Saturday, 18 February 2017

Resistance Is Futile - And Why Would One Resist Prosthetic Implants Anyway?

There has been much shock and horror expressed at Elon Musk's message at the World Government Summit in Dubai last week, to the effect that humans must integrate with machines to remain relevant.

The revulsion that many have expressed towards this idea is almost as if humankind were on the verge of being assimilated by the Borg.

The Borg is only evil to those outside the collective. Once you're in, you're perfectly at home.

I'm, however, not shocked, merely excited. Why?

Consider that I no longer have exactly the same body that nature gave me over half a century ago. It has been modified in a couple of significant ways by technology.

I developed myopia during high school, sometime in Year 10, and had to wear glasses thereafter. At the age of forty, I underwent laser eye surgery to remove my dependence on glasses. That was fourteen years ago. To this day, I can read the sign at the other end of a supermarket aisle without straining. And though I was warned that laser eye surgery would not help me avoid reading glasses after a certain age, I haven't needed them either for some reason. Technology has improved upon nature to give me perfect vision.

At the age of fortyfive, I underwent surgery for an inguinal hernia, which had been gradually making it harder and harder for me to walk or stand for long periods. The solution consisted of inserting a mesh made of inert material on the floor of my abdomen to support my intestines. This material, being stronger and more durable than any natural tissue, was guaranteed to last me for the rest of my life and prevent any further injury on that side at least. I'm now walking around with an advanced polymer inside my body that functions better than my own ageing tissues.

As time goes by, I expect that more parts of my body will wear out and be repaired or replaced by appropriate technological innovations. I see nothing frightening about this. On the contrary, I fully expect and welcome these developments. That's what science is about. I most definitely reject the religious notion that suffering is sent by God for us to accept and endure with patience.

Prosthetics is now mainstream. Double amputee Oscar Pistorius had to fight for years to be allowed to compete in the regular Olympics (not the Paralympics) because of objections that he held an unfair advantage! Prosthetic hands with two-way feedback not only allow a person to touch and manipulate objects, but also to sense touch.

There are still many human ailments that elude a cure, but for which there are already glimmers of hope -- blindness, deafness, dementia, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, paralysis, AIDS, cancer, Ebola, -- the list only grows. The latest news item I read was about a man paralysed from the neck down, who has regained movement in his upper body thanks to stem cell therapy.

In time, it will become possible to create prosthetics for the brain to enhance its capabilities. Computers today have Math Coprocessors and GPUs (Graphical Processing Units) to do the heavy computations required for demanding applications. The main CPU doesn't do that kind of work anymore. Isn't it just a natural extension of this principle to let the brain offload computations or linguistic functions to a chip when required? One wouldn't need to use a calculator or a foreign language phrasebook when the need arises. One would just calculate the numbers in one's head, or simply converse with a foreigner in their language in real-time. Who wouldn't jump at the capability to do that when the risks of getting an implant are brought down to negligible levels?

After all, I waited a few years and tracked the progress of two friends before I committed my eyes to laser surgery. I took a risk all right, but not an irresponsible one, and I haven't regretted it for a moment. Why would people not opt to gain these virtual super-powers for a modest financial outlay?

I'm sure there'll be a tipping point. No Asian parent today would take the risk of not enrolling their child in coaching classes (I've been there with that dilemma, and succumbed like everyone else). In the future, when enough kids have embedded chips in their brains that give them an unassailable edge in academics, how can other parents resist the same for their own? There could be pressure from academic boards themselves for kids to get themselves "microchipped" so that certain subjects could be made redundant and removed from the school syllabus, making school more fun for children.

So I'm not dreading the future of prosthetics, including neural prosthetics. I welcome technology that will enhance my capabilities. I will assimilate it.
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