Space travel challenges mankind not only technologically but also spiritually, in that it invites man to take an active part in his own biological evolution. (Cyborgs in Space)
A couple weeks ago, when I read about Tim Maly's month-long 50 Posts About Cyborgs project celebrating the 50th birthday of the word cyborg, I knew I wanted to be part of it. In a way, the cyborg and I have grown up together, children of the space race, digital immigrants who've crossed into the 21st century. I'd been following Tim (@doingitwrong) and his blog for a while, after a serendipitous retweet crossed my stream.
Quiet Babylon is a stylish, thoughty website about "cyborgs, architects, and our weird broken future." 50cyborgs.tumblr.com gathers together the creative imaginations and varied perspectives of many contributors: futurists, filmmakers, builders, designers, writers, and scholars. The project makes a elegant use case for Tumblr as a cross-web platform for content curation, and I hope it inspires more delicious commemorative and topical projects of this sort, but that's not what I really want to talk about. I want to talk about the humans.
(screenshot from wordcount.org, a project by Jonathan Harris that tracks the 86,000 most frequently used English words)
In 1960, the year Kennedy beat Nixon in the U.S. presidential election, Manfred Clynes — neuroscientist, computer scientist, inventor, and professional musician — and Nathan S. Kline (1916-1982) — psychiatrist, pioneering psychopharmacologist, and Clynes's boss at the Rockland Psychiatric Center — presented a paper at a Texas Space Flight Symposium titled Drugs, Space and Cybernetics. In order for humans to deal with challenges of space travel such as wakefulness, pressure, temperature, gravitation, and the effects of radiation, Clynes and Kline suggested it would be more feasible to modify human biology with drugs than to replicate a terrestrial environment in space. Their paper and the article that appeared in the journal Astronautics in September 1960, Cyborgs in Space articulated the idea of a cybernetic organism, cyborg for short.
Words, even portmanteau words that define seemingly precise new concepts by packing two words together, have a way of taking on a life of their own. Lewis Carroll, who invented the notion of a "portmanteau word," nailed it in "Through the Looking Glass. Here's the conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master that's all."
Take cyborg, a concept closely related to the sort of mastery the Victorians could only dream of. In the middle of the 20th century, cybernetics was a frequent buzzword in technology talk. Wikipedia tells me it refers to "the interdisciplinary study of the structure of regulatory systems," but reminds me that in popular culture it's often used to describe the study of robotic implants, prosthetics, and cyborgs, or as a synonym for robotics or cyborgology. As various 50cyborg contributors have already noted, Clynes and Klein never imagined a Schwarzenegger-like Terminator when they released the word fifty years ago. What they envisioned was more like the homeostatically monitored "sleeping" astronauts of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien.
Wikipedia offers a rich biography of Manfred Clynes, who was born in Vienna in 1925, into a cultured and scientifically inclined family. In 1938, his family emigrated to Australia to escape the Nazis. Clynes was gifted at both music and engineering, and came to the U.S. in the 1940s, to continue his studies. He played piano for Einstein in Princeton in 1953, and in 1954, to supplement his income as a musician, he took an electrical engineering job and learned to program an analog computer. In the mid-1950s he was hired by Dr. Nathan S. Kline as Chief Research Scientist at Rockland County Hospital (a New York state mental hospital). In 1960, he invented the CAT computer (Computer of Average Transients, not to be confused with the CAT scan), a "portable" computer for researching electrical activity in the brain. It was hugely successful. In the 1960s, Clynes played music with Pablo Casals and continued his parallel work in computer science and biological systems.
In the '70s and '80s, Clynes continued his study of music as a medium of emotional expression, and began his work with Sentic forms and cycles, devising algorithms and tools to investigate the neurophysiology of human emotions. He developed a system to measure and modulate emotions and increase well-being. Through his company, Microsound International, he developed SuperConductor, software that helps computers and their humans make more beautiful and evocative music. In addition to patents, Clynes also wrote poetry. He ponders animal consciousness, elaborates on exile, emigration, and national identity. Throughout his life and work, there is an effort to make sense of the human condition: kindness vs cruelty, Bach and Beethoven vs. butchery and brutality, the Boundaries of Compassion.
In 1992, ten years after the death of his mentor and colleague Nathan Kline, Manfred Clynes presented a keynote paper at the IEEE International Workshop on Robot and Human Communication in Tokyo. It was was titled Time-Forms, Nature's Generators and Communicators of Emotion.
As artist and scientist, Clynes considers how emotional meaning is transmitted and exchanged between humans, and also between humans and machines. He studies the signal-to-noise ratio in these types of transmissions and identifies a set of emotions that he believes are universal: anger, hate, grief, love, sex, joy, and reverence. Like laughter and yawning, he believes these emotions are hardwired and precise in humans. He differentiates between sincerity and states of mimicry and exaggeration, and explores the possibility of sincere interactions between man and machine. He believes that we need a new kind of emotional education. This paper telescopes thirty-plus years of deep exploration of cybernetic systems and the man-machine continuum.
I am no expert in musicality or mathematicality (the two so obviously intertwined), but this paper resonates with me. It attempts to create a universal grammar for the transmission of emotion so that humans and computers can make beautiful music together. Here's a taste:
A human cannot, for example, express anger with the voice and love with a gesture simultaneously, and both sincerely. A computer however is under no such restriction since for it "sincerity" is not bound to a single channel.
...when communicating emotional qualities to humans the computer cannot choose its own convenient scaling but must match the output to human time consciousness, or real-real time.
it is not hard to realize that we will need to 're-arm' ourselves emotionally to maintain our human identity. This will not be easy to do because we are biologic prisoners of those forms, and cannot escape the feelings of livingness...
It's as if Clynes had devised a musical Turing test, and created the foundation for lesson plans for robot musicians. (Remember the Diva Plavalaguna in The Fifth Element?)
Clynes is 85 years old now, and lives in California, in Sonoma County. His trapezoidal whiskers are snowy white and wild. In March 2009, Manfred Clynes lectured at Harvard University, and presented his ideas about music, consciousness, truth, and human emotion, accompanying himself with his laptop. You can view the entire 18-part series on YouTube, and although it occasionally drifts into the realm of Vogon poetry, Clynes also plays some incredibly beautiful classical music. The cyborg is made manifest as a white-tufted wizard. He seems to be Havi Hoffmanng a real-real time.