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“Cybernetic organism” is the long version of the more familiar term “cyborg,” a self-regulating organism that contains a combination of natural and artificial components. Cybernetic organisms have frequently been featured in fiction as well as philosophical explorations of the topic. Often, cyborgs have been presented in dystopic contexts, thought to be an expression of our society’s discomfort with reliance on technology and desire to revert back to a more “natural” state.
According to some definitions, and the analyses of many thinkers on the topic, humans are already cybernetic organisms. Witness how closely we are already integrated with technology – simple tools such as a pen and paper, glasses, or more advanced medical prostheses such as pacemakers may be considered the early harbingers of humanity’s transition into a more cybernetic form. Futurists such as Ray Kurzweil have argued that in the coming decades we will inevitably become even more cybernetic, and embrace the merger of biology and technology.
The public’s experience with cybernetic organisms has largely been in the context of fiction, such as the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man and the Star Wars and Terminator series of movies. But it should be acknowledged that the increasing cyborgization of humanity is all around us and millions if not billions of dollars is being invested in research to create cybernetic organisms. Oftentimes, “cybernetic” body components such as cochlear implants meet basic human needs, like the need to hear.
A frequent ethical debate brought up in the context of cybernetic organisms is the division between therapy and enhancement. The Presidential Council on Bioethics, led by Leon Kass, published a book in 2003 titled Beyond Therapy which criticized what they view as the excessive cyborgization of humanity and the need for limits. A book by the environmentalist Bill McKibben titled Enough makes similar arguments.
The controversy over whether humanity should enhance itself with technology and transform into a cybernetic race is likely to be one of the biggest issues of the 21st century.