Fu­ture of cy­borgs, the ma­chines of medicine

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - Ian Cuth­bert­son

‘‘ IMAG­INE a world with­out death or dis­ease, where the hu­man body can be ser­viced and re­paired like a ma­chine, with new parts built from scratch.’’ OK, I’m imag­in­ing. It looks re­ally, re­ally crowded, with cy­borgs for days.

While this lofty be­gin­ning may lead you to think you are in for one of those fu­tur­ol­ogy fan­tasies about us all get­ting into sil­i­con bags and down­load­ing our brains to com­put­ers, in­stead this en­joy­able pro­gram stays pretty grounded.

The back­bone is Melbourne per­for­mance artist Ste­larc, whose nine- year quest for a third ear serves as a metaphor for the state of cy­ber­gen­ics.

Why does he want a third ear? Be­cause he’s an artist. This is a man best known for hang­ing by meathooks through his skin, com­pletely naked, above things, like the ocean or city build­ings.

So how does the de­sire for an ex­tra ear qual­ify Ste­larc as a cy­borg? Well, the new ear is go­ing to have a mi­cro­phone and be Blue­tooth equipped, so it can lis­ten to sounds and broad­cast them, via a mo­bile phone, live on the in­ter­net.

An­other way this pro­gram keeps its feet on the ground, pierc­ing holes in the sci- fi fan­tasies of would- be cy­borgs, is with flesh- crawl­ing close- ups of sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dures. Like a Si­amese twin, Ste­larc has to have an in­flat­able de­vice placed un­der the skin of his fore­arm so the skin will stretch enough to ac­com­mo­date his new ear.

Then we’re off on a cou­ple of side­tracks. There’s a man with a bionic eye that al­lows him to see phosphenes ( en­top­tic phe­nom­ena char­ac­terised by the sen­sa­tion of see­ing light). There’s gory cochlear im­plant surgery and in­ter­views with some of the 100,000 peo­ple in the world who hear with them, in­clud­ing a man who de­nies he is a cy­borg. Un­for­tu­nately, he shoots him­self in the foot when he de­clares that ev­ery­thing sounds dif­fer­ent when­ever he gets a soft­ware up­grade.

Sad­dest, yet most hope­ful, of all is a man with locked- in syn­drome ( peo­ple who are to­tally paral­ysed but re­main alert and in­tel­li­gent) who, through im­plant tech­nol­ogy, wills a com­puter to talk for him, phoneme by phoneme.

Talk does turn to the down­load­ing of the hu­man brain into a com­puter, but even fea­tured science fiction writer Ge­off Ry­man de­bunks that: ‘‘ It’s all sexy and fun, and of course it’s about the con­quest of death, but the prac­ti­cal gap ( just how it will work) is so enor­mous we might never get there.’’

Which brings us back to Ste­larc, whose third ear suc­cumbs to in­fec­tion and must be re­moved. An­other dream over the dam.

Ear to­day, gone to­mor­row: Tech­nol­ogy and medicine are mov­ing ever closer

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