Cyborgs and Extended Senses

What is transhumanism? A London-based photography project investigated, and found people who are using technology to transcend our natural limits.

07/28/2020 Copy: Gem Fletcher Photo: David Vintiner Reading Time: 8 min

Transhumanism is the belief that human beings are destined to transcend their mortal flesh through technology. Transhumanists believe our biology constrains our experience of reality and refuse to accept what nature has given us. From bionic eyes to designing new senses and extending life expectancy, they are redefining what it means to be human.

Although these ideas have long lived on the pages of comic books and sci-fi novels, the movement – now a reality – is starting to disrupt industries and individuals in meaningful ways. With technology evolving at an unprecedented rate, further change is imminent. As human architects, we are limited only by our imagination. The profiles of transhumans are as diverse as the applications of transhumanism, from artists and CEOs to academics and bedroom hackers.

“I Want to Believe” documents a critical moment in time as we enter the next chapter in human evolution. The project is an ongoing collaboration between London-based photographer David Vintiner and creative director Gem Fletcher. The duo has been documenting this global movement for the last six years. Their upcoming book demonstrates in three distinct chapters how optimizing our brains and bodies could revolutionize and redefine humanity in three distinct chapters. Testing Ground explores the new frontier of wearable devices and digital tools, which enable us to extend our senses and abilities beyond human biology in radical yet accessible ways. Patient Zero captures images of individuals who have entered a post-biological stage of evolution by becoming cyborgs – half-human and half-machine – and enhancing their senses beyond their original human capabilities. The final chapter, Humanity 2.0, explores the goals of extending life and achieving immortality.

Testing Ground

Andrew Vladimirov

Andrew Vladimirov / London, UK

Brain hacker and doctor of neuroscience Andrew Vladimirov collects and analyzes brain data. He does this by stimulating his own brain or the brains of volunteers using a variety of methods and protocols. He believes he can reduce fatigue, enhance concentration and improve memory by firing a laser at different parts of the brain.

As humanity moves through this vast technological evolution, Vladimirov believes that one existential risk is surveillance using this technology. “If a marketing campaign can actually feel exactly how you think about a product, it’s possible companies could manipulate not just your consciousness but your subconscious to make you buy it. Imagine if that was a political campaign.”

Skinterface

Skinterface / London, UK

Skinterface is a wearable suit that enables two-way physical interactions in the virtual world. It is equipped with sophisticated actuators, which convey subtle sensations that convert virtual interaction into physical feeling. Designed by the collective F_T_R, Skinterface augments human skin to make it “compatible” with virtual reality technology. It could make entertainment more exciting, immersive and fulfilling, or help sustain long-distance relationships between friends, families and romantic partners.

Dr. Caroline Falconer

Dr. Caroline Falconer / London, UK

Virtual reality has been successfully used to study and treat psychological disorders such as phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but has rarely been applied to clinically relevant emotions other than fear and anxiety. Self-criticism is a ubiquitous feature of psychopathology and can be treated by increasing levels of self-compassion. “Embodying Compassion in VR” (2014) allows self-compassion to be developed into an embodiment-based treatment for depression and anxiety disorders.

In the virtual world, the participant finds a crying child and has to comfort them. The roles then reverse – the participant embodies the crying child and experiences their original compassionate response. “You have this self-to-self moment,” explains Dr. Caroline Falconer. “You identify with the child when you embody them, but you also identify with yourself when you receive the compassion. It’s almost like being able to have a kind word with yourself in a physical way.”

EYEsect

EYEsect / Berlin, Germany

This experimental device, created by collective The Constitute, aims to recreate the experience of seeing the world like a chameleon – with two independently handheld steerable eyes. The amorphic helmet is a wearable interactive installation that authentically simulates an immersive out-of-body experience, allowing users to experience their environments from new points of view. By changing the way we perceive the world around us, EYEsect alters our version of reality, enabling new ways of sensing and experiencing our environment.

Patient Zero

Moon Ribas

Moon Ribas / Barcelona, Spain

Moon Ribas has been feeling earthquakes since 2013. Her body is connected to online seismographs through implants in her hands and feet, enabling her to perceive the seismic activity of the planet through vibrations in her body. The vibration she feels depends on the intensity of the earthquake. If she is standing in Newcastle, she can sense earthquakes happening everywhere from Japan to Greece. She describes the sensation as like having two heartbeats – her biological heartbeat and the “earthbeat,” which has its own rhythm inside her body.

Ribas is a cyborg artist; she interprets seismic data into dance in Waiting for Earthquakes and into sound in Seismic Percussion, crediting Planet Earth as her choreographer and composer. She believes that artists no longer have to use technology as a tool, but instead can use it as part of their bodies to change our perception of reality.

Rob Spence

Rob Spence / Toronto, Canada

Technology has also enabled those suffering from injury, accident or disease to take control of their bodies and redefine who they are, how they experience the world and how others see them.

Rob Spence, known as “The Eyeborg,” lost an eye as a child while playing with his grandfather’s shotgun. Inspired by a love of The Bionic Man and his interest in documentary filmmaking, Spence created an eye with a wireless video camera inside. The camera is not connected to his optic nerve, but sends footage to a remote receiver. Over the years, he has created several different aesthetics for the eye, from a realistic “hidden camera” version to a glowing red version.

James Young

James Young / London, UK

After an accident that left him a double amputee, James Young turned to bionics to redesign his body. Obsessed with computer games, he worked with gaming giant Konami and London-based prosthetic sculptor Sophie de Oliveira Barata to develop an advanced bionic arm inspired by the computer game. The $60,000 carbon-fiber limb is part art project, part engineering marvel. The limb is fitted with a 3D-printed hand, which is controlled by sensors that detect minute muscle movements in Young’s back.

The arm also features a USB phone charger, social media connectivity, a torch, a heart rate monitor and a small drone. The latter acts as an external body part, offering Young a different perspective on the world. Young believes we should all take the opportunity to customize our bodies and control our future image. Beyond the functionality that it offers him, he feels his bionic arm has been life-changing in terms of how he is seen in the world.

Neil Harbisson

Neil Harbisson / Barcelona, Spain

Neil Harbisson was born with achromatism, a rare disease that renders him colorblind. Rather than attempting to overcome the condition, Harbisson created a new sense to go beyond the human visual spectrum. In 2004 he had an antenna implanted into his skull. The antenna enables him to perceive visible and invisible colors, including infrared and ultraviolet, as audible vibrations.

As a cyborg artist, he uses his new sense to explore identity, human perception and the connection between sight and sound.

Humanity 2.0

Dr. Aubrey de Grey

Dr. Aubrey de Grey / SENS Research Foundation, California, USA

Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist and the chief science officer of SENS Research Foundation, a biomedical research charity dedicated to combating the ageing process. Grey believes that ageing is merely a disease – a curable one. His roadmap to defeat biological ageing focuses on the seven basic ways humans age at a cellular and molecular level and how they can be averted through a series of regenerative therapeutics. He suggests that the first human beings who will live to 1,000 years old have already been born.

While these ideas might seem extreme, the animal kingdom is already home to a creature that defies ageing. Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish, is biologically immortal and can regenerate back to a youthful state.

KrioRus

KrioRus / Moscow, Russia

KrioRus is the first company outside the USA to provide cryonic services, including preliminary preparation, perfusion and preservation of cryopatients at ultra-low temperatures. It has cryopreserved 71 people and 32 animals so far. All patients are kept in liquid nitrogen, waiting for the time when they will be revived.

Pictured: Valeria Viktorovna Udalova, Director General of KrioRus 

Sophia

Sophia / New Territories, Hong Kong, China

Hanson Robotics is an AI and robotics company dedicated to creating socially intelligent machines that enrich the quality of our lives. Their most advanced human-like robot, Sophia, is the world’s first robot citizen and the first robot Innovation Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme. Sophia provides a framework for AI research with a particular focus on understanding human–robot interactions and their potential service and entertainment applications.

Sophia can recognize human faces, emotional expressions and various hand gestures. She can gauge your feelings during a conversation, and try to find ways to achieve goals with you. She has her own emotions too, roughly simulating human evolutionary psychology and various regions of the brain. As a hybrid of AI and human input, Sophia represents a kind of collective intelligence.

Professor Nick Bostrom

Professor Nick Bostrom (Future of Humanity Institute) / Oxford, UK

The Future of Humanity Institute is an academic research organization based at the University of Oxford, which was founded by Professor Nick Bostrom in 2006. The 20-person team focuses on improving the long-term prospects for the future of humanity and explores questions like “where should we be going?” and “what actions today truly matter?” Their work involves researching existential threats to human survival and how emerging technologies could change the human condition. Much of the transhumanist movement is unregulated, and experts like Bostrom have called for caution.

Exoskeletons providing high-tech support

Not sci-fi but concrete reality: Audi is already using some similar solutions to make work easier and more ergonomic for the employees at its production facilities. In the future, exoskeletons could be used to support them with certain tasks and reduce the strain on their bodies in cases where other technical and organizational options have been exhausted. A number of internal studies have looked at what tasks exoskeletons could take over from humans at Audi. The studies have involved several different systems, but all share a single goal: to alleviate the physical strain on workers. One recent comparative study, for instance, tested how exoskeletons can help employees when they are performing overhead tasks, by protecting their joints and ensuring their muscles tire less quickly. Around 60 Audi employees used these tools over a period of several weeks at selected workstations in assembly, the paint shop and tool construction at the Ingolstadt site. The results were extremely promising.

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