Without technology, Michael Chorost wouldn't be able to hear a thing.
A technology theorist who went deaf in 2001, after a lifetime of hearing problems, Chorost now has a cochlear implant embedded in his brain, making him mostly man—but also a little bit computer.
Such technology-based human enhancements are the subject of Breakthrough: More Than Human, airing Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel. The episode is directed and narrated by actor Paul Giamatti.
Chorost, author of World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet, says that applying technology to humanity comes with drawbacks, but that we should be mostly optimistic about the sweeping changes ahead.
Do you have trouble with the idea of technology making us stronger, faster, better?
I’m skeptical of technology giving us enhanced vision or hearing or the ability to run 60 mph and so forth. It’s very difficult for scientists even to understand how hearing and vision and motion work, and it’s very hard to reengineer those things.
So your cochlear implant has given you better hearing but not better than average hearing?
I can hear you more than well enough to have a phone conversation, but I’m still very much a person with a hearing loss. I don’t see any technology on the horizon that would enable superhuman ears.
Do you think of yourself as a “cyborg,” someone who is dependent or enhanced by an electronic device?
I don’t like to use the word cyborg, because it brings up the myths of superhuman abilities and human endurance. The future is not about giving our bodies ways to do things they already do, it’s about ways to give our bodies entirely new things.
The ability to allow one person to communicate electronically with another person by having a device that measures their neural activity and sends that to another person and evokes equivalent neural activity in their brain.
Are you suggesting brain-to-brain email?
I can send you an e-mail very easily by typing, or speaking or voice recognition. There’s no benefit to be gained by reproducing that ability with some exotic and dangerous surgical technique.
So what are you proposing instead?
To allow one person to know another person’s feelings or their physical sensations, which is something we have no way of doing now. That would be a kind of—I don’t use the word telepathy, I use the word telempathy. That might open up completely new ways of communication that would be so valuable it may be worth the surgical risk.
How might that be used in the world?
For example, people in the military need to know very quickly exactly where their team members are and whether they’ve been injured, and to know where they are without actually having to look around to see them–that might be very valuable.
We’re talking decades from now—maybe centuries—where we can change brains in a way that is invasive but not risky.
Doesn’t this idea of tapping into someone else’s brain raise issues of privacy?
I think we’re already beginning to deal with these privacy issues, because social media allows people to be public about their ideas and feelings in a very new way. People put things up and they don’t realize that their coworkers and bosses are seeing them.
So does advancing technology come at the cost of our humanity?
People have done studies about the impact of television on social life. Once TV came into existence in the early '50s, people did go to fewer civic events and did form fewer clubs. So, things like this do happen and these are very real concerns.
What technological innovation do you think we need most?
One of the biggest things is regenerative medicine. A surgeon damaged part of my nose when I was a teenager, and there’s no way to fix it. I’d love regenerative technology that could regrow that damaged tissue. I could also regrow the damaged parts of my ears. I don’t know if I’d want to use that, but it would be nice to have the possibility.
You wouldn’t want your hearing back if you could?
When I’m writing, I always take my processors off. I love to work deaf. Having normal ears would mean I couldn’t shut off the world and concentrate. I actually feel a little sorry for hearing people who the hear the sirens, their own breathing other people snoring. It’s nice to not have that problem.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Follow Karen Weintraub on Twitter.