Duration is the key to being a cyborg

How long term implantables can change us
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How long do you think it takes for your body to accept technology? For it to realise that you've modded yourself with an implantable? The answer is anywhere from two weeks to ten years.

Luke Robert Mason is the CEO of The New Bionics, an organisation involved with research and events focused around the ethics and communication of turning ourselves into cyborgs. He believes that far from simply strapping tech to ourselves, we should allow it to enhance our bodies' capabilities and our senses. To do so we need to be in it for the long haul.

Read this: Implantables - would you go that far?

"Duration is the key to what it really means to be a cyborg," he explained, speaking at a Digital Shoreditch talk. "For Neil Harbisson, a colour blind artist and the first recognised cyborg, the antenna surgically implanted into the back of his head which allows him to 'hear' colour, isn't a tool or a device, it's part of his body, an entirely new sense.

"He has done this for ten years and it has become an organ. If you try to touch it, he says 'What are you doing?' It's like someone coming up to you and touching your nose."

Seeing through touch


Movements like the Grinders, who surgically implant earth magnets or sensors under their skin, are at odds with our current obsession with instant gratification and fast results.

"One of the most famous sensory substitution devices is the BrainPort by Wicab," said Mason. "A blind individual with a camera on their forehead can see through touch on their tongue.

Duration is the key to being a cyborg

"What's interesting is that after about two weeks of training, the individuals start to experience a haptic experience as quasi-visual. They are projecting 3D objects in space and in the brain scans, it's lighting up specifically areas of the visual cortex.

"Another example is David Eagleman's haptic display worn on the chest by blind and deaf individuals and also normative users, which allows haptic input based on a camera or radiowaves. Again it takes about two weeks to train. Duration is always an issue."

Neuroplasticity allows this mixing up of the senses - when people implant or wear these devices long term, it changes their brains. This means we essentially can train our rather limited bodies to work with both wearables and implantables to correct, enhance or amplify our senses. But when we stop wearing the devices, do we just go back to normal?

Lasting effects


Actually, quite the opposite - if the duration is long enough.

"Neil Harbisson has what he calls sonochromatic dreams," said Mason. "Now even when he's not wearing the device, he dreams in audio. His body has accepted that he has an antenna and that it is an organ."

Likewise, the feelSpace belt which was invented by cognitive scientist Peter Konig can provide wearers with lasting effects. It has 13 vibrating pads around the belt and signifies to the person wearing it where magnetic north is. All the time. "People who have worn this belt always kind of know which direction they're going in," said Mason. "And when they take it off, they still have an uncanny sense of which way is north."

Must read: Meet the Grinders

Ultimately, as Mason points out, humans will always experiment. But this new age of grinders, casual tinkerers and full time cyborgs needs ethics and values.

"Each individual is enhancing their body in different ways. There might be people who want magnets under their skin. Some people want to upload their brains to computers. I'm a big believer in embracing difference and encouraging difference."

How we test


Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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