Forget Deus Ex: We're already cyborgs

Current research indicates that we would at least be able to operate cybernetic implants. Looking a bit closer we might already be further down the line though.

Deus Ex is the defining cyberpunk video game franchise. A story surrounding the question of what makes us human, when parts of us get replaced by machines, was always the trademark of the series. Will the use of futuristic technology create complex sociopolitical problems? In the world of Deus Ex, cyborgs are a matter of debate. With enhanced power(s) comes not only responsibility but also prejudice and stigma. A reflection of society's fears and injustice.

As futuristic as a cyborg’s implants seem, the ideas and motivations behind them are as old as humanity. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the game itself uses the greek mythos of Icarus, a story about two men, Icarus and Daedalus, who use their own ingenuity to construct wings that enable them to fly. While Daedalus warns Icarus about the limits of the technology, he doesn’t listen and thus brings on his own demise. The perfect metaphor for the ethical dilemma of artificial enhancements of our biological body.

Yet, I wake up today with a slight buzz on my wrist. My sports watch is the first enhancement of my abilities that I can actually think of. It measures my activity, heart rate, and so on and gives me information based on it. Things that were not tangible before, are now presented to me that becomes natural. Then I grab my glasses from my nightstand. It might not be an ocular implant, but glasses are none-the-less devices to enhance our frail or weakening senses. The technology might be simple, but the same principle applies: Using the knowledge gained through science and physics to craft an attachment for our bodies to enhance its abilities. In our daily lives, we already have hundreds of them: A hearing aid, dentals, prosthesis, pacemakers and so on.

While most of these are there to keep or improve senses and abilities we already had, there are also ways to enhance our abilities beyond the human body. The best example for that is surprisingly ordinary: the car. While driving we are operating a complex machine almost fully automatically (after we learned how to do it of course). Scientists are still researching how our brain operates while driving. Early studies have shown that our brain treats the operation of a car like another operation done by our hands or feet, it accepts the car as part of the body and switches into a mode where it’s just normal to do certain maneuvers.Scientists in the Leibniz institute for neurobiology in Magdeburg, Germany, discovered that the brain also processes information of surrounding objects differently while in “drive-mode”. According to their study, when we see a car while driving, our brain prioritizing certain information above others. The brain registers the attributes in a different priority, depending on the situation: The speed of the car is processed a few tenths of a millisecond before it’s color or other less important attributes.

That aside the brain also develops differently over time: In 2000, scientists from the London Institute of Neurology discovered that the brains of Taxi drivers grow in certain parts, to create a detailed “mental city map”. Examinations showed that a taxi driver’s hippocampus is larger than on other people.

In the game, the hero Adam Jensen has all kinds of tricks up his literal sleeves, as his arms turn into guns or move retractable blades. His feet can be modified to jump higher and to catch him from falling. All of present day research’s results at least indicate that our brains are capable of learning to use devices or machines like extensions of our own body. Being able to ski, surf or skate is another indication of that. In theory, if we would attach another arm or leg to our body, over time our brain would adapt and learn to handle and operate it as well as if we were born with it. Therefore cybernetic implants are something that we would at least be able to operate. To control and master them is a different story, after all, we still have car accidents or even tumble down stairs.

Bottom line is that in our actual daily lives, we have long crossed the threshold, our biological limits are long surpassed, and nobody bats an eye at the thought of it. We became used to the technology we use to improve or extend our bodies capabilities. Our lives and cultures evolved with and around them. Whether this will become the source of a big social paradigm shift in the future, only time will tell.