I’ve been a cyborg for six months. I mean that in the classic sense – where a cyborg (or a “cybernetic organism”) is an animal that also contains machine parts. For the past six months I’ve depended on a machine to regulate my metabolism. This isn’t some kind of bizarre weight-loss scheme. I’m diabetic. My machine keeps me alive.
Here’s the story: three years ago, my pancreas stopped making insulin, and I started starving to death. I didn’t know it at first. I was hungry and tired because my cells couldn’t absorb glucose from my bloodstream; I thought my kids were just wearing me out. I was constantly thirsty because my kidneys were using enormous amounts of water in a desperate attempt to get rid of the sugar that built up in my blood; I thought the 90-degree summer heat was unusually oppressive that year. I had no convenient explanation for losing 30 pounds in three months. Fortunately for me, my doctor did. After he and all the nurses in the practice turned pale and rushed around for a while, I wound up with a blood glucose meter, a box of syringes, a couple of vials of insulin, and some basic training on how to use them. I was sick, I was never going to get better, and I had better get used to it.
At first, I tried to manage my metabolism with regular injections of insulin. This is much harder than it sounds. You might think it would be a logical exercise: tot up the amount of carbohydrate in your meal, insert the corresponding amount of insulin under your skin, and everything stays perfectly normal. You’d be wrong. The sweet spot of “normal” is a moving target, affected by factors as diverse as the kind of food you’re eating, how active you are after the meal, whether you got enough sleep the night before, job stress, and (just to make things even more interesting) your daily and monthy hormone cycles. So as soon as I could manage it, I replaced my malfunctioning pancreas with an insulin pump.
My pump looks like half of an overdone hard-boiled egg (it’s the Omnipod, from Insulet Corp., if you must know). It contains an insulin reservoir, some tubing that inserts under my skin, a pumping mechanism that pushes insulin through the tubing, and a suite of microelectronics. It comes with a wireless remote that lets me adjust the amount of insulin I’m getting at any given time and give myself the larger “boluses” of insulin that let my body absorb my meals.
So not only have I replaced my pancreas with a microcomputer, I’m remote-controlled too.
The idea of melding people with machines has been a staple of science fiction for a very long time. Brian Stableford, writing in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, identifies its first major use in E. V. Odle’s 1923 novel The Clockwork Man. In that story, the eponymous man from the future has a clockwork mechanism built into his head that lets him move between dimensions. His machine is an enhancement; an add-on module that gives him abilities beyond what normal humans can do. It’s the great-great grandfather of the BrainPals in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. And more often than not, when an author sticks a machine into a character it’s a means of examining whether your humanity is diminished if there’s a machine attached to you that you can’t ever take off. Let me tell you one thing, it beats dying.
These stories are usually set hundreds of years in the future, but people are becoming cyborgs now. It’s not to become stronger, faster, or smarter. People become cyborgs because it’s a better option for living with a chronic condition, even when it isn’t life threatening. Being sick, well, kinda sucks. And if mechanical parts can restore some hearing or vision, keep your heart beating normally, or restore your mobility after you’ve lost a limb, then they may be some of the most humane things we’ve invented. But if you’re worried about the impending cyborg uprising, keep in mind that our mechanical parts, even when they’re state of the art, still can’t match the performance of the original organs. Biology is still better.
Photo by James L. Cambias