The cyborg next door

April 13, 2013

In the 1970s, America thrilled to the adventures of Steve Austin in “The Six Million Dollar Man” and Jaime Sommers in “The Bionic Woman.”

Well, “thrilled” might be overstating the case, but both shows – “Bionic Woman” was a spin-off of “Six Million Dollar Man” – had successful if brief runs on network television. As well, they and their precursor novel, “Cyborg” by Martin Caidin, introduced the popular culture to mechanically augmented humans.

Perhaps the most famous bionic person in the world today is sprinter and alleged murderer Oscar Pistorius, an amputee who made history by competing in the 2012 Olympic Games. Pistorius’ legs were amputated below the knees when he was an infant to address a congenital condition. He runs on carbon-fiber prostheses that have earned him the nickname “Blade Runner.”

There are many more people who have benefited from bionics, not least the thousands of war wounded the United States has produced over the last decade-plus. Strides in cybernetics eventually will allow amputees greater motor control over prostheses than they’ve had in the past. An artificial hand may mimic a natural one, not because someone pressed a button to run a predetermined program, but because it is neurally linked to its user, who is willing it to do so.

Which brings us to fashion. How long will it be before elective cybernetic surgery is available?

There are few limits on what people are willing to do to modify their bodies, and I’d wager there are more than a couple who would give up their perfectly functional legs to have them replaced with stronger prostheses. Among the early adopters, expect to see a crossover with people who are into plastic surgery and extreme piercing, tattooing and branding.

Also expect some wringing of hands over the moral correctness of such procedures. There’s an entire strain of science fiction dedicated to examining what it means to be human, as well as the potential conflicts between haves and have-nots, in a world of augmented beings.

University of Toronto professor Steve Mann has had a taste of this possible future. Mann last year claimed he was ejected from a McDonald’s restaurant in Paris because the employees there were upset about the augmented-reality glasses he has permanently attached to his head. The glasses are capable of shooting photos and video, and the employees were allegedly angry that he might be recording the goings-on at the restaurant.

Mann contends that he was assaulted, while McDonald’s, following an internal investigation, says its employees were not at fault. Media outlets described the incident as the first “cybernetic hate crime.” Since then, Google has announced a device similar to Mann’s EyeTap called Google Glass, which several establishments, including a Seattle bar and a Las Vegas strip club, have preemptively banned.

The end game here is cybernetic implants that aren’t obvious to the casual observer, whether they be contact lenses or entirely new eyeballs. The question is whether one will be able to afford the high-quality eyeballs or the less desirable, ad-supported eyeballs.

Of all the dystopian futures that may lie ahead of us, among the least desirable to my mind is the one in which I have to watch an advertisement for Denny’s before I can see well enough to shave.

Dave Penn is a copy editor for the Observer-Reporter. Contact him at



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