The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Science



An Invitation to the Study of Cyborgs

Toru Takahashi
Professor, School of Culture, Media and Society, Waseda University

Cyborgs, a fusion of man and machine

Cyborgs are gradually working their way into our lives. The general representation of a cyborg is that seen in science fiction films of a fusion between man and machine. A direct interface between the brain and the Internet, like the brain-machine interface (BMI) described in the science fiction manga Ghost in the Shell, has been successfully tested in laboratory experiments. That extreme level of man-machine fusion aside, people’s lives would already be compromised by not having a mobile phone or smartphone, and in some cases, when we think about those who lead a life that is dependent on such devices, we can see that the fusion between man and machine is underway with a momentum that supersedes the pros and cons.

However, the fusion of humans and machines is not confined to fusion with engineering machinery. Think of machinery as technology in a wider sense. One of the largest modern technological fields is biotechnology. People are helped by biotechnology in the form of medical treatment, but we could be heading toward a scenario in which people are composed of biotechnology. If that is the case, the question must be asked: what are the people who have been integrated with technology in such a way? My background is in western philosophy, which since ancient times has continually asked the question, “What is mankind?” Traditional philosophy was founded on a distinction between human beings and machines (as well as animals), but nowadays technology is beginning to shake this distinction and cyborgs, which are the fusion of man and machine, really have to be seen as a fundamental phenomenon in philosophical discussions. The question “What is mankind?” needs to be replaced by the question “What is a cyborg?”

Human beings composed of technology

Let’s move from abstract theory to concrete considerations. I have discussed the above-mentioned BMI elsewhere1, so here I want to focus on biotechnology, and especially iPS cells in regenerative medicine. Technology related to iPS cells has developed so quickly that in recent years hardly a day has gone by without it making the news. iPS cell technology is a field of regenerative medicine in which body cells are reprogrammed into a so-called pluripotent cell state, from which any organ can be created according to plan. Press coverage says that a number of significant breakthroughs will be needed before actual three-dimensional organs can be created, although attempts have already been made2. If this creation of real organs does become possible in the future, it will increase the opportunities for human beings to be composed of transplanted organs. More and more people will accept being composed of such biotechnology.

1: See Cyborg Philosophy [Saibogu Firosofi] by Toru Takahashi (NTT Publishing, 2008)
2: “3D Tissue Construction,” Shoji Takeuchi Research Group, Center for International Research on Micronano Mechatronics, Institute of Industrial Science, The University of Tokyo

“Enhancement” providing enhanced, extended life

Attempts have already been made to genetically modify iPS cells and to restore “sick” genetic sequences to normal genetic sequences, with some successful cases being reported3. This kind of genetic modification will inevitably raise the issue of enhancement in the future. Enhancement means increased performance: think about the simple example of doping among athletes. This is, of course, a very problematic topic. In terms of the above-mentioned genetic repair, it means not only restoring gene sequences that cause illness into normal gene sequences, but also going further and creating gene sequences in order to enhance performance as well as health.

At the extreme end of enhancement is the extension of the natural limits to our lifespan, or in other words, increasing longevity. A general feature of technology is that it extends or amplifies the natural state. The technology of the automobile, for example, enables us to move at speeds unattainable in our natural state of walking or running, so basically it has extended and amplified our natural state of being on foot.

Regenerative medicine can, through organ transplantation, provide patients who are sick or dying with improved natural health or an extended lifespan. This being the case, people who have been helped by biotechnology such as regenerative medicine, and who are consequently composed of biotechnology, are enhanced by this technology which basically prolongs their life, and are filled with the strength to try to defy death.

Western philosophy assumes that all people die one day. Of course it may be impossible to avoid death by regenerative medicine. But technology (or biotechnology) has set itself the target of shaking this assumption, a fact that needs to be included in philosophical discussions. People composed of biotechnology are cyborgs, an amalgam of human being and technology. Cyborgs are truly a fundamental phenomenon in philosophical discussions.

What direction are human beings, or should I say cyborgs, headed in?

3: “The iPS cell story No.11: The future opened up by iPS cells–1, Regenerative medicine using iPS cells” [iPS Saibo Monogatari Dai 11 kai: iPS Saibo ga Kirihiraku Mirai-1 iPS Saibo ni yoru Saisei Iryo], MEXT iPS Cell Research Network

Toru Takahashi
Professor, School of Culture, Media and Society, Waseda University


Cyborg Ethics [Saibogu eshikkusu], Suiseiaha, 2005
Cyborg Philosophy [Saibogu firosofi], NTT Publishing, 2008
Participated together with other researchers in BIOART.JP, exploring the fusion of biotechnology and art