A Moment of Science

A Step Closer to Cyborgs

From our September 2012 service

It was reported in February of this year that Harvard researchers have been able to coax cells to grow in 3-dimensional scaffolds of nanowires and nano-scale transistors. They have been able to do this with neurons and smooth muscle and heart muscle cells and measure the electrical activity of such cells. It opens up the possibility of eventually creating real "cyborg" tissues that are half-living and half-machine.

But don't start thinking of Star Trek "Data" androids or dystopian "Terminator" cyborgs. [Data was 100% electronic, though, right? So then we have the Borg … ] Instead, think of hybrid machine insects that the military will use as scouts in enemy or hostile environments. Beetles have already been wired up to fly by remote control.

Now let me show you an interesting video that may seem unrelated:


Clearly, DNA replication is itself a kind of machinery. Imagine that sort of process as just one of innumerable molecular machines, like an enormous citadel of things going on inside every one of tens of billions of neurons in our brains. And ask yourself: where is the soul, or even the mind? Where are "you" or "I" in that?

We are already — right now — machines. So all this business of "cyborgs" is really about finding ways of modifying biological machines in such a way as to interface with the much more clumsy and macro-scale — even if still nanoscale at the level of the actual interface — machines that our technology can now manage to fabricate. Obviously, one can think of many applications, both good ones like Star Trek's Data and bad ones like Schwarzenegger's Terminator. It seems doubtful that any of us alive today will have to make the tough decisions that will have to be made sooner or later. But it is too late to ignore their approach. Better to start thinking about it now.