Would You Turn Your Child into a Cyborg?

A mom hacks Google Glass to help her autistic son understand facial expressions. Along the way, she wonders how neurotechnologies will influence how we augment ourselves, what traits we'll consider inherently human, and what might be lost as we rid ourselves of them.

Would you, could you, turn your child into a cyborg?

Writing in Quartz, Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist, mother, and co-founder of Socos Labs, shares how and why she’s going about that. It started when she hacked his insulin pump with artificial intelligence to “to match his insulin to his emotions and activities.”

Now she’s trying to apply neurotechnologies to his autism. In particular, she started by creating a device to help him understand and translate facial expressions, a difficulty for many with autism.

Her efforts began in 2013 when she hacked Google Glass to create what she calls SuperGlass.

Based on research from one of my academic labs, our system could recognize the expression of a face and write the emotion on Glass’s little heads-up screen, allowing an individual with autism to more easily perceive whether the person in front of them was happy, sad, angry, or something else. Simply wearing Glass while continuing everyday social interactions with others allowed these kids to learn that secret language of facial expressions; it’s the real-time version of the flashcard-based emotion-recognition training using cartoon faces on cardboard.

Along the way she confronts moral and ethical dilemmas. What is normal? Do we, should we, try to steer human capability toward that concept? Take her work on AI-driven cochlear implants to restore hearing to some forms of deafness.

[This was] an introduction to the messy complexity of what makes a “better” life. As a naive hearing person, it never occurred to me that anyone would choose deafness. But I learned that some parts of the deaf community consider cochlear implants to be genocide: an erasure of their unique languages, way of life, and who they are.

Much like autism, I’m often confronted with the dilemma of “curing” people of who they are, versus giving them the tools to share those rich differences with the world. But how can we respect someone’s humanness while also giving them the choice to become more like the majority of humans?

As neuroprosthetics advance, helping us see and hear clearer, remember better, process information faster, we then begin to wonder how neurotypical and able bodied individuals might augment and accessorize. Will the cyborg divide become the 21st century digital divide? Will humans flatten our physical, mental, creative and emotional differences into a monotony of sameness?

Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron imagined a planet in which prosthetic handicaps make us all equal by removing advantage. While a standardized world may seem utopic, it is equally possible that we’d lose our rich differences through over-augmentation as well. If we assume there is only one kind of strength, one kind of beauty, or one kind of intelligence, then we might super-normalize away the rich difference of human existence.

It’s seductively easy to imagine a world in which we’re a little smarter or a bit more creative, in which our kids have the latest advantage. But augmentation could also become a tool to entrench inequality even more firmly.

It’s all very interesting from a mother with the technology know how to make it happen, and the self-awareness to ask the important questions along the way.

More: Vivienne Ming, Why I’m turning my son into a cyborg

Illustration: Ichiro and the Cyborg Swordsman by thewalkingdude.

Thoughts? Ideas? Comments?
Send me a note or reach out on Mastodon.