Friday, January 10, 2014

Beyond human: How I became a cyborg


When writer Frank Swain joined the ranks of the cyborgs, he discovered that it meant losing control of a part of his body. In the first of our Beyond Human series, he explores why enhancing the senses raises surprising personal and ethical problems.  

Listen: What does red or green sound like? In the clip above from BBC Radio 4’s Hack My Hearing, Frank Swain meets an artist who created a unique device allowing him to hear colours. 

Last year I became a cyborg. At the time it didn’t seem like an auspicious occasion, more a humbling and disorientating experience. But I’ve become excited about being part-robot.

My journey began when my hearing started to falter, due to a combination of unlucky genetics and too many late nights in loud clubs. By the time I was 30, I was losing scraps of conversation in crowded bars, and trips to the movies were nothing but booms and rumbles. Eventually, I relented and booked an appointment with an audiologist, who recommended I be fitted with hearing aids.

With that decision, I joined the millions of people whose mind, body or senses are replaced by technology, from wireless pacemakers to bionic legs. We live in the age of augmentation, and soon we may all choose to be enhanced in some way. After all, many prosthetic technologies do more than just fill in for our body or mind when it falls short – they now offer the potential to become “better than human”.

When I was fitted with hearing aids, I wondered: could I hack them to give me enhanced listening abilities? I explored this question in a BBC radio documentary this week, and discovered that the answer is far from simple. It turns out I don’t actually own my new ears in the way that I thought – and this raises important questions about many other augmenting technologies on the horizon, from retinal implants to bionic arms.

Unlike glasses, which simply focus the world through a lens, hearing aids take a very active role as an augment. They monitor the environment with their tiny microphones, constantly adjusting their output based on what they think is useful sound rather than noise. What I hear is their interpretation of the world around me.

For the rest of the story:

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