Cyborgs, Senses & Circuits

Welcome to the second edition of Iskra. For Karolina and I, Iskra is an opportunity to bring friends, acquaintances and strangers together to discuss topics we normally don’t talk about. This evening’s topic is transhumanism, and more specifically cyborgs. For the next two hours we invite you to listen, reflect and ask questions in a safe space.

Last week 12 people gathered in my living room for a couple hours to contemplate transhumanism, its implications for our future and — given the choice — what kinds of cyborg traits we would like to have.

What we did

We kicked the evening off with a ~25 minute primer about transhumanism and the different motivations driving this movement. If you’re familiar with the subject you know that distilling this topic into 25 minutes is no simple task. At the end of the presentation we asked the group to think about which of the following reasons to become a cyborg resonated most with each of them:

a) “I want to get closer to nature.”

b) “I want to perceive the world differently.”

c) “I want to be better adapted to my surroundings.”

There was almost equal support for each of the three categories.

For option a) participants were inspired by Moon Ribas, the dancer with a seismic sensor in her forearm.

For option b) participants discussed the recreational use of drugs and their role in manipulating perception, by opening up novel neural pathways. The spiritual experiences afforded by drugs, during which users report being able to communicate with elements in nature, is a suggestion that we perceive very little of the world around us. And the fact that visible lights constitutes a small portion of the UV spectrum, leaving gamma rays, X-rays, infrared light and radio waves, invisible to the human eye, is further evidence of this.

Option c) was compelling for those who believed that our currents efforts to mitigate climate change are not working and we need a new approach: instead of manipulating our environment to fit our needs, what if we manipulated ourselves to be better adapted to the potentially harsh conditions of future Earth?

First prototype of the Design Yourself! card set developed by Karolina and myself.

Design Yourself

Our first activity was centered around a card set Karolina and I developed inspired by The Thing from the Future, by The Situation Lab. There are three categories: body part, future context and task. Each round begins when a player draws one card from each category. Next each player comes up with the wackiest, most unthinkable cyborg trait or adaptation, on his own, using the three cards drawn as design constraints. Here are just a couple of the silly ideas. The first prompt:

Cards drawn by the first group.

What the group came up with:

In a world where tornadoes are increasingly common, restaurants are losing business when tornadoes strike and patrons flee without paying. To ensure restaurants get paid when this happens, a USB chip, that interfaces with restaurant chairs, is implanted into the backside of humans, to facilitate automatic transactions.

The second prompt:

Cards drawn by the second group.

And what the group came up with:

In a world of scarcity, there is no energy to generate electricity and so there is darkness. An implant is inserted into human feet that converts the kinetic energy created by walking and dancing to generate light that emanates from a person’s feet. Because this light source is only available while a person is moving or dancing, it prevents the wearer from going to the bar and getting a drink. After all, not drinking is the best hangover prevention!

If you’re intrigued by this card set, come try them out at Venture Cafe, on either August 23rd or August 30th (exact date tbd, but stay tuned!)

Becoming cyborgs

In the next activity we brought matters closer to home, challenging participants to think about traits or adaptations they would like to have right now, using current pain points as a starting point. The flow for the workshop went something like this:

1. Generate a list of traits — physical and mental — you would like to improve or new abilities you would like to have.

2. Pick one and come up with at least 5 ways to improve or add a trait or ability.

3. Now select one of your ideas to share with a partner. After you both share your ideas you and your partner will select one idea to flesh out and prototype.

4. Present your idea including an explanation of the cyborg adaptation, a physical prototype of the adaptation and a demonstration of the adaptation in a format of your choice.

Two of the final three design concepts were focused on increasing empathy to understand one another better, stemming from the motivation to perceive the world differently. One of the empathy groups believed that if people could only feel what others were feeling, they would be better able to reach consensus. Other participants challenged the assumption that different people will arrive at the same conclusions if fed the same objective and subjective information, because this discounts the role of a person’s culture and life experiences on decision-making. The other empathy group was motivated to create something for situations when it is difficult to articulate emotions. Emotions are complex and often there is no vocabulary to accurately convey what someone is feeling. The group described an elaborate, yet scientifically grounded technology, using Pavlov’s theory. Both of these concepts smelled like Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster.

Concept One: (Top) Brain of a human child with an implanted chip to facilitate the transfer of emotional data from brain to brain. (Middle and bottom) Surgical instruments.
Concept Two: Implant that generates a set of pressure points in the palm of the hand that correlate to a specific emotion. Over time the wearer will be trained to associate pressure patterns with emotions.

The third design concept was an allusion to the grinder movement inspired by the information age. Grinders or biohackers are interested in using the abundance of information we have access to, to improve ourselves. They feel empowered to solve life’s riddles themselves and are not waiting around for big corporations to develop new technologies.

This group was plagued by the idea that there is so much information and knowledge in the world today — mostly living in the internet — with no feasible way to store all this information in our tiny, limited brains. They were inspired by the frustration we feel when we cannot remember something, causing us to reflexively reach for our phones. The group created an external chip that effectively integrates the internet with a person’s brain, making accessing information just a little bit easier.

Key takeaways

Emotions n’ stuff — Karo and I were surprised that two of the three groups chose to focus on empathy and found it ironic that we are turning to technology to understand one another better. This felt like something evolution should have taken care of. I could see how maybe we are less of emotional beings now in Western, first-world societies, given the amount of time we spend behind screens instead of looking at and reading one another. In general we live in more individualistic, less codependent societies than our predecessors and maybe we used to have this emotional intelligence we’re looking for but somewhere along the way it became trivial and we lots it. And maybe the fact that two of three groups designed for this indicates that the pendulum is finally swinging in the opposite direction.

Evolve too fast — The third concept addresses the notion that maybe humans are not designed for the information age. We are not adapted to hold, process or organize the vast amount of data available today. One participant talked about extending the capabilities of our brainware by uploading information into the cloud and downloading information about the neuronal pathways associated with new skills. All of these ideas suggested that our modest human bodies are simply not enough — and maybe need to be left behind — to keep up with the information we are mining from our environments.

Finally, we love claps but we also love constructive criticism so please, leave us some comments and stay tuned for the August edition of Iskra in just a few weeks on…dreams!

Photocredit: Jowi Len Kemper

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Piyali Sircar

Piyali Sircar

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