Upgrading your embodiment

Stelarc and his surgical arm ear copyright Nina Sellars

In 2002, I watched Stelarc at the CHI 2002 conference in Minneapolis, give his keynote speech entitled The body is obsolete.

We used to talk a lot about obsolete software. Nowadays we mostly talk about giving software an upgrade. In the same way, Stelarc is not saying that the body is no longer needed, as that would imply that he believes the body is separate from the mind, as Decartes and his theory of Cartesian Dualism postulates. Instead, Stelarc is saying that the human body needs a redesign to keep up with the mind.

By redesigning his physiology, Stelarc feels that he can extend his philosophy of life because in this technological age, we are overwhelmed with information and we cannot creatively process it. Thus, we need a more creative attitude to the body. Instead of designing ergonomic systems which adapt to the body, why not redesign the body so that it can be more easily plugged into technological advances?

Over the years Stelarc, a performance artist, has experimented with his own body to extend himself. In 2007 he had an ear with a microphone inside attached to his arm, with the aim of connecting it to the internet, so that people could hear what his ear is hearing.

Sterlac is not alone. Computer scientist Kevin Warwick wants to upgrade humans too. In 2002 he had a chip inserted into his left arm’s nerve fibres, which enabled him to control a wheelchair and an artificial hand. The chip also received signals and could stimulate/simulate artificial (meaningful?) sensations in his arm from the signals. I listened to Warwick present his research at Westminster University in 2005. He wanted to take this work further and ‘jack into the nervous system’ in order to override the restrictions of our bodies.

However, humans are constantly bombarded by signals to their senses and have limits on what they are able to interpret at any given time. Because of these limitations, we augment our cognitive capabilities by employing and interacting with the environment around us. We use calendars and write lists so we can use such information when we need it, instead of taking the time to memorise it and store it in our heads. And the information which makes it past the filters of our senses and into our brain is done so in such a way because of our past experiences, which in turn impacts the interpretation of our future experiences.

This interpretative experience of the world is known as embodiment or situatedness (otherwise known as social situatedness). We understand and process knowledge which is situated in social, cultural and physical contexts. We give meaning to the knowledge because of where we are, doing what we do, in a specific moment of time.

So, if you are going to override your embodied nature – or your limitations – by jacking into your nervous system or hearing extra streams of information, you are going to have some new experiences. Your body might learn to adapt, as we humans are adaptable creatures. Alternatively you might have a meltdown.

Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock popularised the term ‘Information overload’ which describes the difficulties humans can have understanding and making decisions when presented with too much information.

So, the questions that spring to mind when you upgrade your embodiment:

  • Is the information meaningful?
  • Is it protected? Safe and secure?
  • Is it enriching? Has it a purpose?
  • Can you wear this technology or perhaps pop it down your underpants instead of having surgery?

Steve Mann augments his reality with wearable computing. Mann wears sunglasses which display constantly streaming information based on what he is seeing. This information assists his memory and enriches his world view because it is situated. It comes with a context and is meaningful to him in that moment and if his technology stops working he can take it off his nose, sit down at his desk and fix it.

In contrast, Mark Gasson deliberately infected his chip implant with a computer virus in order to experiment with the security risks of implantable technology. His implant stopped working but he is leaving it in his arm. He says the experiment was motivated by more and more people getting chip implants.

Many people have surgery for cosmetic reasons, so it should not come as a surprise that people would voluntarily choose unnecessary surgery to augment their healthy bodies with technological implants. However, Stelarc has said that he is constantly redesigning his own body because it is difficult to find people who want to undergo surgery. No surprise there when he lists the various setbacks he has experienced such as infection and necrosis.

Controlling a wheelchair with your mind when your limbs no longer work and an extra ear on your arm transmitting whatever someone is saying when they are standing next to you, are two applications of implantable technology. Both the artist and the scientist are motivated by the desire to upgrade the embodied nature of the human condition because they feel that the human body is insufficient in today’s technological society.

Ironically, robotics researcher Rodney Brooks among others argues that true artificial intelligence can only be achieved by machines that have sensory and motor skills. Robots and machines need bodies. Thus, they need to be embodied and situated to have a context and constraints within which they can successfully interact with the world.

So, as humans aspire to override the very aspects of the body which make them human, robotics research is replicating these human limitations in order to successfully create functioning artificial beings.

We live in interesting times.