We all want to stand out, be that special and unique snowflake. For some it is how we dress. For some it is we decorate ourselves with tattoos or body piercing. Maybe it is a speech affectation. Or a personality trait.
But there is a small subset of our population that wants to stand apart from other humans by becoming more than just a human. This sector, that is growing and gaining in acceptance every day, want to become technology-augmented humans, commonly known as cyborgs.
Much to my initial surprise, one of the leading groups of cyborgism is located right here in Pittsburgh, a biotechnological collective known as Grindhouse Wetware. The two most visible members of the group are the 36-year old Tim Cannon and 26-year old Ryan O’Shea.
Cannon, whose Twitter handle is the aptly-named @TimTheCyborg, is a self-described “grinder”. When I ask him to explain the term he says it’s “being a DIY (do-it-yourself) practical transhumanist using skills and resources to very slowly, incrementally implement a cyborg future, but in a less pie- in-the-sky way. Instead of creating the perfect graphics driver, it’s trying to design Tetris.”
It’s quite a commitment to decide to physically implant a foreign object inside your body, by choice and not for a medical reason, so the logical first question is can’t humans accomplish the same thing with wearable tech that’s advancing on the market? “We get this all the time,” says a weary-toned Cannon. “Eventually implants are going to be desirable. We feel it’s an unnecessary step to wait for wearables to come to fruition. We have the technology now, so why even wait?”
“I think a better question is ‘why wearables’?” adds O’Shea. “I’ve forgotten my cell phone. I’ve forgotten my keys, my wallet, my fitness trackers. These things can be lost or stolen. You know what I’ve never forgotten or lost? Things that are inside of me.”
Cannon’s path to becoming one of the leading voices in the world on cyborgism, frequently speaking and attending international conference on cyborgism and transhumanism, was an asymmetrical one. He’s a high school dropout that got his GED and then eventually went to a two year diploma mill that gave him a certificate that said “hey, this guy can program.” So that’s what he did for 10 years until he helped formed Grindhouse Wetware in 2011 with some like-minded individuals. Grindhouse is primarily a research and development think tank, but Cannon envisions a time “where we spawn several commercial companies to serve the general public commercially with implants.”
Grindhouse Wetware currently has four products in development that can viewed on their site. One of them is the Northstar, a subdermal star implant that lights up with the use of magnets, that will be implanted into Cannon in the very near future. If you are in possession of a strong constitution, here is a video that contains footage of the original test embedments in some Grindhouse team members.
A love of science fiction coupled with a love of technical challenges drew Cannon to cyborgism originally. He currently has embedded in his body three magnets, two RFID chips, and at the end of April the Northstar prototype. He’s only had one removed, but that was a planned removal after 90 days, as they were just testing the concept. He admitted that he was scared during the first implant, but he feels that “at the end of the day this is the direction that humanity has to head, in order to survive in the universe over a long enough timeline.”
Cannon has two small children. What do they think of his desire to be a meld of man and machine? “I tell them our body is what we were naturally put in, but I want to become something more to see if I can help the world evolve into something better. The best way to learn from mistakes may be through technology.”
The conversation turned existential when we started to discuss the boundary line (or lack thereof) for when a man is no longer a man, but rather a machine. In O’Shea’s words, “Well, that’s hard to answer, but we can certainly say what DOESN’T make us human. It’s not our fleshy arms and legs. There are amputees, and they are still human. It’s not sight, hearing, taste, or touch. People without one or more of these senses are certainly still human. How much can you take away and still have a human? Well, it seems that what makes us human is our thoughts, memories, opinions, personality, etc. As far as we know, this is all stored in our brains. The legal system seems to agree with this definition, as there can be a ‘brain dead’ person on life support that is considered legally dead despite the fact that their body is still ‘alive’. Is seems that both life and death are really undefined terms and we’re not exactly what either of them mean.”
Hopefully these two fine gentlemen don’t create a version of Skynet, like from the Terminator movies, and usher in our robot/cyborg overlords. But both Cannon and O’Shea are embracing a cyborg future. For Cannon, the endgame is “to be 100% non-biological. I would want to spend time off planet, searching out answers for questions we want answered. Humans want to be peaceful explorers. We may need to abandon our biology and travel the stars to find what we want.” O’Shea is even more straightforward about our cyborg natures by saying that, “many academics and philosophers would already say we are cyborgs, that our smartphones are extensions of our intelligence and our technology is an extension of ourselves. This can be seen as the Extended Mind. We might as well already be cyborgs. Even judging from perhaps the more common definition of that term – a human/machine combination – many people already meet that definition. Many modern humans have pace makers, cochlear implants, prosthetic limbs, joint replacements, artificial organs, and more. Some would even elect to have these devices for traditionally non-medical reasons.”
Cannon shows no hesitation when discussing how he thinks that humans can evolve by melding with machine. “There will be practical augments in next couple of years and over the next 20 years it will progress rapidly. In 2050 we will reach a tipping point. figure out what will do with 1000 IQ minds, being powered by the sun, humans designed to live 1000 years, and no need for calories anymore.”
But what about those who do not want to become part-man/part-machine? Whether it is for moral, ethical, or religious reasons, there will be a faction of the populace that would have no interest in this. Would there develop a class divide between cyborgs and natural humans? Cannon doesn’t believe so. “A cyborg future is inevitable, but there will be people will want to stay natural. Divides will be over needs. Humans need wheat, calories, sugar, salt, fat. Plants have vastly different needs than humans. Humans will have different needs than cyborgs and won’t compete for same needs.” O’Shea drew the interesting comparison between modern humans and sects of us that don’t use technology today. “Currently there are communities of Amish people who don’t use modern technology. I certainly wouldn’t view these people as lesser beings. Likewise, I’m sure there will be humans that choose not to augment themselves and live and die as biological humans. They should be able to do this, and I certainly don’t think they should be looked down upon for this.”
As O’Shea said, “Grindhouse is taking the first steps towards increasing our consciousness, overcoming limitations, and replacing biology with technology. We feel this is the natural course of human evolution.”