September 15, 2003

And the Disabled Shall Inherit the Earth

Uninhibited about technological modification, they're poised to be the first posthumans

By George Dvorsky, September 15, 2003

Walking in downtown Toronto the other day I encountered a cyborg -- and no, it wasn't Steve Mann or one of his EyeTap-wearing acolytes. Rather, it was a man with a prosthetic arm.

But this was no ordinary artificial limb, not some pathetic old school attempt to emulate the human arm with a chunk of shiny beige plastic. No, this particular prosthetic barely resembled a human arm, looking more like something out of a Terminator movie. It was robotic, sleek and very high tech. In fact, I think I was jealous.

Compared to a natural human arm, however, it did lack in functionality and grace. Still, just looking at it made me realize that it won't be long before future prostheses, for all intents and purposes, will be better than my biological appendages.

And what's more, the disabled will in all likelihood be encouraged to try out the latest models, to experiment with the latest in prosthetic neural interfacing and advanced cybernetics. Those in the handicapped community tend to be more willing to accept people in various forms and to be more open in their ideas about what it means to be "normal," or even human.

And as the disabled are discovering, when it comes to prostheses and other assistive devices, the sky's the limit; they no longer feel compelled to mimic the human form. For the handicapped, the impetus towards "human normalization" is as irrelevant and useless a notion as it is offensive.

Indeed, the disabled are no longer accepting the limitations of the "normal" human body. They are truly bridging the gap between the biological and the mechanical, the human and the posthuman.

As an ironic consequence, the disabled are poised to leapfrog the rest of humanity and enter early into the ranks of the posthuman.

Benefiting from technology

By a long shot, the greatest beneficiaries of technology have been the disabled. Ever since that first lame hominid used a walking stick as a cane, handicapped people have depended on various tools to help them overcome injuries or physical deficiencies.

More recently, the differently abled have had access to such technologies as wheelchairs, artificial limbs and cochlear implants. And the prognosis for the future has never looked better.

There have been a number of recent advances in neural interfacing technologies -- technologies that help people control devices with various brain signals. For those who have lost motor function arising from brain or spinal cord injuries, strokes or neurodegenerative diseases, neural interfaces will provide the keys to increased physical and social activity.

For example, researchers at the Center for Neural Interface and Brain Control and the University of Michigan's Direct Brain Interface Project are working on micro-electro-mechanical systems technology in hopes of developing neural interfaces that can obtain control signals from undamaged sensorimotor areas of the brain. Paralyzed people could regain certain motor functions by controlling neuroprosthetic devices such as artificial arms and wheelchairs.

Amputees will also be able to use neural interfaces to control advanced prostheses. At the Palo Alto Rehabilitation Research and Development Center, developers are working on the Nerve Chip, a device that provides a direct interface to peripheral nerves within an amputee's nerve stump and derives electrical control signals suitable for controlling limb prostheses.

And as electromyographic pattern recognition technologies improve, so too will the prostheses; multifunction control of prosthetics is right around the corner. Such an advance would allow individual finger movements and coordinated movements of the hand, wrist and elbow -- unlike the robotic movements allowed by the "six degrees of freedom" we find in today's totally powered arm prostheses.

Neural interface technologies are also being used to help those who have lost their sight. The Dobelle Group has developed a TV camera that is connected to the brain to create artificial vision for the blind.

There is even light at the end of the tunnel for those who are utterly "locked in" to their bodies, namely quadriplegics. Breakthroughs in brain-machine interfacing are enabling the severely disabled to control computer interfaces by sheer thought alone.

For example, Phil Kennedy, a neuroscientist and CEO of Neural Signals Inc., has successfully fused the human brain with a computer. By strategically placing a handful of electrodes near a few good neurons, Kennedy has allowed his patients to write words on a computer screen just by thinking about it. Future patients endowed with subcranial cortical implants, believes Kennedy, will learn to use signals to control what they want. As researchers such as Kennedy are discovering, the flexibility and adaptability of the brain is astounding.

And supplementing these lines of research are advances in nerve cell regeneration, axon guidance, and stem cell biology which may significantly help restore the motor functions of those with severe spinal cord injuries.

Helping themselves

Needless to say, much of the enthusiasm needed to stimulate the development of these technologies has come from the disabled themselves.

Actor Christopher Reeve, for example, the victim of a 1995 accident that left him completely paralyzed, has been a tireless and outspoken campaigner of clinical research to help the physically disabled. To this end, Reeve has established the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, an organization committed to funding research that develops treatments and cures for paralysis caused by spinal cord injury and other central nervous system disorders.

Not one to shy away from what he sees as a just fight, and undaunted by controversy, Reeve has taken a number of groups to task on what he sees as backwards policies in regards to cloning and stem cell research -- including George Bush and the Catholic Church.

And a number of disabled individuals are starting to see the radical potential for assistive technologies -- not just to patch various disabilities, but to completely redefine what we mean by "overcoming" a disability.

In a Wired article from two years ago, "The Next Brainiacs," paraplegic journalist John Hockenberry candidly illuminated the disabled perspective. "We live at a time when the disabled are on the leading edge of a broader societal trend toward the use of assistive technology," he wrote. Innovative new technologies, argued Hockenberry, are changing conceptions of what it means and even looks like to be human. "Humanity's specs," declared Hockenberry, "are back on the drawing board, thanks to some unlikely designers, and the disabled have a serious advantage in this conversation. They've been using technology in collaborative, intimate ways for years -- to move, to communicate, to interact with the world."

Similarly, Alan Pottinger, the founder of Ascender Alliance, an advocacy group for disabled transhumanists, is another outspoken handicapped activist. An Extropian and futurist, Pottinger advocates the removal of political, cultural, biological and psychological limits to self-realization and augmentation.

"Humanity," states Pottinger, "has always adapted the environment to suits its needs." The cyborg transformation of human society is already underway, he argues, and is one of the driving factors in the creation of a posthuman society.

Pottinger concedes, however, that the path taken to posthumanity will be markedly different for the disabled. "Within the able-bodied world there is little variation from person to person, at least in terms of physical form," he says, but "within the disabled community there are a huge number of variations." This variation, argues Pottinger, means that the disabled "agenda will differ from that of the able-bodied as our augmentation will require different procedures."

Furthermore, the disabled are openly acknowledging that human normalization is not on the agenda. "Is walking ability that important?" asks Pottinger. In the past perhaps, but Pottinger believes humanity has reached a point in its development where physical capability has begun to be overtaken by mental agility. "Machines," says Pottinger, "which take their orders in the form of simple physical inputs, now control most of our production processes, while in other cases other machines build the machines themselves."

Human input is slowly dropping off, he notes, so much that disabled people might be right in arguing that physical ability is not as vital as society makes it out to be. "The development of a computer-orientated society is well underway, if not already complete," contends Pottinger, "and it is something that has brought major benefits to both the disabled and able-bodied community."

Potential ramifications

This idea, that the disabled are already on a different evolutionary path from the rest of society, is not so outlandish. It is unlikely -- at least initially -- that those in the disabled community will face the same sort of social inhibitions against augmentation that would surely greet me, a non-disabled person, should I want to upgrade one of my biologically endowed components. In fact, it will probably be some time before us "normal" or "non-disabled" persons will be able to apply cybernetic technologies to ourselves without being stigmatized.

Moreover, I foresee the day when bioconservatives will start to get squeamish about all of these cyborgs walking around, and seek to impose their limited vision of humanity upon the disabled. Today, the bioconservatives wouldn't dare raise such a stink, mostly because of their myopic visions of the future and their dedicated adherence to stunting political correctness. Eventually, however, as the disabled become full-fledged cyborgs who only marginally resemble their non-cyborg human counterparts, the biocons will no longer be able to remain silent on the matter -- especially considering that the rest of society will be knocking at the gates.

But critics of transhuman technologies, be they assistive or augmentative technologies, are starting to get a grip on what's happening. For example, the notion of brain-machine interfaces in particular frightens a number of people.

Mara Shalhoup, in her article on Kennedy's subcranial cortical implants, worries about the potential for "supervillains." The creation of implants, she believes, "introduces the ethical dilemma of a more manipulative use of what's called brain-computer interfacing, a way of warping the technology to turn an average brain into a superpower." If these technologies can unlock those caged by their bodies, she says, "imagine what it could do for those in perfect would become capable of intellectual and, possibly, physical feats unknown to man."

From disabled to superman

While I don't necessarily buy into Shalhoup's paranoia, I agree that these technologies are a sign of radical things to come. And it certainly appears that the disabled will be the first to partake of the advances.

Interestingly, many in the disabled community will choose to be willing test subjects; many have nothing to lose and are eager to try out the latest innovations -- if not for themselves, certainly for those in the disabled community who will follow after them.

And as the disabled courageously experiment with their bodies and strive to overcome the injustices and indignities of their disabilities, they will subsequently reinvent themselves for the future. They will be undaunted and unfazed by their departure from human morphology and functionality, while the rest of humanity will watch and take inspiration. And then play catch-up.

Copyright © 2003 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, September 15, 2003.

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