By Daniella Gimbosh
Since time immemorial, humanity has strived to improve quality of life through both technological and biomedical advancements. Revolutionary developments in these areas, including medical discoveries such as vaccines, anesthesia and medical imaging, significantly increased the average human life expectancy. However, whilst such medical breakthroughs have brought us vitally closer to understanding and combating the elusive complexities of disease, scientists are continuing to push the limits of what being ‘human’ is considered to be. One such example is the rapidly advancing, yet largely controversial, area of research on the topic of human augmentation.
Human augmentation, or human enhancement, can be defined as “any attempt to temporarily or permanently overcome the current limitations of the human body through natural or artificial means” (Moore, 2008). An early example of such technology is the first implantation of a cardiac pacemaker in 1958 (Jeffrey and Parsonnet, 1998), however, the field of human augmentation looks very different today. The development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), which essentially allow enhanced brains to directly communicate with machines, as well as bionic body parts that replicate and restore human abilities, is just a glimpse into the incredibly complex field of human augmentation, which often blurs the lines between science fiction and reality.
Raisamo et al. (2019) provide an insightful opinion on the topic of human enhancement: “In the past, humans had to adapt to computers. In the future, computers will adapt to humans”. The advantages and possibilities of human enhancement technologies are endless – specifically, their potential to offer alternative solutions in the field of medicine and, in the future, possible cures for diseases is fascinating. An example is the hugely innovative company SolarEar, which provides affordable, solar-powered hearing aids for people who are near-deaf or hard of hearing, with a focus on countries of a lower socio-economic status (Clason, 2020).
Other expanding research includes the development of exoskeletons: “powered, wearable robots that can enhance the user’s strength and endurance” (Sadowski, 2014). The company Ekso Bionics centres around the development of exoskeletons for purposes such as rehabilitation, in order to help patients in need of physical therapy, and industry, implemented in fields such as auto manufacturing (Singh, 2019). The company’s aim to “enhance natural abilities and improve quality of life” clearly shows the ways in which human augmentation can be implemented for good in biomedical research. Furthemore, fields such as BCI technology have the potential to allow, as one example, a person with quadriplegia to mentally control a computer mouse, bringing unprecedented improvements to their quality of life.
However, with such invasive technological developments, it is hardly surprising that a myriad of ethical issues regarding safety and privacy arise. It is undeniable that the field of human augmentation is still very much uncharted waters and ‘new’ – so new, in fact, that an agreed, universal definition for it is yet to be decided (Raisamo et al., 2019). Due to this precariousness, there exists the possibility of unforeseen and unintentional consequences in the future.
A prominent ethical and societal issue of augmented technologies is privacy, or a lack thereof; the immeasurable amounts of sensitive information and personal data that technologies such as BCIs collect create substantial ethical concerns. While companies such as Musk’s Neuralink are currently focused on targeting neurological disorders by combating loss of sensory and motor function (Musk and Neuralink, 2019), Maynard (2019) notes that “the company’s long-term goal is to create an artificial internet-connected overlay to the brain that enables users to interface with future intelligent machines”. Thus, predominantly when discussing such developments in neurological implantation and technology, violation of privacy becomes such an extreme issue that Orwell’s “1984” becomes a terrifyingly real concern.
Furthermore, a large proportion of such futuristic developments clearly focus on an “internet-connected overlay”, opening up the daunting possibilities of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connected devices being hacked into. When considering that the devices in question may be prosthetics, neural implants or bionic body parts, the dystopian concept of “body-hacking” becomes a harsh reality. The complexity of the ethics surrounding augmented cognition, specifically in the aforementioned area of neural implantation, stretches from potential unknown side effects to the possibilities of social manipulation and terrorism (Tennison and Moreno, 2012).
Another ethical stance taken by critics of human enhancement is that focused on the vital difference between augmented technologies that aim to replicate human capabilities, versus those that aim to supplement or even exceed human capabilities (Singh, 2019). Whilst few ethical objections exist relating to the former category, which includes devices such as hearing aids for people who are deaf or hard of hearing and prosthetic limbs for disabled people, it is the latter category which becomes riddled with ethical controversies. Any developed technologies which artificially enhance and supplement human abilities above the norm, such as devices which artificially improve our cognitive skills or strength, as well as technologies that allow human abilities to be exceeded – sci-fi powers such as X-ray vision or superhuman speed – tread a very thin line of what is considered ethically acceptable.
Furthermore, these ethical issues quickly morph into ones that concern the political sphere. For example, there exists the possibility of using implants, exoskeletons or bionic body parts to create “super soldiers” for military purposes, an area that most nations would undoubtedly be ready to invest in – and many already have. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency belonging to the U.S. Department of Defense, is one of thousands of organizations focused on research and technological development of “vast weapon systems” (Jacobsen, 2015). The organization’s infamous TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) exoskeleton super-suit, although ultimately having ended its program last year, showed the tremendous possibilities and dangers that technology brings in various fields of human augmentation, and TALOS was most definitely only a starting template (Keller, 2020). With such extreme examples of augmented technologies possessing undeniable risks and consequences of a political, economic and military scope, the inevitable movement against human enhancement is ever-growing.
This increasing criticism of the concept of human augmentation is a stark contrast to the controversial, philosophical “transhumanism” movement, which focuses on protecting the rights and freedom of choice of individuals who choose to utilize such augmented technologies. Many radical transhumanist ideologies often seem to blur the boundaries between humans and machines (Iuga, 2016).
The challenge for scientists, arguably, is to find a happy medium. Human enhancement offers the chance to push the boundaries of scientific research and improve the quality of life of millions of people through innovative and restorative technological developments. However, as these endless possibilities of artificial implantation and augmented technologies will ultimately exponentially exceed human abilities, the use of bionic body parts may become the norm. The question becomes – at what point is an individual considered more machine than human, and at what point does science cross the line?
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