Reinventing Cyborg

It was probably as late as middle school when images of Cyborg, transmitted via digital telecommunication, translated into impulses by retinal ganglion cells and carried via optic nerve to the occipital lobe, first entered my consciousness. I’m referring, of course, to the Teen Titan – that cybernetic product of technology and inspiration redolent of some Terminator-Blastoise fusion.

Cyborg may not be such an influential figure in my life, but he was certainly not a tween fad either. Our fascination with technology becoming more humanlike (from Wall-E to Siri) and vice versa (from prosthetics to Google Glass) has engendered a number of important philosophical and neurological questions — and not only queries like will Cyborg finally defeat Slade and save Robin from a life of destitute puppetry. Though that was an interesting episode.  

The question I’d like to focus on in this column and my next is this: can machines and technology teach us something about what it means to be human? Such an investigation should be tackled from a variety of angles. 

From a neurobiological perspective the answer seems to be yes. Take Jan Scheuermann, a middle-aged paraplegic who has spinocerebellar degeneration and was recently featured in the journal Scientific American Mind. Although she cannot move from the neck down, she uses prostheses and brain-computer interfaces to control a robotic arm. Tiny electrodes in her brain allow commands from the motor cortex to bypass the spinal cord and move her artificial limb. This process not only enables Scheuermann to move fluidly, but also reveals to scientists key characteristic of neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change and adapt to external milieu – and of how we learn.  

When experimenters tested monkeys with robotic arms by altering the computer software’s control scheme (the middleman between the neurons and the movement of a robotic arm — the computer that interprets the brain’s directions), they observed that the rate at which neurons fired changed to adapt to the new control scheme. Once fluency was reached the two schemes were interchangeable. Humans, in other words, are capable of retaining “natural motor memory for a disembodied device,” as described by Jose Carmena of University of California, Berkeley. 

Neurons can adapt and brains are plastic — these are amazing phenomena of our neuroanatomy. The larger crux of this investigation, however, may be that the technology that once equipped us to peer into the brain now also equips us to manipulate, measure and analyze it. So, making a body and brain less ostensibly natural, courtesy of robotic arms or computer interfaces, may be what is required to determine what “natural” even is.  

Similarly, questions regarding what is naturally “human” must be raised when once-facts about human physiology are undermined by technological advancement. The pulse of a beating heart, for example, was once a key way of distinguishing a vampire or zombie from a human individual, but not anymore; scientists at the Texas Heart Institute have designed a new artificial heart nothing like the old model, the Jarvik-7, which mimicked a natural beat.

Instead of imitating an organ, these scientists have created one that whirs like a propeller, pushing blood continuously throughout the body. As one author, Dan Baum, writes, this is necessary because “nature is not always the best designer, at least when it comes to things that humans must build and maintain.” As fifty calves and three humans have been surgically implanted with these new cardiac devices — all successfully — this is a serious but shocking claim. Can the human body be reinvented? 

Technology may be at once explaining and changing what it means to be human. While I’m not the lazy tween engrossed in Teen Titans anymore (or am I?), I do wonder if I’ll ever meet Cyborg, and what he’ll have to teach us about the human experience.  

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