29 August 2007

The last thing I want to discuss in relation to Descartes' Error is something of a personal delight of mine: cyborgs. Reading about how the brain works in relation to the body sparked some more (doomed to be heavily flawed) musings on that little idea of artificial bodies that warms me on cold nights.

In short, cyborgs are half man, half machine. They are nothing more and nothing less than human beings who have had any part of their body replaced by artificial, industrially created surrogate limbs or organs. In fact, you could say that the cyborg age is already here: how many disabled persons aren't using robotic legs or prosthetic hips already? But to be frank, this is not quite what one has in mind upon hearing the term cyborg. Think more of it like a mechanical arm that is controlled by the brain and intricately woven into the actual corpse.

In the not too distant future, this will happen. Already there are drastic advances into this field (obviously military, what did you think?). There is already a set of binoculars that is able to (albeit rudimentary) tap into the nervous system to generate enhanced vision. Before long, the mysteries of the body will be unravelled even further and we'll be able to have machines we can control with our very mind. Linking those up to our own body is the obvious next step.

Cyborg technology will obviously have little to do with the 80s steampunk idea of beautifully grotesque Victorian machines, huffing steam from valves and bellowing smoke, replacing arms; or shiny metallic Robocops that fight crime with whirring noises and a heavy bootstep. New alloys and artificial compounds have been and are being discovered that alter this image. Silicon and titanium limbs will be virtually indistinguishable from the real thing and featherlight. Immortality awaits at the price of one's fragile, flawed, wonderful flesh!

But there are some obstacles that mar this vision. It is quite thinkable that our arms and limbs can be replaced. More problematic, but certainly not impossible are the organs. Except... for the brain. Replace a heart and the person won't even notice. But can we replace the brain for an artificial duplicate and sustain the person? After all I said in the last two rants about a person changing when his gray matter is affected and his very essence depending on the body-encapsulated brain, surely I must rest my case in this attempt? The two views are opposites and can't possibly be married!

The brain is formed partly by a set of instructions of the human genome, and partly by the way the organism grows and develops over his/her life and consists of (and I cite Antonio Damasio) circuits containing several billion neurons, among which lie at least 10 trillion synapses, and the length of the axons that form the circuits totals 'something on the order of several hundred thousand miles'. And according to scientific research, the composition of all this has a direct, physical link to a human's personality (one of its factors, at least). Welcome to the depths of the problem of the artificial replacement brain.

And welcome to my childishly unresearched, facile solution, which is sure to be so erroneous and laughable it will spontaneously assume the form of the antichrist and end existence with a well-placed swing of its scythe. My first thought was that the way to circumvent the person from ceasing to exist was to take the replacement slowly. Instead of switching the real brain off, popping in the fake and then reconnecting the whole shebang, we would slowly introduce artificial elements into the brain, replacing ever so subtly bits and pieces of the various sectors of the mind. This could of course only work if the brain would prove to possess a rather high level of adaptability; not minding sharing the functions of, say, the amygdala, with an impostor. After some time, ideally, the artificial bits would be so ingrained into the functionality of the brain; the entire section could be replaced while the brain would be maintained in the meantime by the parts already installed. And so on with the rest of the brain.

This theory is naturally based on the assumption that functions of the brain won't be averse to immigration to alien parts if they are alike in make-up and location. If it is, then the brain's an effing xenophobe that needs to open up to the multicultural society instead of maintaining a Ku Klux Klan attitude towards counterfeit brains. In all fairness, I don't really see this working. The mind is so linked up with how the brain is built that it won't be possible to replace it gradually, for the simple reason that the migration will in all likelihood fail. Another possibility is to make a high quality scan of the brain and create an exact duplicate, and somehow hope it takes. Barring the fact that this is impossible, the result would also be undesirable, as we would then simply have a clone of the person which would have a robotic body, instead of the person himself.

Luckily, I rest assured that there are people, now and in the future, who are vastly superior in this field than I am, and they will find a way. In the meantime, I'll just enjoy my awesome cyborg arm, thank you. Now watch me crush this beaker through the power of mind-driven pneumatics.

Lesson # 3: Cyborg technology is going to happen, and it'll kick ass and change everything we know.

Roderick's comment: I can't wait.