If you weren’t already aware, one of my many roles in life is as the science/history/weirdness consultant for the comic Atomic Robo. My reward for this is that my alter-ego, known as Action Phil, appears in the comic as Atomic Robo’s “heart” specialist, radiation safety officer, and government liaison. (really, my reward is that I get to help make the Atomic Robo team’s lives just a little weirder)
This is a little behind the scenes look at things that didn’t make the cut. The original Tesladyne Field Manual features some sections that are described as adaptations from the lecture series “I’m Yelling Because I Care”, by Dr. Phil Broughton. Well, there was one section that didn’t make it in because it was over 3000 words as I have devoted an awful lot of time in my life to thinking about things going wrong with cyborgs. It got redone into something much more succinct and point-of-view appropriate for the ULTRA Field Manual that came out a few years later.
If you love the game Paranoia or are a current/recovering government employee with residual classified work brain, you will enjoy the ULTRA Field Manual. It warped Brian’s mind working on it such that he had to take frequent breaks to remember how the normal world works. That’s how much fun it is.
But there was always this nagging thought about what was left out and I got permission to put the original version up here. There are a few in-Roboverse references where it might help to have read the comic, but by no means necessary for the main ideas. Which means I get to inaugurate a new post category for the ol’ website here: Fiction
CYBORGS: WHY WE WON’T TURN YOU INTO A MAN-TANK
Adapted from the lecture series “I’m Yelling Because I Care”, by Dr. Phil Broughton
Here at Tesladyne we may be called at any moment to risk life and limb in the name of Action Science. In accordance with the Tesladyne Injury & Illness Prevention Plan’s Accidental Death & Dismemberment Policy, you are entitled to the finest prostheses that we can buy or design. PLEASE NOTE: Prosthetics ≠ cybernetic enhancements. The last thing we need is people sticking their various bits in machinery on purpose.
When most people think of cybernetics, they don’t envision replacement parts as good as the one that was lost. No, they expect replacements to make them harder, better, faster, stronger. Or with completely new abilities that their boring human body never had. The problem is that your boring human body is a very defining part of you and how you think. Once we move beyond that basic form and function, things (i.e. you) start to get weird in all kinds of ways.
The perfect prosthetic is one that is identical to the body part that has been lost: it is no heavier or lighter, it replicates lost functionality, doesn’t trigger a mental rejection, i.e. “this isn’t me”, doesn’t get uncomfortable with long duration of use, requires no power source beyond the body itself, and doesn’t trigger immunological rejection. In fact, the perfect replacement body part is easy to ignore because it just seamlessly works for the recipient. Therefore the perfect prosthetic is a vat grown copy of whatever got damaged or missing.
We say vat grown because inducing regeneration in vivo usually isn’t fast enough to replace an organ that’s failing right now. And if you do it wrong, we are talking ALL THE CANCERS; also, accidentally growing three extra lungs makes things in the average torso awfully crowded.
This is where we make the functional distinction of “bionics” as opposed to “cybernetics” for our terminology. A bionic implant is one that seeks perfect mimicry of the body part it replaces; a cybernetic implant, in short, does not. Tesladyne’s Exotic Medicine department is always interested in improved prostheses, of course, but in general bionics are not an Action Science concern . Unfortunately, bionics are the gateway drug for rogue cyberneticists. It’s a little too easy to go from helping an accident victim to creating a technübermensch just to show you can.
MORE THAN SWISS ARMY KNIFE, NOT QUITE HUMAN
While there is something to be said for the idea adding extra cybernetic features like GPS, a small repair torch, a multi-screwdriver, biometric diagnostics, and onboard communications to the human frame, this is really just an excuse for wanting to not drop your ++ultraphone in the toilet anymore. Really, isn’t it enough you have the computational and diagnostic power of Star Trek in the palm of your hand without actually putting it in your hand? The answer is obviously no, because there are cyborgs and, even worse, cyborg designers.
Now, what if I offer you the ability to see more of the electromagnetic spectrum, extend your vision far into the infrared and UV, perhaps give you visual acuity far beyond your simple meat eye? These are abilities you already have, if you can afford the right digital camera, but they are mediated by being external technology. If I make this part of you, that changes everything even if these extra things can be turned on and off with a thought. Your normal eye has no “off” switch for the color red, but you would like one for IR & UV now that you have it? Would you ever turn it off? And if this becomes your new default state of being, seeing a world no one else perceives, how will this color your reaction to it? How will that affect your interaction with the rest of humanity? Will there be alienation because you can’t express what you see to the unenhanced? Will you feel better, more capable, than them? Will you consider the entire world to be filled with ignorant boobs with their narrow band eyes that don’t and can’t know what’s really here?
This is the beginning of cyberpsychosis and we’ve only discussed a simple eye upgrade, one that is distressingly common in the cyborgs we’ve encountered.
ASIDE: HOW DOES THIS STUFF EVEN WORK?
No machine works without a power source of some kind and conventional power sources with enough energy density are generally toxic in the human body. Fuel and organs do not mix, and then there’s the heat issue. Y’know how your laptop gets hot? Now imagine that heat trapped inside your body. Do not imagine what a leaking battery will do to your guts.
This is probably why the vast majority of cyborgs encountered in the field have been of the “total conversion” type. From Helsingard’s Autosoldat army to the Daedalus Combat Cyborgs of today, the less blood there is to poison, the easier it is to build a machine around it.
TAKING THE CHROME
All assumptions regarding bionics and cybernetics are predicated on a direct mind-machine interface, or MMI for short. Once you have MMI, there is no limit to what interesting things you might think to connect to your brain because your body just became irrelevant. You’re living the brain-in-a-jar dream, just waiting to be connected up to anything, right? Wrong, if for no other reason than your nervous system and your sense of identity is contained in more than a few pounds of meat in your head.
Our best example of this is phantom limb syndrome, which is a disorder of proprioception, AKA your sense of body in space. Just because you have physically lost your arm doesn’t mean that your mind accepts that it’s gone; it will simulate the sensations of that arm, typically manifested as pain. We can trick the brain into accepting the phantom limb is gone and the sense of body will reformat to the new shape. Except our goal with bionics is to get the mind to extend itself through MMI to actually control the replacement limb; we have to convince people who have lost a limb that this new one is part of them. Merely having a way to plug a new arm into the brachial nerve isn’t enough; it has to be your arm.
When you move beyond that to cybernetics, we have to figure out how how you get the mind to visualize a network of hoverfans and avionics as suitable replacements for legs. But hey, humanity is adaptable as heck. If you’ve ever gone to sleep and still felt the motion you felt from earlier that day when you were skating, or boating, or flying, then you’ve already experienced this. Race car drivers and pilots similarly start to perceive the size, speed, and agility of their vehicles as an extension of their own bodies. But, if they were able to actively connect to the vehicle and control it with their mind, it’s something deeper than proprioception. You being a vehicle is not quite as straightforward as just changing speed and direction. How do mental processes re-map from normal bodily functions to control a transmission gearbox? And, once you break the connection, what residual echoes of the vehicle stay with you? Does the world seem so very slow when you aren’t connected to fine German engineering? And there’s no need to stop at vehicles. We think some of the people we’ve interviewed in asylums recently with vehicle and architecture paraphilias may have been victims of residual proprioception imprinted from cyberlinking.
Of course, not all augmentations have to be made of metal and plastic. In the dawn of the bio-engineering age, we are getting steadily closer to the dreams/nightmares of Shelley and Wells with the ability to graft biosynthetic organs on to the human form. When you get down to it, tentacles can be quite useful.
The reverse of this, the cyber-enhancement of animals, tends to end tragically. Those that are incapable of making the body map change invariably end up attacking their new attachment and, perceiving it as an enemy, it attacks back. Those that manage the integration, well, cyber-designers never seem to want to make peaceful cybercows, do they? It’s always sharks and bears and other apex predators. As if ravens aren’t already smart and evil-minded enough without turning them into a murder network of stirges with tungsten beaks and laser precision targeting systems with micro-obsidian serrated feathers…
The standard vision conjured by the word cybernetics is of a superhumanly strong hand crushing with Servos Of Might, like Ash in Evil Dead 2. This, not coincidentally, is one of the few things that can be done without running into problems; it’s trying to get a superhumanly strong hand to not crush everything you put in its grasp that is more of an issue. When you move up to an entire arm capable of superhuman strength, now you have a big bio-mechanical engineering problem. Your new arm may be able to lift 400lbs one-handed, but your shoulder joint certainly can’t. The obvious solution is to upgrade the shoulder joint as well! Except now it will yank several vertebrae out of the spine. Guess you better get a spinal replacement. We think you get the point of how once you start enhancing instead of replacing, it’s a slippery slope to Total Body Prosthesis.
The more sane cybernetic upgrade is to take the body toward the peak of human performance, so that you’re still within the design spec of flesh and bone but without all that tedious exercise, diet, and genetic luck. The problem is that while you are still within the potential of the human body, it isn’t where the rest of your body is. The answer to this is the intuitively obvious, but also horrifying, synthocrine processor implant to pump your body full of every hormone it’ll need to withstand the thousands of microfractures, tears, sprains, and edemas you are about to subject your remaining meat to. The problem is that your brain is marinating in the better living through chemistry juice that is now constitutes your blood stream. If there’s something that’s the kind of fun you want to be running directly away from, its a cyborg with ‘roid rage.
Thing is, the synthocrine processor isn’t even rare. For cyborgs, it’s absolutely necessary to generate the anti-rejection compounds that keep your remaining meat from rejecting augmentations almost as quickly as you add them. We have a hard enough time getting the human body to accept transplants from ideally matched donors. If the processor only did that, it would be the medical marvel of the millennium.
THE CONSENSUS MIND
The most basic cybernetic base package appears to be MMI interface, synthocrine processor, and bone antenna short range radio networking. In this era of wifi enabled everything, this last implant might seem the most reasonable of the lot. If you’re going add any kind of GPS or communications system, you’re going to need a way to access those satellites. If you’d wear a heads-up display connected to the internet clipped to your glasses, you’d certainly wear the contact lenses that do the same. From there, it’s only a small step to visual cortex integration.
It’s not the wisest thing to hook the internet directly with your mind. Plain old run of the mill viruses in the meat are bad enough without adding firmware corrupting worms that can go to town on your hardware: defined, in this case, as your brand new body parts. There is the well documented case of the “stophittingyourself.cyb” trojan malware that a disgruntled Daedalus engineer managed to infect the Personnel Department with in 1973. Middle managers were slapping themselves, hard, in unison for days until it could be sanitized from the Backbone. The limited radio communication and departmental only channels are perhaps all that prevented the virus from condemning all of Daedalus to a slapstick doom. You’d think this experience would frighten away people from downloading things into their mind, but keep in mind these are people who volunteered to remove ever larger portions of their body to be replaced by other things.
Really, what the short range radio gets used for the most is communication with a more modern class of augmentations. Just like all other technologies that are cutting the cord, hardwired-to-nervous system cybernetics are reliable but also resource and surgery intensive. It is much easier to just attach a hard point for a limb and then remote control it from an MMI transmitter implant. This means it would be possible to have mix-n-match limbs so you could have just the right matte finish legs to match your outfit for a night dancing at the Chrome Club. Except it takes a lot of bandwidth to communicate all the things you’d like your implant to do and you don’t even want to have to consciously think about how organs work. For this reason, a great deal of the operation of your average cybernetic body part is fairly automated and then subordinated to the conscious will.
But what happens when you’re asleep, when the will isn’t quite in charge? It’s no fun to wake up and discover you’re missing a hand. It’s far worse to discover that your hand has gone and strangled the upstairs neighbor for playing awful nu-metal on his badly tuned guitar all night before you fell asleep angry. We don’t have any documented cases of modular limbs disconnecting from their host body to seek out the dreaming cyborg’s whims. Whether that’s because it doesn’t happen or because Project Daedalus staff aren’t the most ethical scientists around, so they’re not inclined to be honest about the unintended horrors of their work, is not entirely clear.
Some of your heart’s dark desires aren’t meant to be acted upon, but how are your subordinate components supposed to know that? You could try to give the cybernetics more intelligence and autonomy, but then you may have to argue with legs that don’t want to take a walk today.
COMBAT VS. CYBORGS
We cannot stress enough that cyborgs are not zombies, though it is possible that some zombies might be cyborgs. Even if they are so herky-jerky that the cyborg looks like it’s doing The Robot, the standard call to “SHOOT IT IN THE HEAD” may not apply here. For one thing, if you conquered the technical difficulties of the mind-machine interface, then relocating the brain elsewhere in the body is a trivial matter. At the very least, you may find that the you need HEAT rounds to penetrate the armored braincase of a cyborg skull. It should go without saying that attempting to sneak up behind the cyborg and pistolwhip it is failure waiting to happen. Assuming it doesn’t stop you thanks to the standard issue 360-degree continuous ranging radar array that sensed your approach, striking its head will probably hurt you more than it.
In our experience, no one ever builds cyborgs out of amazing space age polymers. It’s always armor plate or high chrome alloyed metals. This means they are much, much heavier than your mostly water flesh, even when the quartermaster issues you all the gear needed for an extradimensional incursion. If you can run, the odds of them being able to catch up is low. If they can keep up with you, the key is to use their momentum against them as you are capable of making much more abrupt turns than a comparably sized humanoid that weighs 4-10 times as much. Try to aim their missed turns into rather solid objects. Like buildings. Or explosive ones! Also, rickety wooden stairs and bridges make for an excellent defensive retreat. They’ll support your weight but not theirs. Just be sure to get across before they try to!
As mentioned earlier in SO SOMEONE PLUGGED AN AUTOMATIC INTELLIGENCE INTO THE MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX AND NOW THERE ARE ROBOT FACTORIES PUMPING OUT HUNTER-KILLER DRONES, major to full body conversion cyborgs are well on their way to being some of the most complex pieces of technology that have ever existed. This technology is not well suited to the dirty, filthy, wet outside world. Just because they may be armed and armored like tanks, doesn’t mean they can take to the field like one. It may seem like they’re disposable heroes the way they’re fielded by Daedalus, but the expense must be appalling. They may have some decent environmental protection, but do your best to run them through the foulest places you can to clog up their inorganic bits.
Like fighting any humanoid form, there are certain vulnerable points that simply cannot be completely protected and still expect to be functional. Your friend THE KNEES! Even if your opponent is a total conversion titanium alloyed monster, relative to the rest of the cyborg its knees are painfully delicate. Once you have them on the ground such that they’re not standing up again, you now have the time to bring some force to bear. Or to run far, far away. There’s the usual tactical advantage of a well timed retreat, but there’s an extra advantage to running away when we’re dealing with combat cyborgs. Because we’re also dealing with the maniacs who design them. Someone who is already turning another human being into his or her personal murder machine, will find it both prudent and trivial to implant a self-destruct device with everything else.
Of course, some cyborgs will not have knees as such. But they’ve all got metaphorical knees. Tank treads and hover modules are just as delicate if you hit them right.
NOTE: If you can identify it, you may be tempted to try to target the self-destruct device to kill the cyborg. This Is Wrong. While we are confronting some questionable morals and intellects behind the creation of cyborgs, they are almost certainly people that have learned the importance of safety linkages in light of the Manhattan Project. Attempting to set off the self-destruct without it being armed first is just silly. Also, speaking of morals, you have no idea if this cyborg still has independent personality and thought. The only thing worse than being a brain in a jar, is being one that knows its lower order functions are being used and abused against its will.
If you have a body that is capable of lifting a tank, obviously you should mount weapons comparable to a tank on it, right? We’d say no. Which is probably why they don’t ask. It’s hard to say exactly what armament you’re going to see on your cybernetic foe, but rest assured that if it’s a Deadalus model, it’s gonna have lasers. The good news is lasers are quite manageable (SEE ALSO: Lasers Do Not Go Pew Pew Pew) and once they’re taken care of you’re merely left with an superhumanly strong cyborg.
But why stop with lasers as long as you’re tricking out that chassis? Working on the principle of “If I can lift it, I can shoot it”, designers have an unfortunate habit of giving cyborgs shoulder or arm mounted rocket launchers and chain guns. A classic Helsingard design featured a torso mortar once. It’s been a couple decades since there’s been a documented cyborg mounted flamethrower sighting, as they are inherently an endangered species. If the cyborg has weapons that requires ammunition, just try to stay out of the line of fire until they run out or explode. Either is likely to happen and ammo explosions inside body parts are so much more messy than a gun merely exploding in the hand. When cyborgs are equipped with melee weapons, something deep in the cyborg designer’s mind seems to cry out “human body = giant switchblade.” Why hand a cyborg a sword designed to withstand its strength when you could have a retractable sword extend from its arm? Entangling these melee weapons is a great way to trap the cyborg. It’s not like they can drop them short of removing their arm.
No, the real thing to be worried about is a cyborg that advances on you with no visible weapons, doubly so if there are no gleaming chrome parts. A flashy half-tank / half-man suggests someone of considerable genius but perhaps little foresight was involved in the design. But a combat cyborg that, at a distance, passes for an ordinary unenhanced human suggests a designer who trusts what their creation can do with its superhumanly strong, fast, and nearly indestructible bare hands.
Do note that’s also a fair description of our founder. Let’s hope no one builds his match.