by Ben Cooke
Liviu Babitz cannot shoot lasers from his eyes. His skin isn’t metal; he can’t deflect bullets, or lift a car with one hand. But he can tell you where north is and that, he says, makes him a cyborg. Whenever he moves, the waxing or waning buzz of a sensor pinned to his chest tells him his angle to the North Pole.
You’d be forgiven for wondering why he didn’t just download an app to tell him that, or even carry a compass around if the magnetic field means that much to him. But Liviu is keen to stress that the device on his chest is more than just a navigational tool, it’s a sense as fulsome as taste or touch, which permeates his thoughts and memories.
“Imagine a world like ours, except nobody can hear a thing,” he says. “Suddenly this guy comes in and says, guys, something is happening! Suddenly I can hear!”
In other words, a sense of where north is might sound perfunctory, but you can’t begin to comprehend its wondrous implications unless you feel it for yourself.
“Giving someone a new sense is like showing a painter a colour they’ve never seen before. You can’t tell them what to do with it, they decide what to do with it later on.”
He Is Just One Of A Community Of 10,000 Cyborgs
There are more than 10,000 self-professed cyborgs in the world today: people who have merged themselves with machines to acquire new abilities. Unlike Liviu, many of them embed these devices within their own bodies. Liviu’s friend Moon Ribas has a sensor in her elbow that detects earthquakes happening anywhere around the world.
Many cyborgs opt for small magnets in their fingers, or chips that allow them to open doors and unlock electronic devices at the swipe of a hand. Liviu hopes one day to sense rays of ultraviolet and infrared light.
It’s unclear what the practical benefit of feeding so much extra sensory data into the brain is. Liviu can only wax mystical when trying to describe it.
Sensing earthquakes with one hand and magnetic fields with another might be interesting at first, but would it really shape our interaction with the world to the extent that sight or hearing do? And as for more obviously practical augmentations, such as those that open doors, are doors such an encumbrance that they merit surgical implants to help us open them?
Mark O’Connell believes cyborgs’ desire to augment their bodies can’t be explained purely in such utilitarian terms. He lived for a while with a commune of American cyborgs while researching To Be A Machine, his travelogue through the wackiest fringes of modern technology.
“It’s like the first wave of people who bought PCs, back in the 1980s. Back then they were like glorified calculators. But there was this whole wave of hyper-nerdy people who went out and bought them. Cyborgs are like those guys. They want to be on the advance guard of this next wave of human evolution.”
Canadian Cyborg Crucible Says She Would Replace Her Legs With Bionic Limbs
Many cyborgs really do see their implants as the first steps towards some post-human merger of man and machine. A 26-year-old Canadian cyborg who goes by the name of Crucible had six implants installed last month: two magnets in her fingers, two chips for accessing electronic devices and a pair of LED-lit ‘firefly’ tattoos.
She admits that none of these augmentations makes her life much easier; they were “a relatively casual decision, just something cool”. But she hopes having them installed will raise awareness of body augmentation’s future potential.
“The next step in evolution will be one made by man to overcome the limits of the human body. These little steps are necessary for changing people’s minds and laying the groundwork for that.”
Should superhumanly strong bionic limbs become available, Crucible says she would have no qualms about replacing her own with them. Her ideal is to one day encase her brain inside an entirely prosthetic body. Outlandish as her desires may sound, they have an internal coherence.
“I am my mind,” she says. “My body is just a tool. I have no issues in modifying it as I see fit.”
If like her you see yourself as a mind detachable from its body, like a USB drive slotted into a computer, then it may seem as reasonable to replace your limbs and organs as it is to replace the hard drive or processor of that computer.
To think about your body the way Crucible thinks of hers is not to want to install yourself in a machine, it’s to think you’re in one already. And machines can always be tinkered with and improved.
The cyborgs might be in for a surprise. Many, like Crucible, imagine their minds are like files that can easily be uploaded to one machine or another. But perhaps a prosthetic body would corrupt that file beyond recognition.
Featured Photo: Ben Cooke