Cyborgs vs fyborgs, modifications vs medications

Wednesday, 12 November, 2008

Throughout the twenty-first century, we fyborgs will find ourselves deeply integrated into systems of machines, but we will remain biological. And as long as this is true, the primary changes to our own form and character will arise not from implants but from direct manipulation of our genetics, our metabolism, and our biochemistry.

The above paragraph comes from Gregory Stock’s 2003 book Redesigning Humans, in the chapter (chapter 2) entitled ‘Our commitment to our flesh’, and argues that enhancement of our bodies will occur by biological means like genetic modification, because any cybernetic technology will be abandoned in favour of the fyborg alternative.

Coined by the late transhumanist Alexander Chislenko, the term “fyborg” is a portmanteau of ‘functional’ and ‘cyborg’. It refers to the utilisation of technological tools external to the body, which is supposedly a more popular notion than having surgery to implant the technology. So, while a cyborg would use a mathematical processing chip implanted into his brain, a fyborg would use a calculator or notebook computer to perform any difficult calculations. A cyborg may have an artificial eye overlaying an interface onto the world, but a fyborg may achieve the same thing by wearing high-tech glasses.

Gregory Stock would do well to realise that a similar divide as exists between cyborgs and fyborgs can be seen in the field of genetic technology, with the competition between modifications and medications. Currently, a lot of biotechnological interventions are reduced to a form where they can be taken as a regular injection or an oral pill, supposedly because people don’t want to mess around with permanent changes to their body or genome. So, while one could get genetically modified to have super-fast reflexes, another may take a drug with similar effects. A lot of the same benefits of fyborgisation, and the disadvantages of surgery, will be likely present in biological interventions as well.

Gregory Stock outlines a perceived problem with cyborg technology quite well in the following excerpt:

Enticing as a direct brain linkage sounds in the abstract, virtually every scheme for one has this flaw. Healthy individuals are not going to allow some cyber-surgeon to hack into their brains to bring them enrichments that are largely obtainable in other ways.

This first appeals to a visceral reaction to surgery, which compares quite unfavourably to simply buying a high-tech gadget. Yet I could see the same reaction occurring when a parent is presented the choice between allowing his healthy young daughter to have her chromosomes hacked by some genetic engineer just to bring a benefit that could be given by a pill every morning and night. All the same, this distinction is not purely based on emotions, for there are good sound reasons underlying this gut reaction.

sildenafil-citrate-50mgOne of the strongest real benefits of fyborg technology over cyborg technology is that it is non-invasive, which primarily makes it far less risky than the alternative. Stock writes, rightly, that we “are not cavalier even about proven technologies”, and therefore a drastic procedure like surgery will risk too many problems. The same could be said, however, of genetic technologies in comparison to pharmacological enhancements. That a drug has only brief effects has the benefit of making any side-effects similarly short-lived. Therefore, by Stock’s own logic, the genetic interventions will be cast aside in favour of pharmacological equivalents.

Stock also explains that a fyborg device can be more easily repaired and updated than the cyborg alternative, allowing for the enhancements to keep up with the changing pace of technology. Yet this too applies to biological interventions, because it is indeed far easier to switch to the newer and more advanced medication than it is to have one’s genes edited to a more effective or safer version. And likewise for any regrets one has about an enhancement, which would be far easier to rectify if such enhancement were non-invasive fyborg ones or temporary pharmacological ones.

Is that to say that in the future we will just carry around move advanced gizmos and consume better versions of coffee and Viagra? Not at all, and Stock does explain perhaps the main reason why anyone would choose a permanent body modification – when it either is the best way to produce that enhancement (or the only way).

Implantable technology would benefit strongly from the close interaction with the body. As Stock points out, you can’t have a wearable pacemaker, because it needs to be implanted. Likewise, an interface directly with the brain or body would be far faster and more effective. A calculator takes time to use, but if the brain could instantly connect with a mathematical processor, this would be far faster. To put on an exoskeleton to lift a heavy object takes time, but super-strong prosthetic limbs would always be on call as part of your body. Not surprisingly, this applies to genetic modification as well. Not all biological modifications are amenable to being taken in a pill or potion, due to the need for the contents of a pill to avoid being broken down by the digestive tract and travel through the stomach wall to the correct site in the body without being diluted too much. Further, though most temporary modifications would be injectable, so too would a well-made permanent gene mod (and a once-off injection is better than regular injections, I’d say).

In addition, the fact that fyborgs and pharmaceuticals are not permanent additions to your body is not only its greatest benefit, but also a source of great weakness: any non-implanted technology can be more easily lost or fall into the wrong hands. In a world where enhancements may be expensive, highly-coveted and possibly illegal (or abhorred by some), this is not a trivial issue. Surely many would sleep more soundly knowing their enhancements are hidden inside their body, not lying around to be stolen by thieves or confiscated by police. The same could be said of a bottle of pills, which share these same problems and in addition have only limited uses. (Although, the theft of something from inside another’s body, or the forced removal of genetic modifications, may be far more dangerous and gruesome).

That said, I do agree somewhat with Stock’s conclusion that genetic enhancement will be more influential than cybernetic technologies, in that I think it will upon us far sooner and, in the near future, be more effective. And, to my surprise, Stock nails the reason quite well too:

Our flesh is a dense three-dimensional matrix of biological cells, ill-suited for a permanent, working union with broad arrays of sensitive electronic probes.

The problem of interfacing with the moving target that is the self-organising network of neurons we call the brain is a mammoth one, and the simple brain-computer interfaces that exist suffer from incalculable technological and methodological barriers before they will reach the level of our brain, let alone supersede it. Genetic interventions, on the other hand, really have only a single large hurdle – targeting of genetic elements to the correct location on the genome (to avoid cancer-causing mutations).


  1. […] said it, and that’s also the conclusion of Kyle Munkittrick’s post “From Gears to Genes: […]

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