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Our iPhone addiction has turned us all into cyborgs

AirPods charging case with Lunies leather keychain case
AirPods charging case with Lunies leather keychain case

If you're a fan of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk's many ambitious ventures, you may have read a piece or two by Tim Urban of Wait But Why; Urban focuses on existential, humanitarian, and scientific history — what's happening, how did we get there, and where do we go from there.

He also decorates his lengthy articles with delightful stick figures and graphs — because sometimes you need a bit of levity in-between understanding how artificial intelligence may be the doom or savior of us all.

Urban's latest Wait But Why opus is on Musk's newest venture, Neuralink, which is ostensibly creating more advanced brain-machine interfaces. But before talking about that, the article deep dives into (surprisingly understandable) neuroscience concepts, including why the human brain is so difficult to map and comprehend. Why would we want to map the human brain and hook it up to computers in the first place? Because we've been doing so already for decades — just very, very slowly. From Musk:

We already have a digital tertiary layer in a sense, in that you have your computer or your phone or your applications. You can ask a question via Google and get an answer instantly. You can access any book or any music. With a spreadsheet, you can do incredible calculations. If you had an Empire State building filled with people—even if they had calculators, let alone if they had to do it with a pencil and paper—one person with a laptop could outdo the Empire State Building filled with people with calculators. You can video chat with someone in freaking Timbuktu for free. This would've gotten you burnt for witchcraft in the old days. You can record as much video with sound as you want, take a zillion pictures, have them tagged with who they are and when it took place. You can broadcast communications through social media to millions of people simultaneously for free. These are incredible superpowers that the President of the United States didn't have twenty years ago.The thing that people, I think, don't appreciate right now is that they are already a cyborg. You're already a different creature than you would have been twenty years ago, or even ten years ago. You're already a different creature. You can see this when they do surveys of like, "how long do you want to be away from your phone?" and—particularly if you're a teenager or in your 20s—even a day hurts. If you leave your phone behind, it's like missing limb syndrome. I think people—they're already kind of merged with their phone and their laptop and their applications and everything.

From this perspective, our iPhone and Android smartphones are a part of our neurological system already — they're just harder to interface with than, say, our limbic system or prefrontal cortex.

This concept defines everyone's rush to get into wearable technology, digital assistants like Siri, and AR: The easier it is for us to interface with the Internet-connected part of our brain, the faster we can collectively learn and evolve.

Though I've rarely thought of humanity like this before now, it's really rather true: We're the first fully cyborg generation. We recall information from the Internet as often as our own brains — we just use a much slower method of recall than our brain's neural pathways to get to that next section of information.

You're already digitally superhuman. The thing that would change is the interface—having a high-bandwidth interface to your digital enhancements. The thing is that today, the interface all necks down to this tiny straw, which is, particularly in terms of output, it's like poking things with your meat sticks, or using words—either speaking or tapping things with fingers. And in fact, output has gone backwards. It used to be, in your most frequent form, output would be ten-finger typing. Now, it's like, two-thumb typing. That's crazy slow communication. We should be able to improve that by many orders of magnitude with a direct neural interface.

It's a bit terrifying to think about, honestly. As technology evolves to provide that bandwidth and connects us instantly to the Internet (and each other), it opens up a host of other frightening concepts:

If we can communicate telepathically and instantly, where does language go from here? Could we evolve to understand language as empathic signals, or circular concepts? Is this how we fix worldwide communication?

Does this open up an entirely new universe for the creatives and scientific pros in this world — or turn everyone into a person who can express themselves creatively?

If we can think collectively, does that mean we get further as a species, or instantly destroy ourselves? Do we essentially become the Expanse's protomolecule, or the Formics of Ender's Game, or Arrival's Heptapods (or any number of proto-futuristic science-fiction concepts) if we have communal processing?

I'm going down a rabbit hole here, so I'll stop before I disappear into Wonderland forever — but it's interesting to think about, no? We're on the precipice of technology not only changing our everyday lives, but the very way we think, communicate, and use the world around us. And smartphones are a pretty big stepping stone on that journey.

Come what may, I'm pretty excited for the moment that I get to call myself a cyborg. (And seriously, if you have a few hours, find a good place to sit and ingest Urban's incredibly comprehensive explainer on Neuralink and our potential machine-linked future.)

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

7 Comments
  • Resistance is futile...
  • Beat me to it!
  • Says you.
  • "y excited for the moment that I get to call myself a cyborg" Really?? I love technology but i think it will be a time sooner than later when we will be overwhelmed by it! I don't think those kind of technology is good for humanity...
  • It's too late. Everyone criticized Obama when he said we fetishize our devices a little too much. And yes, the context of that was perhaps wrong. But the argument does have merit. We spend far too much time with tech ****, convenience **** and the desire to move the ball forward. But tech has a downside. The current American administration is supported in part by people who got swallowed by tech, ignored by its creators, and left behind with no real options. They naturally fled to the warm embrace of a narcissist who told them, "I alone can fix this". Technological advance without the moral restraint to be as humane as possible leaves us as inhumane creatures. We never give a second thought to those who are adversely effected by technological change. One might argue that this is inevitable. And, it may well be. But, we need to mitigate the influence that this has. To be blunt, there are far more unskilled humans than there are jobs for unskilled humans. No amount of retraining is going to fix that in the short term. As we face educational institutions that are defunded by political frauds, cheats and hacks, we are left with the burden of what to do with the large amount of people who will never be a computer programmer, hipster or creative. Watch how fast the landscape changes in this example: I live in a former industrial center where good paying factory labor contributed to a robust middle class. Those jobs disappeared 30 years ago. Then, lower paying service jobs filled the void. We are now the home of a gargantuan Amazon fulfillment center, that disproportionally uses resources when compared to the amount of jobs it creates. For its size, it will never employ more than 1400 workers. Amazon's long term goal is to ELIMINATE workers, thus reducing the fragile workforce even more. In its wake, companies like amazon, and to a lesser extent Walmart,, have destroyed American retail. It is impossible to start a small mom and pop operation anymore because the barriers to entry in retail have been erected to prevent behavior like this. Also, to get Amazon to relocate here, significant tax breaks were given, thus eroding the ability of local government to do its job adequately. Within 5 years, the Amazon workforce will be reduced by more than 50%. What did it get us for our multiyear tax break? Nothing. And it gets worse from here.
  • What? No mention of Ghost in the Shell? ;)
  • Terrifying and exciting, both! Is this a testimony to how far we've risen, how far we've fallen, both, neither, or other? I cannot say. Something deep inside me says it's some flavor of all three (both, neither, AND other.) I suppose the whole "you're already a cyborg" thing makes good sense out of the phenomenon we've all noticed about ourselves and just about everybody else around us that we are tethered to our phones like they're a part of us, and feel lost without them. Although, whether the age of pop cybernetics is truly upon us RIGHT NOW, and it's just a matter of moving from [figuratively speaking] the "really slow external HDD" of today to the "really fast internal SSD" of tomorrow that separates us from our pop culture vision of the cyborg, or whether we're not quite there yet because we (as a whole) are not yet permanently integrating tech directly onto or into our bodies, but rather, are actually witnessing the final stages of "pre-cyborg" life just as an expanding city runs water, sewer, electric, and builds roads before houses start going up and people start moving in? Are we "'external USB' cyborgs" right now? Or are we making the final tweaks to our brains, and our psyches, and our societies to prepare us for the true dawning of the cyborg? (longest run-on sentence ever?) :-) Are we now running the underground water and sewer lines for that future "cyborg city" that is seemingly so imminent? While my answer to this question is based FAAAAAR less on anything tightly defined or reasoned in my mind, or any kind of intellectual argument, and is far more based on something vaguely sensed in the depths of me somewhere - urges and impulses aren't the right words, nor are instinct, intuition, or hunch, but it's something on that level - I say the latter. This is not the dawn hours of the age of the cyborg, but rather this is the final prepwork for it, laying the final infrastructure in the predawn hours just before. And again, I'm both exhillerated beyond measure, and terrified beyond measure by the massive weight of implications all this brings. Cheers!