Imagine this: You are a waitress in a busy restaurant. As you’re taking orders at a new table, one man turns to you with his eye glowing red.
A) Involuntarily drop something as you realize that you are staring into the face of a seemingly indestructible humanoid cyborg sent to assassinate you and expect, when you look up, to lock eyes with a handsome stranger sitting at the bar who, though you don’t know it yet, is likely a soldier sent from the future to protect you at all costs, one who will make love to you like it’s 1984, giving you a son destined to lead humanity in a war against the machines? Or,
B) Struggle not to look at his eye. Politely ask, “What would you like to order, sir?”
If you’re waiting tables in Toronto, the answer is 100 percent B, which should surprise no one. (Insert stereotype about Canadian politeness.)
Rob Spence, a man with a glowing red eye, learned this firsthand in May at a dinner out in the city. It’s impossible to know how Spence would’ve reacted had the Toronto waitress responded with option A, though we can say that he would’ve agreed with at least one of its premises: he is a cyborg.
When he was 9 years old, Rob Spence shot his eye out. He was in Ireland visiting his grandpa when a shotgun he’d aimed at a pile of cow dung reared back and smashed into his face, damaging his right eye so badly that he was declared legally blind, despite having a healthy left eye and some remaining vision in his right.
Now 44, the Coburg, Ontario, resident has combined his interests as a documentarian and his prosthetic eye and created something new: a tiny wireless video camera capable of recording what he sees.
Spence first looked into eye cameras about a decade ago, when his damaged eye began to swell and his cornea started deteriorating. Doctors told him he would have to replace it. The recording prosthetic device’s first iteration—built in 2008 after collaboration with camera makers, engineers, and tech partners—contained a radio frequency micro-transmitter not connected to the optic nerve that allowed him to record others, even though he was not able to see out of it directly.
Spence continues to only use the eye camera for special projects—that is to say, not for keeping track of his every waking moment. Red LED light alerts others when the eye camera is recording, which it can only do for half an hour before sputtering out of battery.
Even though Spence has referred to himself as “Eyeborg,” and his laser-looking eye brings out pretty obvious comparisons to the Terminator, people’s willingness to acknowledge his physical differences directly IRL
“In this city, people are very polite, and don’t want to call attention to my eye,” Spence told Motherboard, referring to Toronto, where he was attending a robotics and high-tech prostheses conference. “But in Brazil, for example, they wanted to engage with me.”
When I hear the term “the singularity,” I just think of The Matrix, which is probably another way of revealing to all of you that I am the type of person who shields herself from as many technological advancements as possible. Unlike me, however, many futurists are deeply invested in the singularity and have a lot of ideas about what defines it.
The singularity, according to some science-fiction and technologically inclined thinkers, is the future of our world: when man and machine become one. As Annalee Newitz puts it for io9, it is “the moment when a civilization changes so much that its rules and technologies are incomprehensible to previous generations.”
Hal Hodson, writing for New Scientist, defines it as “a date in the not-so-distant future when machine intelligence outstrips our own and goes on to improve itself at an exponential rate.”
Once these swift but profound technological and scientific advancements take place, so say some future-thinkers, societies and all they are comprised of—human bodies, families, governments, economies—will be irreversibly transformed. As you can imagine, the singularity as it’s referred to today hints at a time when artificial intelligence will become linked to human intelligence—or overtake it entirely—in a way that is now only barely conceivable. But do experts believe this is plausible?
Not all of them, at least not in the way portrayed in…basically, any sci-fi movie that came out after 1999. Danko Nikolic, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, describes himself in his LinkedIn profile as an “AI [practitioner] and visionary … foremost interested in i) closing the mind-body explanatory gap, and ii) using that knowledge to improve machine learning and AI.” He doesn’t believe that the dramatic depictions of AI taking over the world will come to pass.
“You cannot exceed human intelligence, ever,” Nikolic said in 2016 before an audience of artificial intelligence researchers in Berlin. “You can asymptotically approach it, but you cannot exceed it.”
Bionic Humans Who Live Among Us
Singularity or no singularity, some people have already coalesced with technology. Along with Spence, many individuals—who call themselves biohackers, cyborgs, and grinders—have chosen to implant their bodies with external objects that they believe will improve their quality of life.
Take, for example, Zoe Quinn, a developer in the independent video game world who had a computer chip and a tiny magnet implanted in the tip of her left ring finger. In 2015, she wrote for Vice about exploring her implants’ capabilities. “Sometimes it’s just noticing things around you that you wouldn’t otherwise—like feeling subways pass under you, or being able to sense if a plug-in adapter is actually working or not,” she writes. “Sometimes it’s incredibly useful, like when I’ve had to reset circuit breakers in dark basements with just enough of a magnetic field around the switches for me to detect which one isn’t getting any power.”
Changes like these diverge from typical body modifications in that they are primarily about function—but that they appeal to cyborgs on an aesthetic level is clear.
“It felt like I’d put my hand
Actually, Are All Of Us Cyborgs?
People who get gadgets surgically inserted inside their bodies may seem extreme to those of us who occasionally have nightmares about getting the wrong tattoo, but biohackers can argue that they are not so different from the rest of us. They’ve just taken the fact that we are already steeped in technology into more literal, expedient terms.
There are also self-proclaimed cyborgs who skipped the implants altogether. Isa Gordon, who considers herself an academic of the cyborg movement, has done performance art that explores “creative cybernetics” while wearing sensors that show her heartbeat on her sleeve. (According to Merriam-Webster, cybernetics is “the science of communication and control theory that is concerned especially with the comparative study of automatic control systems […e.g.] nervous system and brain and mechanical-electrical communication systems.”)
“When you send an email, you are engaged in a system of control of communication between man and machine,” she told NBC News. “It’s not necessary to hack into the body to become a cyborg; we are all cyborgs already.”