TCS Daily


Cyborgization, Revisited

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - February 23, 2005 12:00 AM

A while back, I wrote a column on creeping cyborgization. It was largely inspired by the strapon computer that I use when scuba diving, but it did include this passage:

        Once I started thinking about it, I realized that the dive computer probably 
        represents an "opening wedge in the cyborgization of healthy people. 
        The cyborgization of people with health issues, of course, is already 
        under way. Diet computers are already in use. Some even weigh food 
        before you eat it, and calculate its calories, fat content, etc. (I don't use 
        one of those, but I do use a Polar heart rate monitor when I run, so that 
        I can keep track of my heart rate and make sure I'm not slacking off. As 
        far as I know, nobody's integrated the exercise computer with the diet 
        computer to keep track of both calories consumed and calories burned in 
        one device, but I may have missed it.) Then, of course, there are computerized 
        insulin pumps that take the place of a pancreas by automatically releasing 
        small amounts of insulin -- some according to computerized blood sugar models 
        not too terribly different in concept from the blood-gas models used by 
        dive computers. The most sophisticated personal computerized medical 
        devices today are probably the implantable cardioverter defibrillators 
        that monitor heart rhythms and administer a shock if the owner's heart 
        stops or goes into fibrillation."

Now my wife, who has suffered from heart rhythm problems for years, is scheduled to get one of those cardioverter/pacemaker combinations implanted. (I think it's going to be this model). It's pretty cool, as it can not only shock a heart out of fibrillation, but pace it out of other dangerous or uncomfortable rhythms. It's also quite compact, and the cardiologist dryly observed that her left breast will provide "adequate concealment."

Naturally, you'd rather not need it, but as these devices get better, I can imagine wanting something like this just on general principles. As I noted before:

        "Soon, probably within a decade or two, we'll see such devices becoming 
        common, and multipurpose, and -- most importantly -- aimed at people who 
        don't have anything in particular wrong with them. Perhaps a 'body 
        computer?' It could measure heart rate, blood chemistry, diet and exercise 
        levels, etc., and export its data to outside devices so that the owner, or 
        a physician, could monitor the owner's health. Perhaps it could take 
        preemptive action, releasing clotbusting drugs at the onset of a heart 
        attack or stroke, or steroids in the event of an allergy attack, providing 
        on-the-spot first aid for many serious problems. Still more advanced 
        versions could fine-tune things in a variety of ways, until we gradually 
        reach the stage in which our bodies are pervaded with nanodevices 
        that maintain health and repair damage without our even thinking about them."

I'd like one of those now, especially if it could also treat migraine headaches. They're working on it! They're already working on vagus-nerve stimulation for epilepsy and depression, and even neural stimulation implants that promote female orgasms. (What, nothing for us guys?) Since these devices are based on two things -- electronics and biological knowledge -- that are improving by leaps and bounds, we're likely to see a lot more of them, and we're likely to see them become cheap enough, and capable enough, and reliable enough that they'll attain widespread use. Which I favor, though not everyone will agree.

I suspect that, as these devices become more common, we'll see some pushback, with Leon Kass types complaining that they're unnatural. And they are -- I never expected to have a bionic wife, childhood fantasies involving Jamie Sommers notwithstanding. But I'd much rather have a bionic wife than one who's at risk for fatal heart problems. I suspect that most people feel that way, and I expect that over time, more and more of us will be cyborgized to greater or lesser degrees. Which is just fine with me.

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1 Comment

A computer to run the body
I have always thought something like this would be an excellent idea.

Why not simply reprogram our body's mechanisms to stop storing fat when we are more then (X) pounds, and resume storage when less than (Y) pounds?

That would be a health care revolution, eliminating obesity in a single stroke and eliminating the misery of required diets and exercise to maintain weight. Not to mention the 99% failure rate of diet and exercise, because trying to lose weight is fighting the inherent, automated desires of the body's mechanisms.

Most of medicine in my experience is telling people to live with disease, instead of doing something to fix the body. Why can't we change the mechanism and solve the problem, instead of telling people to live with it?

Whoever does this successfully and cost-effectively will make a fortune.

If I had the technical knowledge, I'd be working on this right now ...

D

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