Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Human Heart and Courage

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism (i.e. an organism that has both artificial and natural systems). The term was coined in 1960 when Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline used it in an article about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space. -Wikipedia

Cyborgs, or people who have had some portion of their body replaced with an electronic or mechanical device, have long been the delegated to the realm of science fiction. When most of you think of such a thing, the image of Borgs from Star Trek probably is the first thing you consider. However, just a few days ago, I read the news story Man goes home with 'Total Artificial Heart'. I'm certainly not comparing 43-year-old Charles Okeke to Borgs by any means, but we seem to have come to the point where we can extend the life and abilities of human beings using cybernetic methods.

A quick run through of the history of Cyborgs in fiction reveals that the concept has been with us for a long time. Edward Page Mitchell's short story The Ablest Man in the World was published in 1879 and recounts the tale of a man who has a computer implanted into this head, turning him into a genius.

Prior to the Borgs, the most famous television cyborg was probably the polyester-wearing Six Million Dollar Man, a series launched in the early 1970s with Lee Majors in the starring role of a man with bionic limbs and an artifical eye (based on the somewhat more "realistic" novel Cyborg written by aeronautics and aviation expert Martin Caidin).

Cyborgs in science fiction novels are very plentiful and one of my favorite stories was written by Frederik Pohl in 1976 and called Man Plus. The story is about a man named Roger Torraway who, in order to be better enabled to explore Mars and prepare for human colonization, has his human body systematically replaced with with a completely artificial body. The novel is primarily an illustration of Torraway's struggle and journey from man to machine as he watches his "humanity" seem to disappear. What horror would a person go through as his living flesh is replaced by metal, wires, and circuits?

I've previously blogged about a couple of comic book cyborgs, namely the Doom Patrol's Robotman and the Teen Titan's Cyborg who both had major parts of their entire bodies replaced by machine parts, with, in Cliff Steele's case, only the human brain remaining (a la Donovan's Brain).

Lest we forget, the science fiction/horror film genre has produced four Terminator movies, thanks to environmentalist film maker James Cameron (now best known for the current hit movie Avatar). While the Arnold Schwarzenegger terminator is the most "bionic" of the cyborgs in the first three films, the character Marcus Wright in the fourth film Terminator Salvation (2009) is the only one who started out as a human being and was turned into a cyborg, with his human heart still intact, by Cyberdyne, programmed without his awareness to hunt down John Connor's father Kyle Reese while Reese was still in his teens. Although Wright was a convicted murder, executed for his crimes in 2003 (in fiction) just before Judgment Day, he develops a conscience and discovers his humanity at the same time he is struggling with the realization that he is a cyborg. Is he machine or is he still a person? The film's climax provides the answer.

That brings us back to the real world and the present time and how the field of prosthetics has entered into the world of bionics. A man, confined to a hospital bed for years, now goes home with an entirely synthetic heart. Reports from Popular Mechanics, ubergizmo and Wired.com (and many other print and online publications) detail artificial arms and hands that not only extend a person's strength and mobility, but tactile senses as well. Even beyond the replacement of damaged or missing limbs and organs, the military has actively pursued the development of a wearable exoskeleton to enhance the strength and mobility of soldiers in the field.

Are Cyborgs and Iron Man suits really that far out anymore?

What does this mean for our humanity? While no one will question that the person with an artificial limb or pacemaker is still completely human, will we ever reach a point in our cybernetic organism technology where a person will physically be more machine than living flesh and blood? Even if that becomes the case, is our humanity really at risk?

Having no personal experience with having prosthetic limbs, I can't speak with authority, but having a lot of experience being human, I have to say that a person is more than flesh, blood, and skin. What makes us human, for better or for worse, is that thing we can't really tie to our physicalness: personality, spirit, and dare I say it, "the soul". Sure, all that can potentially be tied into manifestations of the brain, we still can't escape the dilemna of the ghost in the machine; the sense of ourselves we can't directly tie into any function we can map in the human brain. That's the shadow realm where our humanity; our personhood resides.

When I was reading Charles Okeke's story, I imagined the fear I'd feel, walking out of the hospital and going home, trusting my life to a machine implanted in my chest that's powered by a device I'm wearing like a backpack. Yet I take my human heart for granted all the time and never worry about a sudden heart attack. If I had an artificial heart and two bionic legs, would I still feel human? Note, I didn't ask "would I still be human?" because I know in abstract, I would be.

How I'd feel, on the other hand, is what has been explored in fiction from Caidin's Steve Austin to Pohl's Roger Torraway. At the end of both novels, both men realize they are still men, and it's not their mechanical parts that defines them. Even the best of us tend to turn away or at least find it necessary to suppress the urge, when we see a person with a missing limb or some other form of disfigurement. Yet these people are...people, regardless if there is naked space where an arm used to be or a bionic replacement.

The people who should question their humanity aren't the ones with mechanical body parts but those of us who cringe or shudder, even subconsciously, when we see someone who has such replacements. I'm not nobel. I'm writing this because it's an issue I have, but at least I recognize it as a fault that is my own. If we can advance our technology to the level where we can return mobility and even life to people who have suffered catastrophic illnesses and accidents, we indeeed need to do so. Just because someone doesn't look like us, doesn't mean they're not the same as us. No more prejudice and bigotry, please.

One of my favorite quotes was written by the late Archie Goodwin in issue number 2 of the 1968 Iron Man comic book series titled "Enter the Demolisher". A rival industrialist named Cord, who was driven to bankruptcy by Stark, builds a robot called the Demolisher to defeat Stark's greatest creation: Iron Man. Cord wants to have the Demolisher defeat Iron Man, and bring him to Cord's factory, where Cord can then film how his own creation has defeated Stark's much vaunted super-armor.

While the robot does indeed bring a near-helpless Iron Man to it's programmed destination, Cord doesn't count on his daughter showing up, trying to convince her father to abandon his mad plan, or the fact that the robot, damaged in the fight, has gone out of Cord's control and is running on an internal program that includes killing Iron Man at all costs, even if it has to go through Cord's daughter to do it.

In the final moments of the fight, Tony shields the young girl's body with his own armored form as the robot fires a heat beam at her. Iron Man is helpless to fight back, since making any move will expose Cord's daughter to the deadly beam, killing her instantly. As the back of Tony's armor begins to melt, Cord himself, realizing that the only thing standing between his daughter and death is the man he had hoped to destroy, hits a vulnerable spot on the damaged Destroyer with a metal rod, distracting it just long enough for Iron Man to turn and strike back. Tony risks a fatal heart attack as his power levels continue to plummet, by attacking the robot with all his remaining strength, defeating his mechanical opponent, saving the life of Cord's daughter as well as his own.

Although he saves the girl's life, Cord himself is fatally injured. As he looks up at his daughter and the man in armor, his final words reflect his realization that no machine can replace or enhance Iron Man's essential powers; the abilities that count for more in this world than what any machine can produce:
..a human heart...and courage.

Thank you, Mr. Goodwin for the reminder that it's not the armor or the mechanics that matter most...it's our humanity.

Addendum: Oh crap! When I wrote this yesterday, I didn't think about the danger from software corruption and computer viruses to humans with advanced prosthetic devices. Mark Gasson, senior research fellow at the University of Reading's School of Systems Engineering has. Outlined in the article Scientist infects himself with computer virus. Hackers will someday soon literally be able to cripple and kill human beings with a computer virus.



  1. I'm not sure this is the first reaction like this, but... WTF?

  2. Oh My! Just slang for ??????????

  3. Margo, you've commented three times but haven't really said anything. I take it you don't know what to make of this article. In general, I'm trying to send a message about how some folks have "issues" with people who have prosthetic limbs.

    Can you be more specific about your questions?

  4. A good read, with some interesting points. I appreciate how you draw from various sources of influence (movies, comics, novels, prosthetic development in modern medicine). I'll have to browse around some more... also, sorry for being late to the posting, but the mighty Google led me here, I see it as fate :-P

  5. No worries, Kevin. It's all good. Thanks for your comment.