Cyborgs and Design Constraints

A recent article in BBC News asks the question: Can we build a “Six-Million-Dollar man”? If that reference is lost on you, the Six-Million-Dollar Man was a made-for-TV movie and television show that aired in the 1970s based on a book, Cyborg. The main character was an astronaut who was in a debilitating accident. He was equipped with bionic legs, left arm, and left eye and with these bionic features was able to save the world using his super-human abilities.  The underlying point of the reference is to ask if we can go beyond prosthetics and enhance the human body beyond its normal capabilities.

Ironically, many cyborgs in film, television, and literature are people who suffered from some sort of trauma causing their bodies to become vulnerable, or to operate as sub-standard levels. Examples include Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, who became a cyborg after almost dying in an epic battle; Luke Skywalker, who lost his hand in another epic battle between him and his cyborg father; Robocop, who was a cop that almost died at the hands of a gang; Ironman/Tony Stark, whose heart was irrevocably damaged when he was kidnapped; and the already mentioned Six-Million-Dollar Man. Rather than restoring their bodies to their previous level of mobility and functionality, these characters are enhanced to amazing levels. (Although Luke Skywalker’s enhanced abilities do not come from technology but from mastering the Force, an important point in Lucas’ films).

The article asks whether we are at a point where enhancement to super-human abilities is possible, and offers the example of humans being able to run at 60mph. While this may have every science fiction fan salivating, there’s this small problem of design constraints:

Bipedalism was not really designed for that kind of running. There’s considerably more efficient ways of moving at 60mph. I don’t know if there’s enough benefit to overcome the difficulties of 60mph running speed…It might be possible to attach a bionic arm with enough strength to lift a car. However, actually doing so could cripple the rest of the body. Falling over while running at 60mph could be equally damaging.

 

The human body is a work of engineering with all of its integrated parts interacting as a functioning whole. One does not need an anatomy and physiology class to understand this; just throw out your back or injure your hamstring and see how integrated your body really is. Or run in a pair of bad running shoes and see what happens to your feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back. Every movement employs a series of muscles, tendons and joints, not to mention the neural networking required to tell your body to make those movements. It is an interacting whole, and like any piece of engineering, there are design constraints.

Our culture has an obsession with enhancement. In this sense medicine is not about healing; it is about conquering. But what is it that we are conquering? The transhumanists would say that we are raising our fists at Nature by taking control of our own evolution. No longer are we going to be the products of chance and necessity; we will take it from here and will be the products of our own making.

I think if we are honest with ourselves, what we’re fighting against is our own frailty. We want to watch athletes conquer world records. We want superheroes that are stronger than all of the bad guys. We want to see man on the top of the tallest mountain or on the moon or surviving in the wilderness. We want to feel like we are not nearly as vulnerable as we really are.

Perhaps for some of us, we want solace that maybe someone has conquered the very thing that horrifies us the most about our frailty: Death. Death is confounding. Why do creatures like us die like an animal? We can create, have consciousness, are individually unique yet also relationally connected, have ideas, and contemplate our own mortality.  With every world record, every amazing feat of ingenuity, achievement, and technological advancement that pushes our design constraints, there is a background hope that we are one step closer to overcoming our ultimate enemy.

Of course, the BBC article is not talking about immortality. It is only speculating on running faster or lifting heavier objects. But the subject is so tantalizing because, “Eventually you reach the point where you can start doing things that normal people can’t do…” The point isn’t to be “normal” or to restore normal function. Normal people can get in a car wreck, can lose an arm, can go blind, and can hurt themselves doing mundane things. Normal people die.* The point is to be anything but normal. But design constraints place limits on just how far from “normal” we can go. We will never be able to out-run or “out-react” or out-smart every danger. Even if we somehow overcame one design constraint, another becomes more pronounced to the point that what may have started as an enhancement in one sense becomes a detriment in another sense.

The “Six-Million-Dollar-Man” idea is only feasible to a point. It will not save us and it will not give us the resurrected body that we ultimately desire.

 

 

*See Isaac Asimov’s Bicentennial Man for an interesting take on this concept in regards to robots with human qualities, the opposite of a cyborg, perhaps.

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Jon Holmlund, M.D.
Jon Holmlund, M.D.
9 years ago

I have to chuckle–in the 70’s, a viewer of The Six Million Dollar Man asked, “Steve Austin has two bionic legs, one bionic arm, and a bionic eye–so how can he lift 2000 pounds without breaking his back?”