|Humani Victus Instrumenta: Ars Coquinaria (1569)|
The video of Ackland using his hand shows how impressively well this technology works - and presumably more advanced hands are currently under development:
It's not just human limbs that can be replaced. For the vision impaired there are artificial retinas and plastic polymer replacement lenses under development. And hundreds of thousands of electronic cochlear ear implants have allowed the deaf or severely hearing impaired to hear. Hip and knee joint replacements are almost routine.
Most of us, I think, agree that the restoration of physical or sensory abilities is a good thing. I know if I lost mobility or started to go blind I would seriously consider human-made body part replacements if they were available. That doesn't seem that different to me than wearing glasses.
But for me the ethics get murkier when you start considering modifications that change the way the brain works. While I think it would be great if there were an implant that prevented memory loss for Alzheimers sufferers, I'm conflicted by the thought that similar devices could be used to control someone's behavior.
And once the technology is readily available and affordable, a merely average human being will be able swap their working legs or heart or eyes with artificial replacements that could make them stronger or faster or able to hear or see better than their natural bodies could. But would that be ethical? Should we worry about the creation of cyborgs?
In science fictional futures featuring cyborgs, mechanical modification often come with a price: from Frederic Pohl's man engineered for Mars to Star Trek's Borg, something essentially human may to be lost when one's body parts or sensory inputs are enhanced. And Asimov played with the same idea in his story The Bicentennial Man, in which a robot gradually has his mechanical parts with more human-like ones, and eventually is legally declared a man.
Personally I don't believe that implanted electronics or mechanical parts are likely change our essential humanity. But I think there are ethical concerns beyond the philosophical sorts of speculation about personhood. A recent New York Times story about bioengineering ethics points out that who has access to technology could become a serious issue:
Ethical challenges for the coming Age of Enhancement include, besides basic safety questions, the issue of who would get the enhancements, how much they would cost, and who would gain an advantage over others by using them. In a society that is already seeing a widening gap between the very rich and the rest of us, the question of a democracy of equals could face a critical test if the well-off also could afford a physical, genetic or bionic advantage.Already there are disparities between access to the latest and greatest medical technologies. It's not a stretch to think that such disparities would extent to voluntary modifications too. If ones place in society is dependent on one's health and physical prowess, technological innovation could increase the gap between the haves and have-nots.
And beyond that, there may be pressure on athletes, soldiers and even physical laborers to undergo modifications even if there is a potential risk to their health or well-being. Should biomechanical enhancements be banned the same way steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs are today?
I don't think there are any easy answers to these questions. But I do think that we should try to grapple with these issues as a society while the technologies are still in their infancy.
Perhaps the solution will be implants for everyone, and we wouldn't even recognize our descendents a century or two from now.
Related non-fiction from Amazon.com: