02 September 2007

Natural Born Cyborg?

Between here and the transhuman, serious obstacles lie. Creating artificial general intelligence (AGI) and artifacts suitable for downloading human consciousness, both appear quite distant in the future. Several intermediate steps must be taken before humans become posthumans.

Cyborgs, or cybernetic organisms, are part animal, part machine. A human cyborg such as The Bionic Woman or the Six Million Dollar Man, may be created within the next ten years. Such a cyborg would be an adult human who is provided with active prosthetic devices such as artificial legs, artificial arms, a machine heart, prosthetic visual and auditory devices, etc. in order to restore function of original, natural quality or better.

A more ambitious and controversial form of cyborg would be the "natural born cyborg," the cyborg infant who grows into full "cyborghood" without any knowledge of being pre-borg human. The technology for such a "natural born borg" would be understandably much more complex to conceptualize and successfully create, and the experience of such a "born borg" would be virtually incomprehensible to its creators.

While most social analysts and thinkers might recoil from the very idea of such a 'borg, it is quite possible that some governments and wealthy crime/drug/terror conglomerates that finance legitimate research, have looked into this possibility. Certainly someone paid by the US Pentagon has given the idea at least a little thought.

How would one go about creating such a creature?

I will blur over many of the details involved, out of regard for the relative sensitivity of this topic. The following discussion does not imply any moral judgment in favour or against such research. It is a conceptual exploration, a thought experiment, and no more. I am assuming that artificial uteri are being used, and that all embryos are from discarded IVF embryos.

First of all, an intracranial neural interface would be implanted via intra-uterine surgery. The fetus will have been genetically prepared to minimise resistance to the implant, and biological and bio-compatible materials would be used as much as possible in the construction of the trans-cranial transducer and intra-cranial implanted materials.

In vitro cultured micro-neural nets that are programmed to grow to a specific thalamic and other sub-cortical nuclei, and designed to appear on neural imaging for the monitoring of accurate targeting.

The earlier the implant is placed, the more of neural development that could be influenced via Hebbian stimuli, targeted release of neural growth factors, and neo-pathways seeded by the implant itself.

Growth of the borg brain would be monitored via EEG, MEG, fMRI, PET, and other imaging facilitated by the implant.

The borg would not be seen as ethically human, and significant aberrations or failures to develop would result in abortion, unless significant knowledge could be derived from allowing the "failed borg" to develop.

Once a putatively successful fetus has reached maturity, it will be removed from the artificial uterus and observed as it develops in a less confined environment. Its wireless interface will be calibrated and if necessary replaced with improved versions. The neural component of the implant will grow along with the infant, and be monitored closely by its distinctive "imaging signature."

Once the infant is more accessible to behavioural psychologists, conventional behavioural therapies (including extensive neurofeedback) would be combined with the ability to influence growth and development of brain structures themselves. Conventional and unconventional learning methods would be naturally incorporated into behavioural and neuro-shaping techniques.

Virtual reality techniques would create an entire artificial environment--wherever useful, or whenever the necessary lessons cannot be taught within a natural or otherwise augmented environment.

The natural born borg would grow with a concept of itself and its own purpose and desires, which would be distinctly different from the personality development of a pre-borg human.

From the moment the fetal implant was placed and began functioning, the life trajectory of the borg begins to diverge from that of a natural human fetus without implants.

I have omitted for the present any mention of non-neural implants and prosthesis. Suffice it to say that the mental development of the infant borg will be shaped so as to make it highly desirable for it to augment itself effectively and selectively for specific missions.

Image from Lifeboat Foundation

More later.

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Blogger Alice C. Parker said...

Creepy. Why is this being not human? You just opened a giant can of ethical worms. What if this being didn't possess a sense of right or wrong, no empathy, no ability to understand what others are thinking (theory of mind)? If we miss a step or two, we might create a big problem.

Sunday, 02 September, 2007  
Blogger Kobayashi Maru said...

This is a topic that suffers simultaneously from too much and too little imagination. The former is covered by Hollywood, plus decades of science fiction literature.

They too blithely posit changes that, as the previous commenter suggests, remove our soul on the operating table and/or make us into evil killing machines. To say that much of that is "far" in the future is to give it much too much credit. (Darth Vader stands at the head of this legacy; Luc Skywalker's arm prosthesis offers a saner counter-example.)

Re. too little imagination, I submit exhibit A: my late grandfather, who made it into his late 90s in relative comfort and grace due to several 'cyborg' adaptations invented or significantly advanced during his lifetime.

"...an adult human... with active prosthetic devices such as artificial legs, artificial arms, a machine heart, prosthetic visual and auditory devices... to restore function of original, natural quality or better."

Artificial hips and miniature hearing aids are just two examples.

Some leg prostheses today can be tuned or changed to optimize for different track and field events, with results (at least in the sprints) that put practiced users several standard deviations above the mean in terms of performance.

The one thing cyborg innovation cannot bring is a significant extension to our allotted threescore and ten. Alas, however often we may set off airport metal detectors with our enhancements, we must shuffle off this mortal coil one day.

Sunday, 02 September, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

HTE: It was meant to be creepy, without being explicit enough to give anyone any ideas. It is the brain that makes one a human. If the fetal brain is altered as radically as I hint at in my short posting, it is not a human brain. The whole process is completely unethical and unacceptable. A lot of things humans do are like that.

KM: I agree that most all of us are becoming cyborgs and have titled multiple posts "We are All Cyborgs Now".

The fetal cyborg experiments I described below the fold, however, are beyond anything I've seen from Hollywood. Even so, I expect something very much like that to happen sometime, somewhere.

Altering brain development is something that is within the reach of neuroscience--whereas consciousness downloads and AGI are not. There are several things we need to learn first before those technologies will work.

Next after the crude interventions I describe would be intentional changes in genes and epigenetic signals/molecules that control brain development. The fetal cyborg experiments might even point in the right directions for such genetic alterations.

Again, it is all completely unethical and unacceptable. I do not promote or excuse any of it. I merely expect it to happen.

Sunday, 02 September, 2007  
Blogger Will Brown said...

Always late to the party it seems. :)

I think what your describing in your thought experiment Fin would be better described as an effort to create a biological AI from human source stock. My impression has long been that this differs from a true cybernetic organism in that one such as that results from the combination of non-living technology to the developed human form in some integrated fashion. I suppose an argument can be made that what you speculate about meets those terms, but I think the distinction between cyborg and AI is determined by how such a condition is arrived at.

Leaving AI as a separate discussion, I contend that a cyborg is the result of the deliberate modification via technological means of an already existing (if possibly seriously damaged in some fashion, though not necessarily) biological entity. The intent to enhance the existing capabilities to the greatest degree systemic integration permits is what removes such researchfrom most ethical objection.

While what you have speculated upon may well happen, I think it something other than what you have identified it as. Entirely separate from the questionable process you describe, I submit that creating a new physiological species is not at all the same as enhancing our existing species physiological capabilities.

Sunday, 02 September, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

I think what your describing in your thought experiment Fin would be better described as an effort to create a biological AI from human source stock.

That is one good way to describe it, Will. But keep in mind that my brain-implanted baby-borg is essentially a "borg in waiting." Its machine replacement parts and augments would be custom designed and fitted at the proper stage of development--when the borg's ultimate mission was better defined.

There are various ways one could approach making a super-brain from a nascent human brain. I prefer to present my own ideas on this topic in a vague, unfocused, and disjointed manner. Granted, it is likely that other theorists have gone much farther in greater detail--but that is their responsibility.

Monday, 03 September, 2007  

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