Are Cyborgs the Inevitable Next Step in Human Evolution?

June 6, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

Blue cyborg eye
Photo credit: Nokola/Deviant Art (CC BY 3.0)

The practice of integrating technology with the human body is happening more often and beyond the medical field — perhaps setting the stage for the next chapter in human evolution.

Believe it or not, humans are continuing to evolve, but perhaps not in the way that you might think.

Body-hacking or bio-hacking is the process of incorporating technology into the biology of the human body to enhance or produce new abilities and according to Maciej Henneberg and Arthur Saniotis, members of the Biological Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy Research Unit in the University of Adelaide's School of Medicine and authors of the new book, The Dynamic Human, this new phase of human evolution has been ongoing for at least a decade and continues to gain traction.

“There is still a tendency by some to view the current form of human beings as static, and that we will stay as such into the future unless some catastrophe causes our extinction," Henneberg said in a media release. “We present the alternative: that our world is a continuously changing complex system and humans are a part of this ever-changing system. Within this framework, human evolution is an ongoing process that shapes us now and will shape us in the future, body and mind. We must understand it in order to survive and be able to direct it to our advantage."

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In fact, cyborgs already exist. Neil Harbisson is regarded as a pioneer in the world of human cybernetics after having an antenna implanted into his skull in 2004 which, according to his website, “allows him to perceive visible and invisible colours such as infrareds and ultraviolets via sound waves.”

Neil Harbisson, a cyborg

Neil Harbisson, an artist and early adopter in the world of cybernetics. Photo credit: Campus Party Europe in Berlin/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Harbisson’s website also claims “the antenna’s internet connection allows him to receive colors from space as well as images, videos, music or phone calls directly into his head via external devices such as mobile phones or satellites.”

While considered to be the first human to be recognized by a government as a cyborg, Harbisson is by no means the first or last person to alter his body’s abilities using technology.

"This boundary in fact has been blurred for a long time,” said Saniotis, who along with co-author Henneberg is an associate of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

“Millions of people are currently wearing technological devices aimed at enhancing our lives: from eyeglasses, to hearing aids, pacemakers, bionic ears, heart valves and artificial limbs,” he said. “Since 2002, about 59,000 people have received some form of neurological prosthetics, such as to help them hear or see, and this technology will develop rapidly in the coming years.”

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There are a wide variety of technology-based body enhancements that people have experimented with from internal wi-fi connections and bionic arms to radio frequency identification (RFID) chips that can store data and act as access keys for everything from car doors to bank accounts

If one needed any more validation that humanity is on a trajectory for more biological integration with technology, famed innovator and futurist Elon Musk had this to say at Recode’s Code Conference 2016 about neural laces, an emerging nanotechnology that meshes biological and mechanical circuity:

"Somebody's got to do it," Musk told Recode. "If somebody doesn't do it, then I think I should do it."

Musk, the driving force behind innovative ideas such as the reusable rocket, self-driving electric cars and hyperloop technology, is known for dreaming big and following through on his moonshot ambitions.

Saniotis said humans may just be on the cusp of a profound shift in what it means to be human, but he cautions that altering the exquisite organic machine that is the human body will require a great amount of caution.

“The advent of brain-machine interfaces may force humans to redefine where our humanity lies; it will blur the boundary between human and machine,” he said. “We are becoming increasingly dependent on such devices and it can become easy to think of the body as a kind of machine with parts that need replacing. Of course, the body is not a machine but an evolutionary organism of enormous complexity. The human mind is not a logical machine, it is a product of organic interactions. That complexity should not be underestimated.”

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