Today, instead of waiting for natural selection to run its course, we actively control the changes in physical and genetic traits in our species. Technological advancements are happening faster than ever before, and we now have the ability to enhance every aspect of the human body, from appearance to physical strength to memory. We're approaching an age in which 3D printed organs, augmented vision through telescopic contact lenses, personalized drugs to enhance performance, and brain-computer interfaces to control neuroprosthetic limbs with the mind are no longer ideas of the future.
During the Cyborg Enhancements studio at Odyssey STEM Academy, students had the rare opportunity to speak with two world-renowned cyborg artists, Neil Harbisson and Manel De Aguas. Harbisson is best known for having an antenna implant that allows him to sense color (otherwise, he is entirely colorblind). Relatedly, De Aguas developed "fins" that attach to his head, allowing him to feel and predict the weather. Their work has inspired countless others to consider how technology might be harnessed to extend one's biological capabilities.
But with all of these augmentation opportunities, essential questions abound: How should biological enhancements be used and by whom? Who should make decisions around these societal and bodily adaptations? What are the advantages and pitfalls of genetic alterations or becoming part machine? How will they eventually lead back to genetic evolution?
We spoke with NuVuX Fellow Aaron Laniosz to find out more about his experience leading Cyborg Enhancements, a course that explored these questions, and more. Using microprocessors, sensors, 3D modeling software, and rapid prototyping, students learned how to design, build, and activate enhancements born from their imaginations.
Cyborg Enhancements is a great studio because it approaches the understanding of robotic systems through the lens of the human body. We all understand how sensing and reacting works within ourselves. Drawing a parallel to our experiences, we can learn how emerging technologies in robotics behave in this same way. We can then explore blurring the lines of human and machine by creating hybrids of these two sensing/reacting systems. Nothing makes robotics more exciting than the possibility of becoming part robot.
Between the NuVuX network, we can share information and adapt it, no studio should ultimately be generic.
The conversation that the students had with Neil and Manel was perspective shifting and very fun. Until that assembly, we had been approaching the idea of cybernetics from the technical and functional perspectives. Neil and Manel both view their cyborg existence from an artistic perspective. They spoke on emotion, experience and connection in ways we had not considered. The conversation sent many of our projects into new and exciting directions.
The Odyssey Cyborg Enhancements studio is being run in parallel with our STEM electronics unit and our humanities evolution intervention unit. All of these topics are designed to complement each other in a singular thematic experience for the students. This studio is being taught virtually, which presents unique challenges to a topic that is so technically based in physical prototypes. We began the studio by building out competencies in the skills of hand sewing and electronic circuitry. We have also invested in developing our Photoshop skills to render realistic visuals that communicate our ideas. The projects will culminate with a collection of physical and digital artifacts that test and communicate the cyborg concepts.
Before the start of the studio, we assembled 140 kits to be distributed to each student. The kit included electronics hardware to assemble basic circuits of LEDs and motors. It also included hand sewing materials and a variety of fabrics. This kit builds on the first trimester materials that include fundamental prototyping tools. Once completed, the kits were distributed curbside at Odyssey STEM Academy.
One very interesting angle introduced by Neil Harbisson is the move toward organic materials and biointegration. Neil expressed interest in converting his current metal cyborg antenna into 3D printed cells replicated using his own DNA. We can further blur the line between human and machine by creating with new, living materials.