Cyborgs will have access to a much more massive range of sensory input data than we do. Just as we think nothing now of putting on our clothes to go outside, or getting in our cars to travel long distances, or turning on the TV to expand our direct input streams, they will think nothing of spreading their sense of touch out through the Internet, their sense of vision up through the infra-red or telescopically out into space, their sense of smell into degrees of precision down to the molecule, their sense of hearing spread throughout their whole home or network, and their sense of taste co-opted to sense wi-fi or gamma radiation.
Cyborg brains will be radically re-wired to accommodate these changes, hi-jacked by analog methods to create new sensory feeds through old routing mechanisms, as well as expanded with bolt-ons of whole new sensory apparati via re-programming, genetic manipulation, or straight up fresh motherboard implantation.
The brain is plastic. That’s a beautiful thing about our cycle of development- as we grow, our brains develop with us. Children learn languages faster and far more osmotically than adults can. As we age- our brains become tough, tired, and hard-wired. Don’t they?
No, is the simple answer. We can always learn to adapt to new systems- sometimes incredibly rapidly. Sensory information is nothing like memory storage and language patterns. We can learn to use new senses in no time at all. We can come to rely on them. With a wide enough range of different kinds of input, we could feasibly operate on whole different planes of existence. Quite possibly there are people walking around your city that already do so.
Here’s a picture of the sensory homunculus (little man):
First is a map of the touch-sensory sections of the brain. Look in particular at how massive the sections for the hand and fingers are, the tongue, the face. Couldn’t we co-opt some of those sections for another purpose?
On the far right is the homunculus again, realized, looking like a total goof.
That’s a lot of processing cycles spent on those bits and pieces. What if we expanded our tactile and proprioceptive capacities (touch, body-sense) to a fifth limb? I think it could handle it, and if it couldn’t- we just expand it artificially. And from extra limbs, where the sensory information is much the same, there’s just more of it- we can take a flying leap to a whole different paradigm.
Want to feel traffic on the Internet as if it were a cold shiver passing down an imaginary second spine? Why not- we can wire it that way. Want to feel the weather the world over like cold and hot and breezy blotches across an imaginary skin-globe, why not do so? Want to feel the rotation of the Earth, the movement of tectonic plates, the butterfly flapping its wings over the Amazon- go ahead and do it, it can be done.
Am I just making this up? Ha. Maybe! But no, look, here are a few simple analog tricks we can use to fool the sense of touch into logging new, otherwise impossible sensations. By analog I mean we’re not messing with the brain directly, only indirectly through the existing wiring.
1- Brainport tongue vision.
Over 50 years ago the neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita had the idea that the plastic brain could be re-moulded to take the visual processing centers and fire new types of tactile information into them, and thereby ‘see’. And it worked- almost immediately people undergoing sensory reprogramming began to ‘see’.
The tongue device was used in a similar way, a plate of 625 electrodes was placed on the tongue- and subjects reported being able to ‘see’ through the sensations it delivered. They could navigate around a room and recognize shapes and objects.
That’s pretty amazing? I think so. And the applications go wider than just replacing vision- the Brainport can also be used to restore balance to people who’ve lost that sense.
2- Steve Haworth’s magnetic vision.
Steve Haworth is a world-famous body modification artist, the guy who trail-blazed such sub-dermal aesthetic implants as horns, rings, and sub-dermal plates. He worked on the infamous ‘Enigma’- a man completely covered in blue jigsaw puzzle piece tattoos, with horns, who appeared in an X-files episode about a freak-show as ‘The Conundrum’.
Body modification is typically about changing appearance, but Steve Haworth took it one step further and into a whole new realm with implantation of magnets beneath the skin of the fingers. In 2005 he planted 10 magnets into the ring finger tips of Shantell Larratt- see the locations below right, and the bloody implantation pictures here.
Almost immediately afterwards- and with increasing sensitivity as time passed and the magnets bedded in and the tissue around them healed- he was able to feel magnetic fields. He could sense where the motors were in appliances like blenders and fridges, could feel the waves coming off electrical wires, even passing through store security he was able to feel a jolt.
Imagine it. Then imagine it a bit further. The magnets are palpable because they buzz naturally when attracted to another magnetic source. What if we add vibrating pads to a sensor to sense something little hand magnets can not sense?
The Feelspace belt is a research project at the University of Osnabruck, in which regular people are given a bird-like total sensory understanding of the direction of magnetic North, all the time.
This is accomplished with a belt strapped with 14 mobile-phone vibrating motors, wired into an electronic compass. The motor closest to magnetic North constantly vibrates at a low level, giving the wearer a constant ‘feeling’ for the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field.
Wired magazine wrote a special about experimental subject Udo Wachter, who wore the Feelspace belt for 6 weeks. Despite some strangeness at first- he soon came to prize the sense of constant orientation the belt gave him: he always knew where he was, and which direction he had to go to get home, even if he was hundreds of miles away. He said he felt more at home in the world with the belt, so that when he finally took the belt off, he felt lost, and now carries a GPS with him at all times to make up for it.
Now let’s take this a bit further. Imagine micro-vibrators and sensors, smaller even than the solid-state magnets Shantell had inserted into his finger tips. Imagine these micro-mechanisms implanted not only in your finger-tips, but throughout your body. Imagine them able to sense radio waves, or radiation, or frequencies of light and sound above and below our thresholds of hearing. Imagine them wired to detect pheromones, oxygen quality, or wi-fi networks. They then vibrate when in the presence of those things, giving a very detailed impression at a high bandwidth since they are spread throughout the entire body.
Is it that hard to do? I think- not. It just requires miniaturization.
Now, lets look at some digital advances, that can completely re-write all of that, incorporate it, and give us ultimate control over it, by inserting electrodes directly into the brain and hooking them up to existing wiring.
4- Machine Brain Interfaces.
Think about that for a moment.
Using only their brains, monkeys controlled mechanical limbs.
That’s a watershed moment. That opens up the floodgates to using the brain to directly control a million potential mechanisms.
Similar experiments have been run with humans, though not with direct implantation, as that raises ethical issuesmore readily than similar operations on animals. Humans wearing EEG (electro-encephalography) skull-caps wired with sensors have played PONG hands-free, and even learnt how to type, slowly and painstakingly, by ‘thinking’ the letters and having the BCI (Brain Computer Interface) recognize them.
Expect to see these skull-cap type sensors in games software and hardware packages soon. No longer will you have to actually play the drums to play the drums in Rock Band. You’ll just think you’re playing the drums, and you will be. HALO will be an absolutely immersive experience, perhaps they’ll include full-scale suits to surpass the current rumble-paks, so when you’re shot, you feel it. There’ll be goggles and headphones, and controllers similar to the Wiimote so you get tactile feedback.
At the next step, you’ll just jack in like Neo in the Matrix, and boom, you’re in the game.
This is where I feel they really failed to capitalize on the premise of the movie The Matrix. Instead of a re-tread of much of the same worlds and powers in the second 2 movies, why didn’t they just go nuts, and really explore the power of the brain to act within environments complying with nothing we could possibly do in reality.
Want to have 10 arms, 3 tongues, a machine gun whose bullets you feel and can control in flight like guided missiles, with a swarm of nanobots flying under your direct control, as well as a tank over there and a cyberman over there and an earthquake right here? Why not. If computers can filter it, and render it, the brain can probably handle it.
“He’s a machine.”
That’s what Tank says about Neo in the Matrix. And it’s true. We are all machines. We can be upgraded. Would you stay with your old Atari if you knew now about quad-cores and high-end graphics cards? I don’t think so. Would you want to compete in the world of the blind, as a blind person, when you could see?
Make no mistake, just as cellphones, email and the Internet increase and speed up our functionality, the coming range of Cyborgization options will increase it even further. To be competitive in business, in politics, in sports, in education, even in the realm of creativity- in whatever field you’re in, you’ll need to start levelling-up. The same way you upgrade your computer and ipod, the same way you now take vaccines and wear designer clothes, the same way you wear your bluetooth headset and take protein supplements, you’ll need to level-up, self-augment, and ultimately take that next bold step beyond the limits of evolution as we understand it and into the realm of Cyborgization, where we dictate our own advancement.