If you sit down and stop to think about it, humans are pretty amazing creatures. We have the ability to communicate with others, we can eat and sustain ourselves, and we can think and make decisions for ourselves. In addition, people have greater abilities than these, such as being able to drive cars, write letters, create films, and build massive structures that withstand the test of time (like those pyramids in Egypt). But is that enough? Do we need to become more? Can we use the creations and inventions we’ve developed to somehow become more than human?
It’s an interesting question–one that deserves some consideration. In the second part of National Geographic Channel’s Breakthrough series, actor Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man; “Downton Abbey”) takes a look at what this might look like in real life. He starts off by considering human exoskeletons that will allow us to do more than we can physically accomplish otherwise. The FORTIS, for example, can help a person to lift an item weighing up to 36 lbs for extended periods of time (such as a jackhammer), cutting down on fatigue and getting more accomplished. The film Avatar is coming to life for individuals like Eric Vladcovik, who has no legs. Using another form of exoskeleton, he’s learning how to walk with the assistance of two mechanical appendages he’s lowered into. It’s quite incredible to behold!
In other places, scientists are working on viable alternatives for many of our common senses, such as touch, through the use of virtual reality technology such as the Oculus Rift combined with real tactile input from another person. For those who are deaf, a contraption called the Versatile Extra Sensory Transducer (or VEST) is able to take every day sounds and replicate them for deaf individuals using a series of vibrations they feel on their back and can instantly understand. Wearing your senses on your sleeve is an idea whose time may have finally arrived.
Giamatti’s directing style is quite different (and considerably less gory) than Peter Berg’s first episode of Breakthrough, which centered on pandemics. He tells the story as a first-person narrator who gets to see these contraptions firsthand. It works well with the subject material and gives Giamatti time to think and consider about life might be like as part machine, but not necessarily as a T-1000 (yes; you just heard Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice in your head).
While the implications for technology of this nature are pretty staggering, is it what we were designed for when God set about making Adam and Eve in Genesis 2? Wouldn’t He have just given us a built-in exoskeleton like insects have? Did He intend for humanity to morph into cyborgs over time? The book of Isaiah provides a unique perspective to this, when it says, “Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay, That what is made would say to its maker, ‘He did not make me’; Or what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding?’” (Isa. 29:16 NASB) In other words, the verse seems to equate humans wanting to be equal with God. In actuality, God provided creativity to humanity so things like this could be both conceptualized and realized to an extent. We already have robots, can control devices remotely, and the cell phone is getting close to being permanently attached to some individuals but we’re not going to be able to duplicate what the Master already perfected.
Does that mean that technology of the kind introduced in this episode is bad and wrong? Not at all! It’s going to be helpful for many people in ways we cannot begin to fully understand. We’re just not going to be able to equal the effectiveness of God’s original creation through the hands of that actual creation, imperfect as it is. The first step is seeing what can be created and using it for good in the world we live in. Who knows—it might lead to something that glorifies God better than we can already do. Maybe that’s what it means to be more than human.
Breakthrough is a six part-series airing on the National Geographic Channel Sunday nights at 9 PM.