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How cyborgs are like old wooden ships

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


It is not an easy task to repair a historic ship, especially one that still sails. Centuries of saltwater have crept into her planks, rotting wood and rusting iron. Eventually, everything needs to be replaced, the ship that sailed 400 years ago shares no original parts with the ship that sails today under the same name, under the same flag.

Stop. Go back. Let’s talk about cannons.

In the 17th century, we decided that we could own the sea, or rather, nations decided that they could lay claim to their coastal waters. In De dominio maris (1702), Cornelius Bynkershoek proposed a 3 mile limit for territorial seas. Coastal countries began laying claims, annexing oceans as they still annex new land. Eventually, the 3 mile limit expanded outward, first to 5, than 12, then finally 200 miles, staking claims against not just a coastline, but an entire continental shelf, a nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Even today, some nations continue to exert and maintain extreme control over their 3 mile limit.

Why three miles? The best cannons of the era could shell a ship from 3 miles away. This provided a strategic advantage for coastal cities, who could maintain heavier artillery than a warship could carry. Three miles meant that a state could fire upon an enemy entering its territory before the vessel brought its own guns within range.

That limit is now meaningless, and indeed, was rendered obsolete within a few decades of its adoption. Technology moves faster than law. Today, we can fire upon an enemy from anywhere in the world, at any time, without warning. And yet, the 3 mile limit remains, informing shipping, fishing, diplomacy, and resource management, long after the long guns it was created to thwart have rusted away.

My point is this: Sometimes archaic laws shape the future in entirely unexpected and unpredictable ways. We still respect the 3 mile limit even though no one has run out the long nines to fire on an enemy port in a century.

Back to old wooden ships. Historic ships are an important part of our maritime heritage. They remind us where we’ve been, how we got there, and where we’re going. Old wooden ships that still function, that still welcome people aboard to sail the oceans, give us a powerful, beautiful, sobering, and sometime terrifying glimpse into our past. But old wooden ships need to be repaired, their aging parts replaced.

And that brings us to the Cyborg Problem. Ever since the idea of a “cyborg”–that is, a human augmented with technology, generally as permanent grafts–was first proposed, science fiction authors and philosophers have argued over the question of what makes a cyborg human and how much of the cyborg has to change before it stops being, if not human, then at least not the same person.

These questions moved from philosophy to pragmatism last year, as two cases wended their way into the Supreme Court. In Ward vs. the State of Mississippi, Jesse Ward argued that, thanks to a 86% cerebral reconstruction following a brutal prison beating, the convict Jesse Ward had technically died in prison and the cyborg Jesse Ward was an intrinsically different person; a person who had only existed for a few months and for whom it would be cruel and unusual to force her to serve someone else’s prison term. Khan vs. Federal Election Commission is expected to get much more traction, primarily due to the public appeal of Anthony Khan, a popular politician who argues that, as his entire body has, over the last ten years, been almost entirely (albeit gradually) replaced with American-made cybernetic components, he qualifies as a natural-born citizen and is thus eligible to run in the 2044 presidential election.

Both these cases appear on the Supreme Court docket this year.

The Supreme court will be searching for legal precedent, for other federal laws that might come to bear on the Cyborg Problem. They will almost undoubtedly come to an obscure document from 1990: The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Vessel Preservation Projects.

Repairing a historic vessel requires replacement. The USS Constellation, the last sail-only ship built by the U.S. Navy, still at dock in Baltimore City and approaching its 200th year, has had every single plank on her hull replaced. Her keel was re-laid in the last round of reconstruction. Her steering and navigation systems have been significantly upgraded to meet Coast Guard standards. The onboard A.I. allows this sloop-of-war to sail herself.

After two centuries of repair and restoration, is the USS Constitution really the same vessel that led the African Squadron, intercepting confederate slave ships during the War of Southern Treason?

The Secretary of the Interior says “Yes”.

There is a range of possible repairs that could cost a ship its historic status. Protection, stabilization, and preservation, all speak towards maintenance. Ships, like humans, change over time, and that doesn’t cost them their identity. We wouldn’t question whether a prosthetic hand redefines a person’s identity any more than we’d wonder if replacing the gaskets in an old diesel changes the fundamental identity of a vessel. The real problem comes when we enter the highest tier of repair: Restoration. Restoration involves removing a substantial amount of a deteriorating vessel (or stripping away more recent repairs to reconstruct the ship’s original form) and replacing with new materials.

According to the Park Service’s standards, in order to remain historic, a restored ship must maintain “integrity of location, setting, materials, workmanship, feelings, and association.”

Most of those don’t apply to Cyborgs. Location means that historical ships need to maintain their historic place; a whaling ship important to the history of New England shouldn’t have a home port in San Francisco. Setting is substantively similar; that same whaling ship shouldn’t be used for dredging oysters. Association ties directly to the history of the vessel, it has to be associated with a historic event or representative of its vessel type. My busted old skiff is pushing 90 years, but it certainly doesn’t meet the criteria for “historic”, even though our local maritime museum does have a historic skiff on display that is structurally indistinguishable from my own.

Material and workmanship are difficult to reframe into the cyborg context. Historical ships must be repaired with the same materials they were built from, if available, using the same construction methods. No 3D printed contiguous wooden forms for a restored Constellation.

“Feelings” is the key components here. Informally, the NPS is stating that ships have a “soul”, and intrinsic state of identity that transcends its physical form. I know few captains, of either modern or historic, ships, that would disagree with this. I even know a few captains, who, after their ship has undergone major repair, reported back that their ship doesn’t “feel” like the same vessel any more.

There is one other class of repairs that may have relevance to the Court’s decision: Reproduction. Sometimes a ship is so badly deteriorated that no amount of repair or reconstruction can help it. In those cases, a reproduction may be built from the same plans. Even though this reproduction may be identical to the original, and may even be comprised of all the exact same materials, built using the same workmanship standards as a restoration would be, the reproduction is not considered the same ship. A restoration and a reproduction could be qualitatively identical, with neither bearing a single original part, but only one would still *be* the same historic vessel

What’s most interesting about the two cyborg cases is that neither are arguing for persistent identity–I don’t know of any case where a heavily augmented cyborg hasn’t been able to effectively argue for the persistence of their identity–but rather that they have undergone significant enough changes that they are not the same person. In old wooden ship terms, they have lost their historical status and no longer “feel” like the same boat.

The USS Constellation still serves as a good example. The current Constellation wasn’t the first Constellation. That honor goes to a ship built in 1797, one of the US Navy’s six original frigates. The first Constellation was decommission and her materials used to build the smaller, but better armed current Constellation. Though they bear the same name, and are formed of the same materials, they are acknowledged to be very different ships. Simply being made of the same parts does not a persistent identity make.

So now let’s look at the specifics of the two cases on the Supreme Court docket and think about how standards for the restoration of historic ships might come to bear. In Ward vs. the State of Mississippi, the majority of Ward’s brain was completely rebuilt from new materials, using new methods for replicating a human brain. But it was still grown, using the same biologic processes that create a natural brain, and the same basic components that go into a natural brain. It’s essentially a restoration. But is the restoration sufficiently precise enough to warrant a persistent identity? From all the interviews she’s been in, Jesse Ward certainly doesn’t “feel” like the same person, a key criteria for a historical restoration. It will be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the standards of the restoration are sufficient to warrant persistence, or if the “feeling” of the person is now substantively different.

Khan vs. Federal Election Commission is trickier. Khan argues that he is a materially different person, one that was built in the United States, but the key difference between the cases is that Khan wants to still be Khan, the charismatic politician that swept his state and stands a good chance to winning the next presidential election, if the Court deems him eligible to run. Khan want’s to “feel” like the original Khan, but claims to be materially different. In other words, he’s a reproduction, Made in America, albeit slowly over several years and many operations. Which actually calls back to one of the other criteria for historic ships: location matters. Is the fact that the “new” Khan is connected to America rather than the “original” Khan’s India enough to break the chain of persistent identity?

“Are you still you if you replace every part of you?” is a question that has haunted philosophers and science fiction writers for centuries. Ironically, it looks like the first legal challenges facing this once-hypothetical will tackle the reverse: how much do I need to change to become a new person. My guess is that the Supreme Court will err on the side of persistent identity in both cases, though if Jesse Ward can prove like she genuinely “feels” like a different person, there might be some dissent among the Supremes. For Khan, I think the Court will recognize the potential chaos that could be caused by opening up the floodgates to cybernetic identity upgrades. Cybernetics, after all, is still the domain primarily of the wealthy.

Regardless of the outcome, cyborg case law is so limited, it’s almost certain that the Court will have to dig into the depths of US history to find precedent, and old wooden ships are, at the very least, a fruitful place to start. It’s one of the few subject where persistent identity (or lack thereof) has been standardized in excruciating detail.

No matter what, I’m certain that the opinion of a certain legendary, long-serving, heavily augmented Justice will be a fascinating and nuanced look into the current status of cyborg rights.


On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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