, but the concept of using technology to augment human capabilities has been going on faaaaaar longer than the past 50 years.

The definition that I learned from the ivory-tower experts who get paid six-figures to stand and talk for an hour here and there is that a cyborg is a person who has a piece of technology integrated into their physical self to enhance or substitute a function. “Integrated” is a term up for debate. Some say the first cyborgs were our ancestors who adopted clothing to enhance the bodily function of preserving heat. Others use later examples like shoes or eye glasses or watches or wheelchairs or pirates with hook hands and peg legs.

I consider myself a cyborg because I wear contact lenses. They are integrated into my body because they are placed between the eyeball and the eyelid. They enhance my vision by adjusting my sight to correct myopia. They can be removed, certainly, but so can mechanical objects attached to human beings as fantasized in dystopian sci-fi. They are removed to be cleaned, to be maintained, to be fixed, or even to be replaced. Some people take their contacts out at the end of the day and put them back on in the morning. Doing the same with a more technologically complex bodily addition doesn’t exclude it from the definition. I, personally, use the type of contact lens that I can leave in overnight for a period of time. The maintenance is a par for the course. It’s parallel to how we treat our natural bodies, with bathing and healing and shedding skin.

Engineers and scientists of a great number may dream of advancing cybernetics to a higher level. It’s a separate discipline from artificial intelligence, although that may be applied as a cybernetic augmentation to a damaged brain. But in the field of medicine, cyborgs are of great value to improving the health of millions of people around the world – prosthetics that go beyond the ornamental purpose of at first glance hiding a body part gone missing. Terry Fox was a cyborg as he set forth to run from one coast of Canada to the other with the piece of technology that replaced the natural leg he lost to cancer. Prosthetic legs have advanced to the point that paralympic sprinters are seen as having an unfair advantage over those with their original body parts. Hearing aids are a nearly permanent fixture to the ears of those who need them. Pacemakers augment the most basic function of staying alive. Catheters substitute for a bodily function that a person may not be able to perform on their own.

And it’s a continuing field of advancement, as research aims towards higher goals of reinstating nerve function on those with paralysis or artificial hands that lack, in the non-electronic sense, digital function. Electronic implants are showing progress towards the goal of giving back sight to the blind. Cyborgs are now. They don’t need to use electronics or programmed micro-computers to enhance human functions or make up for those lost. Since our ancestors found that the coats of the animals they hunted for food can serve them functions of warmth and camouflage, cyborgs have existed throughout the population. It’s not a future or even modern invention. Our species has been called Homo Sapien for a much longer time.

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