Dispatch — Oct 21, 2021

The Doctor Will Cyborg You Now

3D printed body enhancement, photo by Maximalfocus.

The last Dispatch, on Intelligences, started with a section on Augmentation. It wasn’t my plan to keep going roughly in that direction but doing some research for a client in healthcare, I fell upon this piece concerning a successful clinical trial on stimulating the vagus nerve and it immediately resonated for me, alongside the superhistory piece from said Dispatch, as two less discussed forms of augmentation, so I had to circle back.

Note → This article is me waving at a few technologies in a direction I find intriguing and associating them loosely (despite the title) with a concept that’s been used in various differing ways. I’m aware of posthumanism, transhumanism, Haraway, and differing viewpoints around disability but I wanted to keep this relatively brief. For more, see the further readings below.

The vagus nerve is “the cranial nerve that runs along the groove in the front of the neck and is responsible for transmitting signals from the brain to other parts of the body.” In the study, the researchers implanted a neurostimulator which would send pulses to the nerve. They studied stroke patients with considerably disabled arms or legs and concluded that this series of pulses, when combined with rehab therapy, showed progress “faster and more effectively than any treatment before it.”

By stimulating the vagus nerve, they had compressed years of physical therapy into months. The trial was meant as a way of repairing damage and restoring motor control. But what if there had been no damage to begin with? In the hands of the healthy and fit, such technology could significantly enhance physical performance—the question is whether humans are ready to contend with it.

The article quickly goes into a resolutely more hypothetical direction, wondering what the impact might be for a similar acceleration of training on healthy individuals and with goals of increasing performance. In other words, could one train faster using such a device?

If that process can be sped up, then we’ve just learned how to optimize the brain—and how to augment human beings. […]

Generally, to acquire a skill, the brain’s neurons need to fire in the right way at the right time; practice is the usual human course, but now, stimulation lets us do it faster, and better, too.

The author, Brandy Schillace, speculates further on how athletes might use this, how regulatory bodies might test for this kind of boosting, how it could be permitted or not, and how testing could be seen since it would require monitoring the brain, which might involve ethical issues.

For our purpose here, lets stick to the basic idea: stimulating the vagus nerve might lead to accelerated training for certain physical activities, allowing people to reach their best performance more easily, or perhaps reach a level they wouldn’t have by making the path to that level much easier. Or maybe it’s actually keeping your sitting-in-front-of-a-computer-all-day body in shape? And finally, what if this could be done with no implant?

If the nerve could be stimulated from outside the body, such as through the use of magnetic fields, it could open the door to expansion beyond medical applications, even commercially. […]

Liu makes it clear that his work to date aims to improve nervous system function after injury, disease, or even normal ageing, he admits that the implications of his discoveries can and will be profound, and with significant ethical considerations.

Cyborgs

According to Wikipedia, the word cyborg is “a portmanteau of cybernetic and organism—is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts. The term was coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline.” Which means that in most uses of the word, one implies some kind of implants, electronic and/or mechanical parts integrated within the body. The implanted version above would be one example, the hypothetical out-of-body version wouldn’t.

If we look for the very early baby steps of ‘cyborgification,’ would contact lenses fit the bill? Ear pieces? Prosthetics can definitely be seen as cyborg implants but are, to my knowledge, not usually referred to as such, likely in good part because one feels like a chosen augmentation and in real life they aren’t choices. Well, deciding to have one might sometimes be a choice, but needing one isn’t. (I should dig deeper in that direction but for this article, I’ll lamely circle around disability and we’ll all need to have a look at sara hendren’s abler archive, for starters.)

There are more than a few articles out there where smart phones are framed as outboard brains making us cyborgs, as does our nearly constant connection to the global network. Without looking at the future, this moment, what might best represent a cyborg add-on? A somewhat primitive implant (electronically speaking) like a pacemaker or an advanced external device like a smartphone? No real point in arguing between the two, other than in this ‘augmentation’ idea and looking at early stumblings, I like to include external devices when noticing things and wildly gesturing at cyborgs because ‘metaphorical’ augments are already here and can already be used as signals of where things might go. I like it as a little shift in perspective of what constitutes an augmentation.

Superhistory

Very quickly since it was in the previous Dispatch on Intelligences but in terms of augmenting humans, things already happening, and using slightly different perspectives, I really like Rao’s idea which proposes that we should talk about superhistory, not superintelligence, viewing AIs as a compression of massive amounts of data and thus of time. In this view, we can see various machine learning models as compressing years of experience and making it accessible.

[Chess champion] Carlsen is young enough to have been effectively “raised by AIs” — the most sophisticated chess AIs available on personal computers when he was growing up in the aughts. His playing style was described as kinda machine-inspired, pushing hard all the way through the end, exploring unlikely and unconventional lines of play where human tradition would suggest conceding.

Hearing & AR

Another place where we can look at a slightly different area than the obvious is in looking at ‘hearables’ as the place where an augmented perception of the world around us might be first experienced. Augmented Reality is usually associated with visuals and thus happens in studios or through a smartphone or tablet screens. In terms of AR glasses, there is currently nothing even close to being widely available and in use. There are, however, millions of advanced earphones, like AirPods, which can / could augment the surrounding world through audio. Drew Austin and others have already explored that idea.

AirPods, then, express a more complete embrace of our simultaneous existence in physical and digital space, taking for granted that we’re frequently splitting our mental energy between the two. […]

As audio-based platforms take off, network effects would kick in, strengthening the incentives to leave earbuds in for longer and longer. It wouldn’t seem rude to wear them in conversation; it would be as acceptable as glancing at one’s phone or even sending a quick text message seems today. […]

But these devices can just as easily allow wearers to pursue a different, less integrated path: not augment[ing] the surrounding physical reality or taking the people inhabiting it into account, but constructing an altogether parallel reality.

And here Lauren Goode for WIRED:

Specifically, apps that augment the real-world environment, the way AR app makers are building layers or “lenses” for phone screens and smart glasses. … “We basically consider this screen-free AR,” Wegener says. “It’s a much more compelling experience than holding a screen in front of your eyes and pretending there’s a monster on your floor.”

Interestingly, earphones are also one of the first areas where consumer products are overlapping with existing prosthetics and medical-grade options. Over just a few months this year, The Verge wrote about three earphones providing benefits to the hearing impaired and competing with much more expensive hearing aids, which shows just how advanced they are becoming while providing that technology at consumer prices.

 

The first item up top is much more speculative, but the other two are almost here. In the not-so-distant future, AI companions might provide a way of benefiting from years of knowledge, allowing users to get proficient much more quickly at some intellectual pursuits. The first always-on virtual layer over the physical world could very well be an audio one and perhaps wearable devices will act in tandem with our nervous system to accelerate how we train for physical tasks.

A supercomputer in your pocket, connected to a global network, giving you access to AI superhistory, adding a layer of information through earphones, and possibly while a device is accelerating your body’s training. Cyborg?


Further reading