The techno-futurist prophets of the late 20th century, from J.G. Ballard to William Gibson to Donna Haraway, were right, it turns out, about the intimate physical unions we would form with our machines. Haraway, professor emeritus of the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, proclaimed herself a cyborg back in 1985. Whether readers took her ideas as metaphor or proleptic social and scientific fact hardly matters in hindsight. Her voice was predictive of the everyday biometrics and mechanics that lay just around the bend.
It can seem we are a long way, culturally, from the decade when Haraway’s work became required reading in “undergraduate curriculum at countless universities.” But as Hari Kunzru wrote in 1997, “in terms of the general shift from thinking of individuals as isolated from the ‘world’ to thinking of them as nodes on networks, the 1990s may well be remembered as the beginning of the cyborg era.” Three decades later, networked implants that automate medical data tracking and analysis and regulate dosages have become big business, and millions feed their vitals daily into fitness trackers and mobile devices and upload them to servers worldwide.
So, fine, we are all cyborgs now, but the usual use of that word tends to put us in mind of a more dramatic melding of human and machine. Here too, we find the cyborg has arrived, in the form of prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the brain. Psychologist, DJ, and electronic musician Bertolt Meyer has such a prosthesis, as he demonstrates in the video above. Born without a lower left arm, he received a robotic replacement that he can move by sending signals to the muscles that would control a natural limb. He can rotate his hand 360 degrees and use it for all sorts of tasks.
Problem is, the technology has not quite caught up with Meyer’s need for speed and precision in manipulating the tiny controls of his modular synthesizers. So Meyer, his artist husband Daniel, and synth builder Chrisi of KOMA Elektronik set to work on bypassing manual control altogether, with a prosthetic device that attaches to Meyer’s arm where the hand would be, and works as a controller for his synthesizer. He can change parameters using “the signals from my body that normally control the hand,” he writes on his YouTube page. “For me, this feels like controlling the synth with my thoughts.”
Meyer walks us through the process of building his first prototypes in an Inspector Gadget-meets-Kraftwerk display of analogue ingenuity. We might find ourselves wondering: if a handful of musicians, artists, and audio engineers can turn a prosthetic robotic arm into a modular synth controller that transmits brainwaves, what kind of cybernetic enhancements—musical and otherwise—might be coming soon from major research laboratories?
Whatever the state of cyborg technology outside Meyer’s garage, his brilliant invention shows us one thing: the human organism can adapt to being plugged into the unlikeliest of machines. Showing us how he uses the SynLimb to control a filter in one of his synthesizer banks, Meyer says, “I don’t even have to think about it. I just do it. It’s zero effort because I’m so used to producing this muscle signal.”
Advancements in biomechanical technology have given disabled individuals a significant amount of restored function. And as generally happens with major upgrades to accessibility devices, they also show us how we might all become even more closely integrated with machines in the near future.
via Boing Boing
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness