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Beyond Human

Beyond human: How I became a cyborg

About the author

Frank Swain is Communities Editor at New Scientist, author of How To Make A Zombie, and a freelance science writer for Mosaic, Wired, Slate, BBC Radio 4, and others. You can find him on Twitter as @SciencePunk.

When writer Frank Swain joined the ranks of the cyborgs, he discovered that it meant losing control of a part of his body. In the first of our Beyond Human series, he explores why enhancing the senses raises surprising personal and ethical problems.

Listen: What does red or green sound like? In the clip above from BBC Radio 4’s Hack My Hearing, Frank Swain meets an artist who created a unique device allowing him to hear colours.

Last year I became a cyborg. At the time it didn’t seem like an auspicious occasion, more a humbling and disorientating experience. But I’ve become excited about being part-robot.

My journey began when my hearing started to falter, due to a combination of unlucky genetics and too many late nights in loud clubs. By the time I was 30, I was losing scraps of conversation in crowded bars, and trips to the movies were nothing but booms and rumbles. Eventually, I relented and booked an appointment with an audiologist, who recommended I be fitted with hearing aids.

With that decision, I joined the millions of people whose mind, body or senses are replaced by technology, from wireless pacemakers to bionic legs. We live in the age of augmentation, and soon we may all choose to be enhanced in some way. After all, many prosthetic technologies do more than just fill in for our body or mind when it falls short – they now offer the potential to become “better than human”.

When I was fitted with hearing aids, I wondered: could I hack them to give me enhanced listening abilities? I explored this question in a BBC radio documentary this week, and discovered that the answer is far from simple. It turns out I don’t actually own my new ears in the way that I thought – and this raises important questions about many other augmenting technologies on the horizon, from retinal implants to bionic arms.

Unlike glasses, which simply focus the world through a lens, hearing aids take a very active role as an augment. They monitor the environment with their tiny microphones, constantly adjusting their output based on what they think is useful sound rather than noise. What I hear is their interpretation of the world around me.

This means these augments offer a very exciting possibility, because I don’t have to settle for hearing that is as good as an ordinary person. I could configure my own devices to extend my senses beyond normal abilities. I wouldn’t be first to hope for such a thing either: artist Neil Harbisson, for example, has built devices that let him hear what colour sounds like. In my case, connecting my hearing aids to an internet-linked tool such as a smartphone, any conceivable information can be streamed directly to my hearing aids. Unlike your eyes, which can only focus on a single object, your ears are purpose-built to absorb huge amounts of complex information at once. My ears could be aware of the entire world, everything from approaching bad weather to levels of internet traffic around me. With the right app, instead of being hard of hearing, I could be superhuman.

No tinkering

Unfortunately, supercharging my hearing aids is not just challenging, it’s positively forbidden. During one fitting, I asked the technician calibrating them how I could adjust the settings myself, in case I found them too loud or too quiet for a particular environment. “You can’t do that!” he exclaimed with some alarm. “It’s very important they are only set up by a qualified audiologist.”

He needn’t have worried too much. Hearing aids are, by design, incredibly resistant to tinkering. Some have a button to switch between modes for different environments. Others – like my current pair – are entirely automated, relegating me a passive listener rather than an engaged user. Traditionally designed with elderly (and presumably technophobic) customers in mind, the emphasis for manufacturers has been on invisibility and ease of use, rather than fine control. All the same, manufacturers take a dim view of users fiddling with their own devices, and it’s very difficult for anyone who isn’t a certified audiologist to get their hands on the specialist programming equipment. Even the peripherals, such as additional microphones or Bluetooth adaptors, tend to come locked down in proprietary formats.

These restrictions raise an important question: exactly who owns my hearing?

In the UK, any medical device implanted into the body becomes the property of that person, and even if it is subsequently removed it remains part of their estate. (Yes, in Britain you could, in theory, inherit your grandmother’s hip replacement). However this rule doesn’t include prosthetic devices offered by the National Health Service such as false limbs, which like crutches or a wheelchair must be returned if the patient no longer needs them.

Things are a little more complicated in the US, where the ownership of medical implants is likely to be governed by a patient’s contract with their insurer. But as a 2007 article in the Journal of Medical Ethics suggested, ownership does not necessarily mean sovereignty, stating “by consenting to having an implantable device placed, the patient is indirectly giving up the right to autonomous control of the device.”

Technically, my hearing aids are only on loan from the NHS. But these devices are a part of me, an extension of myself. So should health services – or even manufacturers – be allowed to control the abilities of devices that become part of a person’s body? In becoming a cyborg, my body has become the locus of three different parties, each of whom have different priorities over how my cybernetic hearing should function. A combination of personal, health and business interests all go into a shaping something that will become part of me.

Similar restrictions will apply to those hoping to use other augmentations and technological implants in the future. We can expect serious legal, societal and ethical issues to be raised as these technologies become more common. For example, should there be a limit placed on how strong a bionic arm is? Should someone with retinal implants be allowed to record the people they meet? Is it okay for someone boosting their brainpower with magnetic pulses to beat other candidates in an exam or job interview?

The answers are unclear so far, but what’s more certain is that humans will continually strive to enhance themselves and exploit technology to run faster, see further or think sharper. I’m a cyborg, and soon you may be too – but don’t assume the transformation will be smooth.

To hear more about designers and hackers augmenting their auditory abilities, listen to BBC Radio 4’s programme Hack My Hearing.

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