Friday, 1 October 2010

Cybernetics: the fact and fantasy behind man-machine interfacing

Although it is a subject that has fascinated me for many years, cybernetics is not an area I know very much about. However, as that's never stopped me before I thought now would be a good time to explore a few of issues surrounding cybernetics, the theory and the practice. It's one of those scientific disciplines wherein the public perception owes far more to fiction than reality; although it doesn't appear to have generated the same level of active protest as say GM crops or cloning. This is somewhat surprising, considering that the 1970's television 'classic' The Six Million Dollar Man (and bionic spinoff series) aside, most fictional representations tend towards the negative. Dystopian fears of a loss of humanity and individualism, often linked to the hive mind or centralised control, are frequently portrayed in science fiction tales of cyborgs. As with many aspects of current technological research, the reality is often many decades behind even the most likely fictional scenario. But what exactly is cybernetics?

An aunt of mine recently quipped about being a 'bionic woman' after receiving an artificial kneecap, but the mere addition of man-made components into a biological entity isn't really what cybernetics is about. If anyone can be said to be the originator of the field it is American mathematician Norbert Weiner, who in 1948 wrote Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine. The title explains the core of it: it concerns the control of a system, not the simple amalgamation of organic and inorganic mechanisms. So although artificial limbs and other organs have been around for some time, the lack of controlled interactivity means these are not cybernetic systems. What really counts is mind over matter, such as the University of Reading professor nick-named 'Captain Cyborg' whose 1998 transmitter implant gave him control of various electronic devices. Clearly, this borders on the realm of super powers, a reminder that most fictional cyborgs have superior physical and/or mental abilities compared to non-augmented humans. So is the Nietzschean superman just waiting in the wings?

Coinciding pretty well with the release of Blade Runner in 1982, cyberpunk has spent almost three decades concentrating on the darker side of the man-machine interface via concepts such as dehumanisation, technologically–boosted eugenics, and mutilation. The latter often seems to revolve around updated versions of traditional techniques of physical adornment such as piercing and tattooing, practiced in many cultures around the world but seemingly derided and devalued in the West for some centuries prior to revival under the original punks of the 1970s. This in turn has surely inspired the most violent aspects of cybernetics – the invasive bodily procedures apparent in the Borg and Cybermen - that suggest the field is merely an updated version of Frankenstein's experiments, with mutilation at its core.

Yet aren't people already dabbling in subtle variants of this, whether by cosmetic surgery or the body-building foods and drugs now so prevalent? But back to the ideas of a carbon-based entity controlling objects of silicon, what about the development of smart textiles, allowing the wearer direct interfacing with electronic devices from medical monitors to mobile entertainment systems? Clearly, the future of cybernetics will involve more than one path, some rather less obvious than others.

Recent projects that are worth mentioning include the University College of London's Intraosseous Transcutaneous Amputation Prosthesis (ITAP) project for attaching prosthetic limbs and digits via a titanium rod, the University of Southern California's artificial retina research, and German company Otto Bock Healthcare's thought-controlled prosthetic arms. Whilst these projects are aiming to restore lost physicality, the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on another acronym-laden project, HI-MEMS: Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, involving healthy organisms. The idea is to implant bio-electromechanical interfaces into insects so that they can be used for...I've no idea, and I'm not sure they do either. Perhaps a case of overdosing on cyberpunk guru William Gibson? As with all areas of high technology, the US Department of Defense is enthusiastic on the grounds there might just be a military advantage in there somewhere. And there is evidence of them experimenting on other animals too, such as sharks (anyone remember Doctor Evil's demand for "sharks…with lasers"? Well, they're on their way.)

One area that hasn't traditionally had much involvement with cybernetics is nanotechnology, but the latter is proving to be a growth area (or should that be shrinking area?) Perhaps the future will rely more on countless microscopic implants rather than obvious lumps of metal and plastic grafted onto the body. And that in turn brings its own hint of danger. I've not read any cyberpunk myself, but what if we all end up stuffed to the gills with nanobots, repairing cellular mutations, de-clogging our arteries, adding memory backup to our ageing synapses, etc, all at the beck and call of our silent thoughts? And then along comes the next generation of computer hackers and virtual virus designers, able to reprogramme our nano-sized helpmeets to obey their commands? "Resistance is futile!" Just a thought...

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