Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cyborgs and enhanced humans - should we worry?

Humani Victus Instrumenta: Ars Coquinaria (1569)
Five or so years ago Nigel Ackland was involved in a terrible accident while working as a smelter. His  forearm was crushed, and eventually had to be amputated. He's had a series of prosthetic limbs, but the most recent version - the bebionic3 myoelectric hand - is by far the most advanced. The mechanical hand is so sensitive that he can now use it perform everyday tasks such as washing his hands, typing, peeling vegetables, and driving.

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 (affiliate links):


  1. Sci-fi likes to assume that biology will be made obsolete by mechanical/robotic parts. While mechanical stuff can be extremely good at *specific* tasks, i'm not so sure an artificial arm or eye would be *generally* better than the one a normal human is born with -- not for the foreseeable future, until technology all starts to look like magic. Biological systems are marvelously effective. Self-repair, energy efficiency, cheap material costs, (made out of food) versatility, etc. will continue to be advantages of keeping any non-defective biological parts you were born with for a long time.

  2. In other words, i don't think we nor at least our children need to worry -- except in as much as it is fun to speculate.

  3. I agree that mechanics isn't usually as flexible (literally) as the biological. I suspect that we'll be seeing more and more biology-inspired and lab-grown biology-based replacement parts in the future.


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