Portrait of the first officially accepted cyborg in the world, Neil Harbisson.
Do you know what a cyborg is? Cyborg is the short version for “cybernetic organism” and describes a composite being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts.
A cyborg is defined as somebody who has enhanced abilities due to the integration of some artificial component or technology that relies on some sort of feedback between humans and machines. Cyborgs have a long history in science fictions. Just think of famous protagonists such as Robocop, the Terminator or Darth Vader in Star Wars.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman assumes that there is an amazing opportunity for mankind if humans are able to improve their senses with the help of technology to receive and process more and better data from their environment. He created a suit with electrodes by which test persons can “feel” the stock market development or the predominant mood in social media by signals activating their nervous system. In 2002, British scientist Kevin Warwick and his wife had fired an array of 100 electrodes into their nervous system and were able to have the first direct electronic communication experiment between the nervous systems of two humans. There are already intelligent glasses by which crisis intervention forces can “see” the mood of a demonstrating crowd as a whole by analyzing the facial expressions and body language of thousands of people at once. So, they know whether there is a risk of a mass panic even when the natural senses do not observe anything yet.
Are humans becoming cyborgs without even recognizing it?
When I talked to our Board Member Lin Kayser, he stated the hypothesis that many of us act like cyborgs already. While navigating to a specific place has been a decent cognitive task in the past (you had to read maps or ask residents), today people intuitively let their mobile navigation system guide them. Beyond the extent use of smartphones, more and more people have implanted body chips that replace their keys and enable them to do secure transactions or read secret data without even thinking about it. Virtual and augmented reality glasses can be used in engineering to detect defect parts in turbines and sophisticated machines. It may be just a matter of time that these external devices may be directly connected to our nervous system and brains.
Neil Harbisson is an FLI Thought Leader who gave us an interview. Neil is a New York-based artist known as the first person in the world with an antenna implanted in his skull. This WIFI supported antenna enables him to “hear” colors as it collects different signals like electromagnetic radiation or images and translates them into audible vibrations. Neil is the first legally recognized cyborg, having a UK passport that features the antenna on his passport picture.
Thinking about the future, he states “I like to think about how we can apply new senses and organs in our daily lives.”
For Neil, enlarging our human senses by new technological means is a driving source of innovation.
Talking about leadership and innovation, Neil assumes, a core skill is “to know the language of technology as it has its own language, its own culture… Many people are only observers…, but they don´t understand how it works”. Leaders of tomorrow need to have a deep insight into technical operating models and opportunities.
To sum it up: technological innovation already does and increasingly will help humans to see, hear and observe things we have not been able to perceive with our natural senses. And it seems very likely that more and more of these features will become integral parts of our daily routines and life – just think about clocks or potentially soon also chips that provide us with data about our fitness and health.
This trend inevitably will make us more dependent on intelligent machines and operating systems. More and more, there will be a fusion between organic and intelligent artificial body parts. How will this change the way we live? How will it impact the ways we work and work together? Collaboration will not only take place among humans but among humans and intelligent networks.
Neil Harbisson already does it: he has given permission to five selected friends to send him images, videos, and messages via internet applications directly in his head. The way how they influence his perception of life is hard to understand for humans that do not have this kind of extended sense.
Will there be a future of work in which emails and WhatsApp messages are not sent via mobile devices but directly into our brains? And what would this mean for leadership?
Asked about major leadership characteristics in an environment of innovation and machine intelligence, Neil states three:
- Being able to see the wide picture. You need to see the territory, not the little roads
- Being capable to predict the things that might happen – and having alternative plans B and C if A does not work out
- Encourage the people around you, foster a strong and positive group spirit.
Questions for leaders:
- If you think wild and big – what ideas do you have how intelligent machines could radically change the business you are in?
- In which way would you like to expand your sensual abilities with technological means to be a better leader?
- If people in an organization had integrated antennas to read every emotion of the people around – if nobody would be able to hide his feelings – how would that impact communication, collaboration, and leadership?
Picture: Neil Harbisson, cyborg, artist, activist. The first human having an antenna implanted in this skull.
About the Author:
Sebastian Morgner is the co-founder of the Future of Leadership Initiative and managing director of the MLI Leadership Institute in Munich. He supports management teams in digital transformation, strategy activation, and cultural change. Sebastian is an expert in agile leadership. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org