Legacy Systems and Functional Cyborgization of Humans

© 1995 Alexander Chislenko

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 The problems of enhancing outdated systems of all kinds have faced the evolutionary process for a long time.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.

Legacy systems Illustration from Datamation

Legacy Computer Systems

Many of today's computer systems, used in applications ranging from corporate accounting to air traffic control, were created decades 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 techniques:

Parallelism and Specialization

Divide 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 them.


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.

Cyborgization of Humans

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? funorg? 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

Fyborg Self-Test

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 receive most of your knowledge about the world through artificial symbolic language, rather than natural sensory experience?
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 features?
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!
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Some Illustrations

The following pictures show a cyborg, a fyborg, a robot, and a natural human.
[Cyborg] [Fyborg] [Robot] [Human]
It took me some serious effort to obtain a picture of an unaugmented biological human, devoid of clothing or any other form of physical enhancement. I also hesitated to include a natural human image, as it is not socially acceptable. Both of these difficulties speak volumes about the degree to which the members of the modern society already reject their original unaugmented form.

Fate of Cyborgs

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 while...


My other essays on evolution and future of human and machine intelligence and related Web resources can be found via my Web home page at http://www.lucifer.com/~sasha/home.html.

Please send your comments to sasha1@netcom.com


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