Future of cyborgs, the machines of medicine
‘‘ 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