Rise of the Machines May 23, 2005
New technologies generally start being used as “benefits to humanity”. They are medical breakthroughs and other applications for social welfare. After they become more mainstream, though, the luxury applications of new technologies become more common. In this context, let us examine some of the concerns about the increasing interaction between mechanical technologies and biological organisms, most specifically people.
We are currently living in an age where technology is increasingly becoming integrated with our bodies, generally to alleviate pre-existing medical conditions. For more information, I have an article up at 90 ways that goes into a lot of the cool things going on in the medical gizmo world. I certainly have no problem with using technology to help paralyzed people move and interact. But unchecked development of human/technology hybrids is worrying.
I wonder where biology will end and technology begin. If replacement organs are grown in vats, is that biology or technology? Regardless, once implanted, is the organ the property of the grower or the user? In a market where the manufacturers of goods try more and more to dictate the ways purchasers can use their products, this question is more and more relevant. Can the entity that “made” the organ regulate its use, or promote transplantation for reasons other than medical need (larger lung capacity for athletes, as an example)? What percentage of a body would have to be original parts in order for human rights to still apply? If I have more metal than flesh, am I still human?
Even if we never need to be concerned about definitions such as what is human and what is robot, creating augmented people almost certainly will increase the gap between those with wealth and those without. Once there are consumer goods that can be worn, implanted, swallowed or otherwise made part of us, there will be a few people who can afford to become “better” and the majority of the population will remain mundane. Or, more frighteningly, rich companies could offer to augment its workforce, creating super workers that are little more than cyborg slaves.
And then there is the cyborg soldier. More than one military is working on wearable or implantable technology to make a super-soldier. Concerns in this area involve everything from the very notion of the ethics of waging war to the rights of individual soldiers who have been modified.
Certainly some the fears I have outlined are exaggerated, and the popular vision of cyborgs from movies and novels plays into these fears. But questions regarding the nature of humanity and the way in which technological augmentation could change human nature need to be addressed before these items become consumer goods. For a very thorough discussion of the cyborg issue, I highly recommend the essays contained in The Cyborg Handbook. More info is in the bibliography.