01 June 1998

Cyborgs: bodies enhanced, or invaded?

The limitations of the body are frustrating, as Babbage found when a sore throat consequent upon an attack of influenza left him incapable even of railing at the buskers who congregate outside whenever he takes to his sickbed. Voiceless, he felt in a position similar to that of the unfortunate San Francisco gorilla, Coco, who is to be conscripted into using the Internet in the latest of a tradition of experiments in teaching human language to apes.

Babbage firmly believes that experiments of the Washoe and Nim Chimpsky ilk obscure more than they reveal about language, thought and intelligence. Nevertheless, the mechanics of the situation are relevant to us all, since Coco's access to the Analytical Engine is necessarily indirect: Coco signs manually to a human keyboard operator, who reads aloud the text from the screen. This two-mode approach to duplex communication applies equally to human-Engine interaction, so limited in its efficiency by manual dexterity and the available bandwidth of the Engine's visual and audible replies.

Science fiction has long explored means of improving this communication by direct neural interfacing, or 'cyborging'. In Mr Samuel R Delany's 1968 novel, Nova, a spaceship's crew routinely plug control lines into electronic wrist sockets. Mr DG Compton's 1974 novel, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe features a journalist sending video images from his electronically supplemented eyes; and the "Bionic Woman" of the 1976 television series had multiple prostheses including an amplified electronic ear.

After three decades, such ideas have moved closer to reality. Servomotors in prosthetic limbs may be controlled to some extent by impulses from the remaining motor nerves. A research team under Dr Wentai Liu of the North Carolina State University has prototypes for partial restoration of sight via an electronic 'artificial retina'. And cochlear implants, stimulating sensory nerves, help in some cases of hearing impairment.

The fictional cyborgs are still of varying plausibility. But a University of Tokyo team has already produced a cyborg cockroach, controlled by electrical pulses to its antennae stumps, and cyborgs of a higher order would have obvious industrial value. Direct neural interfacing, too, cannot be far in the future, following last year's Caltech breakthrough in devising the first 'neurochip' of rat neurones grown through a silicon array. It seems that Coco's successors may, before very long, find themselves accessing their Analytical Engines far more intimately than at present.