Humans, Cyborgs, and Legacy systems

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8 Sep 1995 20:45:32 GMT

The following is a draft of my new essay suggesting
parallels between technological enhancements of humans and
current work on "legacy" information systems. The essay is
aimed at a [relatively] wide audience. When I have more time,
I will turn it into a more serious work on general evolution of
functional structures, exosomatic personality architectures and
other such things.
I would be happy to get any feedback that may help me improve
the text and develop these ideas.
If you want to share this text with somebody, please ask me
for the latest version.


Legacy Systems and Functional Cyborgization.

[ draft 0.82 -- 10 August 1995 ]

The proverbial problem of teaching an old dog new tricks
recently became the focus of a new discipline in computer
systems design -- the theory of upgrading old, or "legacy"
systems. The problems of enhancing outdated systems of all
kinds have faced the evolutionary process for a long time. Many
techniques used now for improving computer systems have been
employed to improve various technological and biological
structures, including our own bodies. We do not have to wait
for some future society to generate "cyborgs", for instance.
In a sense, they are already among us.

And you might be one of them.

Many of today's computer systems, used in applications
ranging from corporate accounting to air traffic control, were
created long ago, and over the years were patched and fine-
tuned to perform their jobs. Now they seem too slow,
unreliable and inflexible for handling new, more diverse and
demanding tasks. Unfortunately, the functions of these systems
are very difficult to understand, and their replacement with
new and efficient designs seems virtually impossible.

In such cases, systems architects may use new elements to
enhance the old "legacy" systems, using the following

Parallelism and Specialization:

- Dividing the increased responsibilities among a number of
old systems. The work is substantially improved as individual
systems are optimized for performing particular tasks and
relieved from other duties. For example, a faster machine may
sort records, and the one with a working printer may print


Let several systems work in parallel and compare the results,
to make the output more reliable.


- Leave the layers of the system that you cannot understand
alone, and replace the others. For example, database wrapping
would leave the old database intact and replace the processing
code; code wrapping would leave the old decision-making
algorithms, but replace the database engine; application
wrapping would preserve the entire application, but would
replace its environment - e.g., emulate an operator's input
with a programming interface.

External aids:

The novel parts of the system can assist the old core in
performing its functions.
This may include providing the legacy system with necessary
resources, pre-processing them for the input, performing some
tasks the old system is not good at, storing some intermediate
products, troubleshooting and repair, etc.

Replacement of parts:

In those cases when the structure and function of some part
of the system is well understood, the part can be directly
replaced with its improved equivalent. If the original
mechanism is convoluted, intertwined, and undocumented, this
method should be applied with caution, and only to simple
isolatable parts of the system.

The above approaches proved useful in updating many
computer systems.
This experience should be taken into account by the Science
Fiction writers and futurists envisioning future
technologically enhanced humans as "cyborgs" -- creatures that
will have human biological bodies as their legacy core, but
will hopefully have many important [and complex] biological
parts directly replaced with improved technological equivalents
(and a variety of new ones added).

Of course, images of mechanical parts sticking in and out of
our bodies seem impressive enough to be worth putting into
SciFi plots.

However, the cyborgization of the humankind -- the merger of
biological and technological elements -- has been, and most
likely will be, proceeding according to the usual scenario of
the evolution of legacy systems.

Parallelism and integration of efforts were implemented
before we became humans -- and actually were an important
prerequisite for our existence.

As humans developed sufficient intelligence to embark on the
long journey of supplementing their convoluted, undocumented
and structurally inflexible biological bodies with
intentionally designed extensions, they started with simple
methods and simple physical parts. At this stage of
development, wrapping and external aids were used, from
wrapping the body with clothing to providing it with external
implements serving both as extensions to biological organs and
as parts of increasingly friendly environments -- this includes
tools, houses, transportation, heating, cooking, etc.

Also, at this stage new systems began to be used not only
for supporting, but for "troubleshooting" the body (medicine) -
still without interference in the original design.

As things get more sophisticated, the technological
supplementation of the biological body repeats the same steps
with the information processing. It is the human functional
body that is now being wrapped and augmented, as the new
systems consequently accept important tasks of information
acquisition, storage, transmission and processing.

Even at this stage, the direct replacement of biological
organs, in accordance with the legacy systems theory, is rare
and confined to simple physical parts.

However, there are ways of introducing implants and
shortcuts without violating the structural integrity of the old
kludge. For example, if your brain does not have sufficient
memory for carrying some operations, it may use external
memory (e.g., a scratch pad) for storing intermediate data,
and then read the results back into the brain's "wetware". This
neat trick allows the new elements to play the role of
functional implants, representing at the same time an internal
structural part of your extended intelligence and an external
part of the body.

So while people have been playing with the images of cyborg
future of their bodies, they have overlooked the ongoing
process of functional cyborgization they were already taking
part in.

In the scenario of physical integration of biological and
technological structures, a cyborg can (and has been) defined
as a physically mixed system -- an organism with a sufficiently
large infusion of technological parts.

A functional cyborg ( should we call it a fyborg? fuborg? )
may be defined as a biological organism functionally
supplemented with technological extensions.

If you do not pay attention, the stream of technological
supplements may turn you into a functional cyborg before you
notice it. To prevent this, I would recommend that you
periodically submit yourself to the cyborgization check-up by
answering the questions of the following


* Are you dependent on technology to the extent that you could
not survive without it?

* Would you reject a lifestyle free of any technology even if
you could endure it?

* Would you feel embarrassed and "dehumanized" if somebody
removed your artificial covers (clothing) and exposed your
natural biological body in public?

* Do you consider your bank deposits a more important
personal resource storage system than your fat deposits?

* Do you identify yourself and judge other people more by
possessions, ability to manipulate tools and positions in the
technological and social systems than primary biological

* Do you spend more time thinking about -- and discussing --
your external "possessions" and "accessories" than your
internal "parts" ?

If you answered "yes" to most of these questions, please
accept my congratulations (and/or condolences): you are
already a cyborg!

___ ___ ___

This may be a good point to end the essay. However,
whether your current degree of integration with technology
already qualifies you as a balanced cyborg, or not -- and
especially if you are already over-qualified, you may be
interested in knowing the ultimate fate of any legacy system.

Regardless of the intelligence of the developing process,
there are only a few basic options here. Endless patching of
aging systems is not the ultimate engineering method. The
evolutionary role of a legacy system is to perform some
necessary functions and test novel design ideas while better
systems are being built from scratch elsewhere. After the new
designs become fully operational, the legacy system is
invariably placed into a trashbin. Or, if it is particularly
good, healthy and lucky -- into a historical museum.
Surprisingly, this last journey may not be easy to notice.
You may observe it by the following signs: you feel overwhelmed
by the complexity and fluidity of the environment and lose both
understanding and interest in what is really going on. Instead,
you concentrate on your local old-fashioned interests and keep
playing with the old toys as if they still mattered. The
advantage of a museum over a trashbin here is that the museum
feels better, your needs are met there, and ailments treated.
You may be offered simple, convenient and wrong token
"explanations" on how this is done, yet have no capacity or
desire to really understand it. You are even provided with some
entertainment and support for your atavistic and resource-
wasting activities, together with assurances that they are
still quite valuable. In a trashbin, without all these
luxuries, you feel lost, sick and useless; new things look
weird and alien, old are gone or broken; whatever remains "of
value" seems rotting around you... The only advantage of a
trashbin is that it doesn't attempt to disguise itself as
normal life, so you are at least granted a chance to understand
where you really are. But is it worth it?

Believe it or not, this is an optimistic scenario. The
world moves ahead. It just gets too good for *you* after a


If you are interested in my more general views on
functional evolution of the world, I will be happy to e-mail
you my essays on Mind Age, Enhanced Reality, identity, Living
Systems and other topics. You can also access them via my Web
home page: Please send
your comments to

- Alexander Chislenko