Back in the heyday of the cyberpunk genre I made some of my Ramen noodle money coming up with “cybertech” for use in the various science-fiction role-playing games. As might be guessed, these included implants, nanotechology, cyberforms, smart weapons, robots and other such technological make-believe. While cyberpunk waned over the years, it never quite died off. These days, there is a fair amount of mostly empty hype about a post-human future and folks have been brushing the silicon dust off cyberpunk.
One stock bit of cybertech is the brain chip. In the genre, there is a rather impressive variety of these chips. Some are fairly basic—they act like flash drives for the brain and store data. Others are rather more impressive—they can store skillsets that allow a person, for example, to temporarily gain the ability to fly a helicopter. The upper level chips are supposed to do even more, such as increasing a person’s intelligence. Not surprisingly, the chipping of the brain is supposed to be part of the end of the human race—presumably we will be eventually replaced by a newly designed humanity (or cybermanity).
On the face of it, adding cybertech upgrades to the brain seems rather plausible. After all, in many cases this will just be a matter of bypassing the sense organs and directly connecting the brain to the data. So, for example, instead of holding my tablet in my hands so I can see the results of Google searches with my eyes, I’ll have a computer implanted in my body that links into the appropriate parts of my brain. While this will be a major change in the nature of the interface (far more so than going from the command line to an icon based GUI), this will not be as radical a change as some people might think. After all, it is still just me doing a Google search, only I do not need to hold the tablet or see it with my eyes. This will not, obviously enough, make me any smarter and presumably would not alter my humanity in any meaningful way relative to what the tablet did to me. To put it crudely, sticking a cell phone in your head might be cool (or creepy) but it is still just a phone. Only now it is in your head.
The more interesting sort of chip would, of course, be one that actually changes the person. For example, when many folks talk about the coming new world, they speak of brain enhancements that will improve intelligence. This is, presumably, not just a matter of sticking a calculator in someone’s head. While this would make getting answers to math problems more convenient, it would not make a person any more capable at math than does a conventional outside-the-head calculator. Likewise for sticking in a general computer. Having a PC on my desktop does not make me any smarter. Moving it into my head would not change this. It could, obviously enough, make me seem smarter—at least to those unaware of my headputer.
What would be needed, then, would be a chip (or whatever) that would actually make a change within the person herself, altering intelligence rather than merely closing the interface gap. This sort of modification does raise various concerns.
One obvious practical concern is whether or not this is even possible. That is, while it make sense to install a computer into the body that the person uses via an internal interface, the idea of dissolving the distinction between the user and the technology seems rather more questionable. It might be replied that this does not really matter. However, the obvious reply is that it does. After all, plugging my phone and PC into my body still keeps the distinction between the user and the machine in place. Whether the computer is on my desk or in my body, I am still using it and it is still not me. After all, I do not use me. I am me. As such, my abilities remain the same—it is just a tool that I am using. In order for cybertech to make me more intelligent, it would need to change the person I am—not just change how I interface with my tools. Perhaps the user-tool gap can be bridged. If so, this would have numerous interesting implications for philosophy.
Another concern is more philosophical. If a way is found to actually create a chip (or whatever) that becomes part of the person (and not just a tool that resides in the body), then what sort of effect would this have on the person in regards to his personhood? Would Chipped Sally be the same person as Sally, or would there be a new person? Suppose that Sally is chipped, then de-chipped? I am confident that armies of arguments can be marshalled on the various sides of this matter. There are also the moral questions about making such alterations to people.