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We Are All Cyborgs Now

In the popular imagination cyborgs belong to the realm of science fiction. However, in a recent paper Benjamin Wittes and Jane Chong argue that conceptually people have started to transform into cyborgs. Commuters are buried in their smartphones, veterans use robotic prostheses, and pacemakers help keep people’s hearts beating. Devices like these have blurred the line between man and machine. This technological evolution has numerous implications for how society will function in the future. In their paper, Wittes and Chong develop a theoretical legal model for addressing this process, which they call cyborgization.

Machine Integration

In June 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers could not search a smartphone obtained during an arrest without a warrant in a landmark case known as Riley v. California. Chief Justice Roberts was likely not thinking about cyborgs when writing the decision, but the case has important implications for how the law will view human-machine integration. The decision recognizes that a piece of technology is to some degree a part of a person’s being. Roberts writes, “90% of American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives-from the mundane to the intimate.” This has important implications for technology policy. Legal questions will arise if smart-phones become tools that contain so much information about an individual that they become indistinguishable from a person

Surveillance Policy

Riley v. California, does not prohibit government agencies like the NSA from collecting personal data. These agencies argue that the data is distinguishable and separate from the individual. From a civil liberties perspective, if people are cyborgs then the Constitution protects the data. However, reconciling privacy protections with the process of cyborgization is conceptually difficult. Wittes and Chong conclude that a prudent and effective surveillance policy is unattainable until humans have decided the degree to which they want to interact with new technologies.

Juvenile Cyborgs

At this stage in cyborgization Wittes and Chong consider people to be juvenile cyborgs because our fusion is -by our imagination’s standards- minimal. However, for those who fully embrace the digital world, we are no doubt cyborgs according to the principles laid out by Wittes and Chong:

1)      Data Generation: Cyborgs create data. Standard human behavior does not generate any data beyond footprints and DNA traces, but when we use smart phones, personal data is always recorded.

2)      Data Collection: People gather data in the form of pictures and videos. We refer back to this data for a variety of purposes.

3)      Constructive Integration: We also gather data on specific biological functions through health application or other data analyses. For example data collected from a person’s search engine serves as a proxy for their real thoughts. The synthesis of biological and non-biological data is a defining feature of cyborgs.

Human-machine integration is just one component of a tidal wave of advancements that will challenge policy makers to think about how we regulate technology. The field of robotics will no doubt open up an array of questions that lawmakers will need to address.

Matt Mariano contributed to this post.



Joshua Bleiberg

Ph.D. student - Vanderbilt University

Former Research Analyst - The Brookings Institution


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