Resistance is futile.
That's what the Borg, the race of half human -half machine super villains say every time they show up to threaten the United Federation of Planets in the TV show Star Trek.
The Borg threaten to steal our individuality by "assimilating" the human race into a single wirelessly connected "collective" of men-machines in which each Borg shares his or her thoughts with every other Borg. But somehow, the humans, championed by the valiant crew of the Starship Enterprise and its staunch captain, Jean-Luc Picard, manage to resist the evil, machine-enhanced Borg every time. That's American TV for you.
But resistance really is futile. What the creators of Star Trek perhaps don't realize is that the Borgification of humanity is already happening, incrementally, every day. It isn't coming from a master race of super villains from beyond the stars. It's a transformation that is far more subtle - though perhaps no less dramatic - than anything Hollywood could ever dream up.
If you've ever had laser eye surgery, or have ever taken mood- or physiology-altering drugs, worn a heart pace-maker, or have depended on any assisstive technology - electronic or otherwise - chances are you're already a Borg and you don't even know it.
"Technology is becoming more and more integrated with our lives and our bodies and our consciousness," notes industrial designer Martha Davis. Davis should know; last year she helped design a concept mobile phone for Razorfish, Inc. Dubbed the Head Phone, it was designed to be implanted behind the user's ear.
To further illustrate Davis's point, let's look at a few other Borg developments:
1999 - Professor of Cybernetics, Kevin Warwick of the University of Reading in the U.K., implants a device in his arm that communicates wirelessly with his office's computer network. The network follows him throughout the building, greeting him with "Hello" when he enters, automatically opening the door to his office and switching on the lights for him.
Warwick noted that these simple yet seemingly magical acts prompted an emotional attachment to his computer system that he had not before experienced. "Humans will become cyborgs," he later wrote, "and no longer be stand alone entities."
2000 - Neurosurgeons affiliated with Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in the U.S., design and implant and device directly into the brain of a quadriplegic patient. The device enabled the patient, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease and had almost no motor function, to move a cursor across a computer screen merely by thinking about it. Research continues today.
2001 - Scottish engineer and software entrepreneur Rod MacGregor invents the "nanomuscle" - a tiny spring-like device made from a titanium and nickel alloy that stretches and contracts when charged with a small amount of electrical current.
Replacing conventional electric motors, the nanomuscle has profound implications for medical, military, space, and industrial devices - even though it was originally created to motivate a child's toy. Fortunately for us, the device cost only pennies to build, a development that should bring down the Six Million Dollar Man's price tag significantly.
2001 - German researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich develop the first working semiconductor using brain cells from a snail. "This is the first direct functional interfacing of a living neuronal network with and electronic semiconductor chip," Planck Institute researcher Peter Fromherz told a reporter from Reuters Health. "It is a further step on our road to combine the elements of brains and computers." Starship Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard, however, is not amused.
2001 - 59-year-old Robert Tools becomes the recipient of the world's first fully contained artificial heart at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, in the U.S. Unlike previous artificial heart recipients, Tool is able to move around independent of extra-bodily machinery. Tools no longer have a heartbeat. Rather, he whirs like a refrigerator, a fact that some find disturbing, others "cool."
Some of your best friends are....
These dramatic developments punctuate a gradual evolution that has been going on since humans first learned to use tools. The first recorded use of prosthetics, designed to assist those with crippling disabilities such as the loss of a limb, appear in ancient literature as early as 3,500 B.C.
The Sanskrit epic of Rig-Veda, for example, recounts the story of Queen Vishpala who lost her leg in battle and was fitted with an iron replacement. (Vishpala then returned to the fight).
And what of the first U.S. president George Washington's artificial teeth, or revolutionary patriot Benjamin Franklin's spectacles? How about Peter Pan's nemesis Captain Hook, or Moby Dick's archenemy, Captain Ahab with his whale-bone leg?
Assistive devices have even become (and will continue to become) fashion accessories. Witness the suave way Sir Percy Blakeney flashes his monocle in the Baroness Emma Orczy's classic novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Primitive examples to be sure, but still, they're pure Borg.
Think even more subtly than prosthetics. A prescription (or even recreational) drug, is little more than a molecular machine designed to enhance or at least alter an individual's physical, intellectual, or emotional experience.
So what's the difference between an assistive technology attached to - or swallowed by - a person, and one actually implanted in a person?
Not all that much, according to Lucas Hendrich, a researcher for KuzweilAI, a website founded by futurist and entrepreneur, Ray Kurzweil (author of The Age of Spiritual Machines), to showcase what he calls "accelerated intelligence" technologies.
"It's interesting to think about," says Hendrich, "We might be looking at depictions of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the Borg in Star Trek. We're thinking of these all fantastic scenarios, when at the same time we're routinely going in for "Lasik" laser eye surgery - and fundamentally altering something we were born naturally with, and correcting a disability."
"We look at these grotesque or fantastic visions based upon our current understanding of technology," he continues, "while not paying attention to what's happening right under our feet."
"It's not like there's a clean break where cyborgs start and humans end," says well-known industrial designer Tucker Viemeister, who worked with Davis on the Head Phone project. "We're stepping over into that realm all the time. All these prosthetic devices we wear on the outsides of our bodies - why not just put them on the inside?"
A "Borg," then, can be defined as anyone using an assistive device or technology (external or internal prosthetic, mechanical, bio-mechanical, or chemical) designed to enhance nature - or even aid our evolution. You're one. I'm one. It's a fact.
The big difference - and Big Brother
But there is a difference, albeit an illusive one, between the primitive expressions of "Borg-ness" of the past and what's happening today. The real difference is in the power of the machines we employ and their connectedness to other powerful machines via wireless networks.
Inevitable or not, people still have visceral reactions to what they see as "invasive" technologies. "People on one level thought the Head Phone was just gross," notes Viemeister, "like it was an intrusion."
"The thing is, it's not that big a deal. It was just like a regular cell phone, but instead of holding it up to your ear, you don't have any wires or hardware to hassle with anymore," continues Viemeister.
On another level people, people are concerned about "Big Brother" - from the classic George Orwell novel of intrusive government gone mad, 1984. In the novel, Big Brother served as a government avatar, which looked into every home and watched your every move through a mass communications network.
The human imagination takes dark wing when we envision ourselves carrying inside us an "always on" connection to computer networks. It's a vision in which there's nowhere to hide from the system, and from those who "own" it - whether the owners are governments, corporations, organizations, or individuals. All sorts of unpleasant things might happen.
Say, for example, a nefarious marketing executive decides that the best way to sell the Head Phone - or some other similar implanted device - is to design it such that every time you make a call, the phone squirts a little endorphin (chemicals that stimulate pleasure) right into your brain. You'd want to spend all day making phone calls with your Head Phone - maximizing your pleasure and the profits of your wireless carrier.
One subject interviewed for this article, (who asked not to be identified) is working on a watch-type device containing a GPS unit that parents could lock around their children's wrists in order to keep track of them. He says he's come up against a lot of opposition to the scheme because people were concerned that potential kidnappers would not hesitate to amputate the hand of the kidnapped in order to remove the device. (One might even imagine that if such a device were implanted, kidnappers or terrorists would perhaps not think twice about doing a little ad hoc surgery in order to remove it.)
Such grim predictions don't phase KurzweilAI's Hendrichs
"At this point, to have paranoia about any kind of new technology for these kinds of reasons really doesn't make logical sense. There's always going to be ways for humans to do evil to do one another. I could build a weapon of mass destruction in my backyard if I really wanted to." Hendrich was interviewed a week before September 11. His prediction was eerily played out when terrorists killed some 6,000 people in New York City and Washington D.C. using ordinary devices - box-knives, mobile phones and jet airliners.
"There's millions of things that unscrupulous people could do." says Viemeister. "I'm less worried about Big Brother than I am about "Big Mother." I'm worried about having your mom being able to phone you in the middle of the night and you wouldn't be able to get away from her."
With the rise of modern network technologies, such as the Internet and mobile devices like wireless phones and net-enabled PDAs, Hendrich points out, power has become more decentralized than ever, as individuals are better able to communicate with other individuals and groups. It's a trend he expects will continue, as technologies become more and more intimate and interconnected. Big Brother thus becomes less powerful, and the individual more.
Both Viemeister and Hendrich agree that the primary drivers toward humanity's inevitable Borgification will be the primary drivers of new technologies today -- the need for greater efficiency, the desire for individuals to keep up with their friends and rivals, and the drive for business to create new and exciting products and services to fulfill those needs and desires.
What appears synthetic today, may not seem synthetic 100 hence. We're already addicted to electricity. Where will be the boundaries between machine and human? As we've seen, the lines are already blurred.
"If we could share information with each other in a split second, and experience each others sensations through some kind of neural transmission," says Hendrich, "then perhaps becoming "Borg" would be something we would choose. It wouldn't seem like assimilation so much as freedom."
Personally, I can't wait for the day when I can say to my girlfriend, "I love you," not with a word, but with a thought. So Borg me, baby.
The illustration - Courtesy, Razorfish, Inc.
Michael Mattis is a mobile solutions specialist in the San Francisco offices of Razorfish, Inc.