Defending Cyborg Rights

Article By : Gary Hilson

Will Canada be first to develop policy around volunteer cyborgs? Will we soon use implants to unlock doors or start cars?

TORONTO — The first thing that comes to mind when meeting Tamara Banbury via Skype video is “resistance is futile.” But the decision to implant small electronic devices in the back of her hands is her own.

The Carleton University Ph.D. candidate in Ottawa, Canada has been studying voluntary cyborgs and how they embed technology into their bodies to enhance or augment themselves. But while society is comfortable with the idea of implanted technology for medical needs — everything from artificial joints to pacemakers — some people are still wary of it when it’s voluntary. “I used to have my tongue pierced. I’ve got tattoos, I color my hair. Body modification is not weird to me.” Getting small chips implanted into the top of each hand took seconds, she said, and it’s like getting one’s ears pierced.

Banbury is part of an online subculture created by voluntary cyborgs who are looking for mainstream acceptance and widespread adoption of their practices. It was a long winding road for her to end up back at university in 2010 at age 37, having previously been a long-haul truck driver and later working in an office for a transportation company. Initially, Banbury went back to school for computer science because there was money to be made coding, but she found it wasn’t the right fit. “My brain does not operate the same way that coding does. I’m not such a literal logical thinker that way.”

Rather, she was more interested in the big picture, and volunteer work at the Military Museums in Calgary, Alberta put her in contact with the active duty service personnel who maintained it, some of whom had experienced life-altering injuries. “There was a guy who had lost both of his legs. He has really interesting prosthetics because they’re military grade,” Banbury said. “In computer science I had been uncomfortable with the fact that the human is often ignored. They’re just this end-user-thing-person that is inevitably just going to screw up whatever you’ve written.”

Carleton University Ph.D. candidate Tamara Banbury has been studying voluntary cyborgs and how they embed technology into their bodies to enhance or augment themselves, as well as the policies that might be developed around implant use. (Source: Carleton University)

Banbury was fascinated by how the museum employee was integrating his prosthetic legs into a mental map of himself, how prosthetics are evolving, and how technology is increasingly being shrunk and internalized. While medical prosthetics and implants allow people to walk or keep their heartbeats steady, members of the “cyber community” she is part of all have different motivations. For Banbury, it’s academic — to get a sense about why people are doing it and how they are perceived; for others, it’s more pragmatic. “They don’t want to lose their keys anymore.” Electronic door locks using RFID can be unlocked by the swipe of the hand, while a Tesla owner has modified the car so he can start it with an implant.

One of the more interesting examples she’s come across in the online community is a Seattle-based gun owner who modified a weapon to read the chip in his hand — only he can pull the trigger. “Everybody does it for a slightly different reason.”

Most voluntary cyborgs have implants for enhancement and augmentation purposes, either for fun or for convenience, said Banbury. “I’m pretty sure my landlord will not let me install a door lock, but it would be so convenient sometimes when I’m carrying groceries upstairs and then I have to fumble for keys and all of that at the door.” One of her implants enables her to “Rick roll” people for demonstration purposes when she makes a presentation at conferences. “Tech people get it.”

From a practical perspective, the consensus is that the back of the hand is the best place for an implant because there’s rarely impact on that part of the body — you don’t want to accidentally smash what is essentially a glass tube the size of a grain of rice. Memory-wise, the capacity is also minuscule, and implants are powered by the device that reads them. Range is also quite limited, noted Banbury. “The skin blocks the antenna signal a little bit, so you have to get quite close.”

Voluntary cyborgs can buy RFID-enabled implants online for basic functions such as unlocking a door or starting a car.

While there are a lot of pragmatic, technical considerations that go into being a voluntary cyborg, her interest is directed at the more philosophical questions. Today, there’s not a lot about cyborgs in legal literature. Most implants, meanwhile, are deemed body jewelry and regulated as such in Canada, unlike an independently powered medical implant. Banbury recently wrapped up her Masters in legal studies and has started her Ph.D., which includes looking at policies around the world regarding voluntary cyborgs. Sweden, for example, has a policy that allows people to use implants as transit passes.

There are a lot of issues to be considered. Although the implants in today’s voluntary cyborgs are rudimentary, they will evolve just like smartphones, opening the door to digital rights management challenges and to questions such as who decides when a software update is applied — the person or the vendor? Major printer vendors are already stipulating that you must use their cartridges in order for the software to keep working, noted Banbury. “What is to prevent somebody in the future from doing that to chips inside a human body? And that’s the stuff I want people to think about now before it’s actually an issue.”

She’d like to see Canada become a leader in developing policy around volunteer cyborgs. “Canadians tend to accept technology pretty quickly. I don’t see why Canada can’t be a place where we allow that type of creativity and exploration of embedded tech.”

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