Apr 03 2012

Chrome Or Chromosome

""){ ?> By Valkyrie Ice


I came across this lovely picture on Facebook recently:

Pretty picture no? And one that might epitomize one particular strain of thought common in transhumanism. That of full body cybernetic prosthetics. In fact, a simple Google will find thousands of images of this meme, from Major Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell:

To this nice skin available in SecondLife:

It’s an old meme, despite what you might believe. This entire concept of trading in flesh and blood in favor of steel and chrome probably outdates even the earliest example I could think of, Maria from Metropolis:

And if you ask around in transhumanist circles, you will find plenty of people who look at this concept with drooling desire. Flesh is transitory, Metal is forever. And if you recall my previous post on upgrading, I’m not at all opposed to the concept of improving on the human machine. I do however have a problem with this particular vision of the future. As the video of Maria should show, it’s an industrial era concept of the technological future, and current technological trends appear to make this concept as out dated as Metropolis’s airplanes flying everywhere.

You see, in addition to the picture up there I started this article with, three other links were posted at nearly the same time:

As you can see, we are advancing in the ability to transplant entire limbs as well as single organs. Unlike the rather limited functionality of current cybernetics, which admittedly is also improving rapidly, these patients have received fully functional replacements. While I am assuming that the current anti-rejection drugs are needed, I don’t doubt that the majority of people would prefer a transplant to a mechanical replacement. Combine this with other advances such as Organovo’s bioprinting technology, it should be pretty obvious that we are fast approaching a future in which cybernetic replacement is not the only option. Nor is simple “replacement” likely to be the limit.  While steel and chrome will definitely be an option, it seems quite probable that bioengineered biological tissue is just as likely.

Which raises the question of which is “better?” And that involves looking at factors many people might not really think about when drooling over the idea of “Full Metal.”

One of the first is one raised by Batou in Ghost in the Shell, when he points out that Major Kusanagi has to undergo extensive maintenance of her cyberbody.  This is going to be true of any mechanical prosthetics for the foreseeable future, and this will be a major limiting factor in their use. It’s going to be hard to find a high tech machine shop in a swamp or out in a jungle after all.  Additionally, since metals are a somewhat restricted resource, in that even if you have unlimited supplies of raw ore, it’s not going to be at all useful to you for repairs without a very highly sophisticated manufacturing base.

A second concern is power. While there are numerous possibilities, it still comes down to the fact that cyberware is likely not to be run by the same sort of power as the human body, and thus require secondary power sources. And like the hardware, the power systems are going to need a rather sophisticated infrastructure to keep running.  Even if we get to a point where micro reactors or some other sci-fi idea is possible, field repairs are not likely to be easy.

A third consideration is aesthetics. I don’t know about you, but I kinda like the feel of skin, and Chrome boy up there doesn’t look too appealing to me, despite the fact that he’s obviously built to appear attractive.  All that metal seems rather cold. The same goes for the picture I of the girl at the beginning of this article. She’s obviously built to be sexy, but those hard division lines make her body appear to be composed of armor plates, which seems to rather defeat the purpose. And yes, I am quite aware that’s a rather subjective opinion, but from the days of Maria to the present, the theme of sex appeal has been intertwined with the machine, and seems rather hard to separate from it.

On the other hand, biology doesn’t suffer from any of these issues. It requires no technological base to maintain, is self repairing, runs on simple chemical compounds, and unlike cyberware, is pretty universally appealing. In addition, it has the advantage of the fact that we are advancing rapidly in figuring out how to use already existing nanoconstructor units —  i.e. stem cells — to more efficiently repair and modify existing human anatomy. At this point, it seems more likely that we will develop methods to enhance ourselves using biotech a little faster than we will cybertech.

In the end, we are likely to travel down both paths, and eventually merge them to the point that there no longer is a distinction between them. But until then, I think it’s a point that we should think about. Chrome or Chromosome?

  • By Michael Garfield, April 4, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

    I’m right there with you, Valkyrie. I think the most interesting thing about collective futurist musing is the obvious “presentism” in our projections (which are both speculative projections and psychological projections). The more things change…

    You’ll probably appreciate this recent article for the same reason that you wrote yours:

    Note the header image – someone’s idea of transhumanism circa 1900…wow. Wow.

  • By star0, April 4, 2012 @ 10:31 pm


    Have a look at Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Theory of Fun”; you can start here:

    Now, it doesn’t address all your concerns, but it does consider the “bored gods” problem.

    Personally, I think some things will never get old. Vacations, for instance, never get old; and not having to work for long periods of time (e.g. from a multi-month or year-long hiatus) is certainly not something I get “bored” of. If technology ever makes it possible for me to do what I want, whenever I please, such as by eliminating the need for most forms of human labor, I can think of lots of fun things to do with that time than what I’m doing right now.

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