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There’s finally a good documentary about real-life cyborgs

I Am Human is a film that follows three humans on their journey with implantable brain interfaces,” said Taryn Southern. She laughed. “Sometimes I lose people there because they’re like, ‘wait, what’s an implantable brain interface?’”

Southern is co-director, along with Elena Gaby, of the tech documentary I Am Human, now available to view on streaming platforms. Told through the story of three patient-pioneers who have put themselves forward for revolutionary medical treatments involving brain implants, the feature documentary sheds light on some of the latest breakthroughs in medical science — some of which we’ve covered here at Digital Trends.

The documentary’s main focuses are Bill, a man who was left paralyzed after a road accident, Parkinson’s Disease patient Anne, and Stephen, who lost his sight as the result of a neurological condition. The narrative backbone of the film follows them as they proceed with the operations, ranging from deep brain stimulation to second sight technology implants, which offer new hope for transforming the way that they live. We also hear from the experts helping to treat them.

The film is a deeply affecting look at the three individuals at the heart of the story. But it’s also a look at a broader theme: The merging of humans and machines to create some hybridization the documentary at one point suggests is a new technological species.

“We’ve described the movie as an origin story of the world’s first cyborgs,” Southern said. “We really look at the future of humans and technology and how we’re integrating technology into our bodies and — in the case of film — into our brain, through the lens of these three characters.”

A question for the ages

The question of what makes us human is, of course, something philosophers have pondered for centuries. Modern science, far from filling these gaps, has added additional layers of complexity. Consider, for instance, the conundrum of Plutarch’s ship of Theseus in ancient Greece. Over its lifespan, every plank of wood on the ship was replaced with an identical plank, leading people to question whether the vessel remains the original ship.

The human body is similar. Not only do many of the cells in our body constantly regenerate over our lives, but as we augment ourselves with new cyborg technologies — either for medical purposes such as restoring lost abilities or for other purposes, such as enhancing cognition or carrying out telepathic communications — our identities change. This is the future offered by technologies that range from treatments to Elon Musk’s promise of a Neuralink brain-computer interface.

According to Southern, by 2029, scientists predict that around 1 million people will have some form of implantable technology in their brains. Should that in any way closely resemble the adoption of technologies like the smartphone, this will be an almost unimaginable game-changer that will take place within many of our lives.

Southern said that, for her, the fact that so many people are unaware of this revolution taking place was a good reason to make the film.

“Before I was working on this project, I was working with a couple of different companies in the emerging tech space,” she said. “I was looking at forging creative collaborations around some of these technologies to tell better stories about them. I found myself very interested in what was happening in the brain-computer interface space. And at the same time, I saw these hit TV shows like Westworld and Black Mirror. It was like, whoa, no one is telling the stories of the real people who are getting these implants. That was really the impetus for it was really the impetus for the project and the interest in it.”

A new age or a new divide?

As amazing as the technology on display is, however, healthcare and technology undoubtedly represent two areas where there is a disparity in access. The science-fiction writer and futurist William Gibson famously stated that “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” When it comes to technology that can not only assist with impairments but also, potentially, improve our functioning in other ways, it will be crucial that such technology is made available to everyone — lest it create an insurmountable divide.

“I don’t have all the answers to this,” Southern said. “The only parallel I can give, which feels a bit oversimplified, but is still an example would be the cell phone. At one point, that was seen as potentially the greatest barrier of socioeconomic status. Today, everyone has one. I live in Venice, California, where you’ve got some of the highest wealth per capita and some of the highest homeless rates. It’s always very strange to [walk outside] and see that everyone has a cellphone. I’m not sure how that happened. But I don’t know how long it will take for technology [like the ones in the documentary] to become affordable enough to where anyone could get it.”

I Am Human is a balanced look at the reality of cyborgs here in 2020. While it may seem like science-fiction for many of us, it’s an area that, as Southern and co-director Gaby compellingly argue, won’t remain that way for long.

There can be no better time to ask the big questions that these technologies prompt — including how we stay human in an age of machines.

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