Sunday, April 13, 2008

The ethics of the cyborg



Steve Mizrach

Should there be a limit placed on the integration of humans and computers and electronic technology?


The computer, moreso than any other device in history, is now making possible the augmentation of the human being. For the first time, through electronic technology, human biology is no longer destiny. Through bionic prostheses, bio-implants, and bio-chips, electronic technology can be integrated into the human organism. Projects like the Human Genome Initiative are made possible by the use of massive supercomputers, allowing the operators of DNA sequencers to practice a new form of positive eugenics previously unrealizable by any propagandists for the master race[1.] New forms of human-computer interfaces (teleoperation, "electronic telepathy," etc.) are making possible human-machine interaction that rivals the most imaginative descriptions from science fiction. The computer now offers the human race the opportunity to transcend limitations of intellect, strength, and longevity previously "programmed" into its DNA by eons of evolution. The question is, is it ethical for human beings to be doing this, should there be limitations on the integration of technology into human life, and what will the social consequences from all this be? I will attempt to argue in this paper that there will have to be limits on the integration of the human and the computer (the biological and the technological), and a new "cyborg bioethics" may be necessary.


Though this technology seems science-fictional, it is no different from the state of recombinant RDNA research in the 1960s. At that point, the technology was only in its infancy, yet prescient social critics like Jeremy Rifkin were already starting to question whether all the possible dangers this technology would present were controlled for. Bioelectronics is already a real and recognized bioengineering discipline in Europe, and there are research laboratories already in place - the International Society for Molecular Electronics and BioComputing (ISMEBC) based in Hungary and the Electronics and Biotechnology Advanced (E.L.B.A.) research park on the Mediterranean island of Elba. The ELBA center aims to produce biochips and biocomputers within the next decade. Syracuse's Center for Molecular Electronics has had some success in utilizing bacterially generated rhodopsin for the formation of optically-encoded Random Access Memory (RAM.) Other research centers have recently announced breakthroughs in utilizing DNA as the substrate for a massively accelerated supercomputing process, and replacing damaged optic nerves in blind people with electronic technology that might restore vision.

There have always been electronic medical devices available for people ever since the Civil War. People are already benefiting from pacemakers, artificial hearts, prosthetic limbs, hearing aids, and hormone-producing implants such as Norplant. However, these recent breakthroughs in bioelectronics mean new technologies that may interface with the human nervous and other biological systems at a more basic level; nanotechnology and nanomachines may be able to effect biological changes at the intracellular level, causing changes in human biological structure that might be unprecedented. During the debates over recombinant DNA research, much of the public showed at the same time enthusiasm for the possibility of gene therapy curing previously unstoppable hereditary disorders, and also panic toward the possibility that this might be used for eugenic purposes, either to "cure" deficits in human attributes or perhaps "promote" improved ones. Bioethicists began to raise a host of issues pertaining to this research, ranging from the release of modified microorganisms into the environment to the disappearance of human difference. This debate has only become more confused with the addition of bioelectronics to the arsenal of biotechnology.

It is disturbing, but perhaps at least acceptable, for people to face the fact that they have a large degree of kinship with other forms of life on the planet, and that their genes might be interchangeable with all of its myriad species. However, bioelectronics research suggests a kinship between humans and computers that is perhaps even more troubling. While cognitive scientists and artificial life researchers have alluded to this kinship in theoretical ways, bioelectronics researchers are demonstrating it in a very practical way in the laboratory. The integration of biological and electronic processes suggests that they may be very similar in their mode of operation, and only based on different physical constituents. For most people, this touches on fundamental issues of what it means to be human. Most people assume that they have attributes machines do not (free will, emotions, a soul) but will these beliefs hold up as electronic technology becomes 'hardwired' into human organisms?

Numerous arguments for bioelectronics have been advanced, from the mundane (simple medical benefits) to the grandiose (cosmic purpose). Likewise, there have been critics of the nascent field of biocomputing, whose critiques have ranged from the practical (how well will all this work) to the fanciful (science-fiction scenarios.) In this paper, these positive and negative arguments will be reviewed and weighed. Though this is a novel arena for the applications of computing in modern society, it is one which humanity has been weighing in its collective imagination for a long time through literature and the arts. Ultimately, the paper aims to convince the reader that despite all the potential benefits of this new technology, there are real and substantive issues which go beyond its purported advantages for humanity and suggest it should not proceed without social concern and restraint.


History of the Cyborg Constellation:

It is clear that some of the earliest pioneers in personal computing had an agenda for the micro PC. Researchers like Alan Kay, Douglas Engelbart, and Ted Nelson saw the computer as an Augmentation Machine. Early applications in word-processing, electronic conferencing, and hypertext all revolved around the idea of the computer as a device for the augmentation, rather than the supplanting, of human intellect[.2] This involved more than just giving the individual access to information or the knowledge of their peers, as is often mentioned in connection with the "Infobahn." Rather, the computer 'counterculture' saw the personal computer as a tool for personal liberation, and for actually amplifying the speed, flexibility, and creativity of human thought. While AIs could do the thinking for human beings in some limited, specialized expert areas, what was even more important was that the proper computer interface could stimulate and improve human problem-solving itself. Computer scientists like Seymour Papert felt that utilizing tools like LOGO would help children attain the 'mindstorms' that would literally fuse new synaptic pathways, and in the future enable them to deal with even greater conceptual hurdles down the road in logic, mathematics, engineering, and science.

Interest in technologizing the human body did not begin with the invention of the computer, however. The concern with control and mastery over human performance began in the military (which invented standardized intelligence testing) and only later spilled over into economic production, with the introduction of 'scientific Taylorism' and its time-motion studies onto the factory floor. Originally, various ideas concerning the functioning of machines (cybernetics) made their way into the human sciences primarily as heuristic devices, spawning all sorts of conceptual innovations ranging from biofeedback theory to the double-bind theory of schizophrenia and mental illness. Information theory began to be applied to vexing problems in linguistics, sociology, psychology, and education. But the military and the captains of industry wanted more than just heuristics for explaining human activity. Where autonomous robots and AIs would not do (and unfortunately this turned out to be the case in a lot of areas), it became essential to "upgrade" the performance, efficiency, and utility of human beings in carrying out directives.

Science fiction clearly has been fascinated about the integration of the organic and the technological for a long time. One of the first incarnations of the artificial human was the robot or android, which first made its appearance in the movie Metropolis in the 1920s. But such robots were often simply purely electronic devices molded into a humanoid form; there was no organic component. However, by the 1960s, science fiction writers had turned to a more interesting imaginative construct: the cyborg. This being was a sort of hybrid, a mesh of flesh and steel, neurons and wires, blood and circuits. It was a human being partially transformed into a machine. From the Six Million Dollar Man to Robocop , the question posed by all these depictions of the cyborg was, how much of a human being could you replace and still preserve its essential humanity? While some of this technology remains the domain of science fiction, some of it is appearing here and now today, in the form of exoskeletons, artificial limbs and prostheses, biological implants (like Norplant), and electronic devices for restoring vision to the blind.

The history of eugenics, or human improvement, goes back centuries. Prior to the 20th century, most eugenic techniques involved discouraging unfavorable traits by preventing people with those traits from breeding (negative eugenics - sterilization and so forth), and encouraging improvement of favorable traits through ensuring those with those traits bred together (positive eugenics.) In the late 19th century, eugenicists like Francis Galton increasingly tried to define the 'science' of heredity, looking for ways to eliminate criminality, mental retardation ('feeblemindedness'), and sociopathy from the germline. But 20th century eugenics became discredited largely due to its associations with the German Nazi party and its master-race theories. However, with the formation of the neo-Darwinian synthesis (made possible by the discovery of DNA), it became possible to isolate and manipulate the techniques of biological change (the units of heredity which control the makeup of organisms) outside of the control of sexual reproduction. Sociobiological theories seeking to explain human behavior in evolutionary, hereditary terms began to reappear in the 1970s, but eugenics remained a taboo topic until the discover of recombinant DNA splicing techniques in that same decade.

Today in the 1990s these four constructs, eugenics, technologizing the body, the cyborg, and the augmentation machine, are reaching an unprecedented unification in the debates over biotechnology. People today are openly speaking about post-biological man. The technological and the organic are colliding in mysterious ways. Silicon neural networks are being modeled on the human brain and artificial life algorithms are simulating in microseconds the millennium-long processes of evolution and natural selection, while designers contemplate a new generation of computers based on or integrated with DNA to increase their rate of computation and replication as well as a host of devices to place biological activity (nervous system response time, hormone production, circadian rhythms) under technological control. Unfortunately, while the debates about genetic research have begun (even hailing back to the Asilomar Conference of 1974), fewer people are looking at or arguing over the more invisible and silent 'cyborgization' of the human being.

Positive Arguments:

Certainly, there have been a number of positive responses to this 'cyborg' phenomenon. There have been a number of AI researchers like Hans Moravec who have unabashedly declared that it may be time for carbon-based biological life to yield control of the planet to its 'mind children,' silicon-based life. They claim that the phenomenon, seen from a grand evolutionary perspective, can be seen as part of the grand design of evolution. The human cyborg represents a 'transitional species' of sorts, before the human enters total post-biological obsolescence. If evolution is theorized from an abstract perspective as an attempt to increase the information-processing power latent in matter, in the struggle against entropy, it is clear that hardware (artificial life) will eventually win out against wetware (organic life) since it is more durable and more efficient. These 'extropians' see this as perhaps bad news for the human race (although in the interim a lucky few may be able to 'download' their minds into better robot bodies or cyberspace), but in the long-term at least good news for the planet and apparently the universe[3...]

There are others who foresee perhaps a more peaceable coexistence for human beings and electronic 'life,' however. One recent theory that has been bantered about lately is that the human race may have reached the saturation point for economic growth, but this is fortunate since it has arrived in time for it to work on 'human growth,' i.e. the re-engineering of the human species[4.] We can 'graduate' from being victims of natural selection to masters of self-selection. It seems hard to argue against increasing human longevity, intelligence, or strength, since human beings seem to live too short a span, to make too many mistakes in reasoning, and to lack the physical endurance necessary to make great accomplishments. Indeed, there are those who feel that without technological modification, the human being might be simply too "shortchanged" from an evolutionary standpoint to accomplish the race's greatest dreams, such as peaceful coexistence, environmental sustainability, and space exploration[5.] The search for human perfectibility is one of the oldest of utopian dreams.

Some more sanguine realists feel that human biotechnology will be an inevitable necessity in light of coming changes. Human genetic structure may be irreversibly altered for the worse as levels of radiation, chemical pollution, and so on continue to increase. Global climate is likely to change drastically due to global warming and ozone depletion. People may be forced by overpopulation and overcrowding into parts of the world previously hostile to human settlement, whether in deserts, underground, under the sea, or perhaps even other planets. And then there are always the periodic extinctions on our planet, which many scientists now think may be due to regular collisions with asteroids or the reversal of the magnetic field. Pessimists who suspect many of these global changes may be irreversible sometimes have taken the position that the only way for the human race to avoid perishing as a species is to make some rapid technological changes in its biological adaptability[6].

Other scientists have argued that the sort of "hyperintelligence" made possible by bioelectronics may be necessary to save the human race from itself. Just as many genetic engineers held out the possibility that human beings might soon be able to 'splice' out the genes for aggression, antisocial behavior, and criminality in the 70s, today bioelectronics researchers suggest that augmented human beings may be able to cooperate with technology in unprecedented ways to reassert rational management of the planet and its resources, and stave off the irrational impulses of xenophobia and paranoia that might lead to its nuclear destruction. Ever since Comte (or Plato), people have argued that the best governance of the human race might be by an autocratic elite who possesses the wisdom, long-term vision, and breadth of perspective that the common man does not. Of course, to others, this danger of technocracy is a Damoclean sword hanging over the human future, and must be avoided at all costs.

Lastly, there are the postmodern theorists, normally noted for their antitechnological stance, who have taken a favorable position on the coming of the cyborg. The "cyborg anthropologists" have followed the line of Donna Haraway, who declared that she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess any day, in a sort of cynical repudiation of ecofeminism and the fetishizing of nature[7.] Haraway, a researcher interested in the links between humans, primates, and computers, feels that the cyborg is an important metaphorical identity for human beings in the 21st century, in that it resists essentialism (and thus racism, sexism, chauvinism, et al.) and helps to display the fluidness, hybridization, and boundary-transgression of postmodern identities. For Haraway, the cyborg is one way of the human race finally freeing itself from the culture/nature split/trap in which we have found ourselves.

Negative Consequences:

The critics of bioelectronics and biocomputing foresee numerous potential negative social consequences from the technology. One is that the human race will divide along the lines of biological haves and have-nots. People with enough money will be able to augment their personal attributes as they see fit (which is what they already do with techniques such as spas, plastic surgery, etc.) as well as to utilize cloning, organ replacement, etc. to stave off death for as long as they wish, while the majority of humanity will continue to suffer from plague, hunger, 'bad genes,' and infirmity. It's hard not to see the biological 'haves' advocating separation and/or extinction inevitably for their unmodified peers. Certainly, at a minimum, the two 'strains' of humanity will diverge in tremendous ways, perhaps as drastically as did Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal man in the prehistoric past, to the point where there may not be a single human species anymore. While neo-Darwinian theory suggests that such somatic adaptations are not inherited, at the level of monkeying with DNA, all bets are off. The germline is no longer behind the unbreachable 'Weismann barrier.'

It's inevitable that there will be those who see the potential of a sort of master race from this technology. Certainly, the military has already considered the possibility of the super-soldier, augmented by technology so that he has faster reflexes, deadlier accuracy, greater resistance to fatigue, integrated weaponry, and most importantly, lesser inclinations toward fear or doubt in combat.[8] Such soldiers could be created through combinations of biochemicals, bioelectronics, and DNA manipulation. They might have available arsenals of new biological warfare components, synthetically generated within their own bodies. But it's not clear that these 'cyborgs' would not turn on their creators. Indeed, there's no reason at all to think they would forever allow themselves to be controlled by inferiors. They could easily become a new sort of dominant caste, forcing the rest of untechnologized humanity into serfdom. Or perhaps they might decide simply to eliminate it.

For that reason, it's logical to suspect that one of the other dangers inherent in bioelectronics might be the ability to control and monitor people. Certainly, it would be easy to utilize bio-implants that would allow people to trace the location and perhaps even monitor the condition and behavior (through observation of EEG, EKG, and other biological readouts) of implanted persons. This would be a tremendous violation of human privacy, but the creators of human biotech might see it as necessary to keep their subjects under control[9.] Once implanted with bio-implant electronic devices, 'cyborgs' might become highly dependent on the creators of these devices for their repair, recharge, and maintenance. It could be possible to modify the person technologically so that their body would stop producing some essential substance for survival, thus placing them under the absolute control of the designers of the technology.

Perhaps the most cogent arguments against this technology originate from people who foresee tremendous possible risks toward human health and safety. Pointing toward the dangers already presented by technologies like Thalidomide, Prozac, silicone breast implants, steroids, and artificial hearts, these critics try to show that the autoimmune system of human beings will not so easily accommodate technological interventions and that widespread failure of organic systems may be the result. While there is widespread talk of improving the human brain through the use of 'skill chips' for implanting new knowledge, many people suspect that such interventions may be even more catastrophic because of the inability of the human nervous system to regenerate. Millions of years of evolution produced only so much capability within the human organism, and it may be fatal to technologically stretch its performance beyond those built-in limits[10].

While all these scientific criticisms exist, there are certainly equally eloquent ones coming out of the realms of traditional theology and bioethics. Many people foresee drastic consequences on religion from biotechnology, especially with regard to the idea of the intrinsic sanctity and integrity of human life and that human beings are created in the image of the Divine. Even those not spiritually inclined who still nevertheless possess the feeling that there is something within humanity which is not found in animals or machines and which makes us uniquely human, worry that the essence of our humanity will be lost to this technology. The idea that human beings are worth something regardless of their deficits, flaws, and infirmities, may be lost in the onrush to human biotechnological improvement[11]. Those who still possess doubts that human beings are nothing but biological machines made from 'wetware' fear the consequences of the 'Brave New World' that bioelectronics makes possible.

The Arguments on Balance:

The proponents of bioelectronics are inevitably correct in suggesting that it holds out incredible benefits for the human race. (Admittedly, those who argue for human obsolescence as a benefit should be discounted by any reasonable humanist.) Likewise, it is undeniably the case that some of the skepticism toward bioelectronics arises out of the superstitious attitude that people hold toward computers and electronic technology, as well as medical and reproductive procedures that they don't fully understand. However, they are incorrect in arguing that regulation and oversight will only hinder research in this area and prevent scientific progress in the relevant areas. In marginalizing the social and ethical issues generated by research in biocomputing, these researchers are showing a side of science that people have routinely expressed anger about - its refusal to accept social responsibility for unforeseen consequences. In order for bioelectronic research to progress, it will have to accept that the potential dangers are real, and that the concerns of some skeptics are valid. Otherwise, something disastrous might occur which might create a 'death-blow' for the industry, much as has happened with nuclear power in the U.S., and nothing positive will ever have been attained.


As many scientists have eloquently argued, once a technology is out there, you cannot make it go away. The genie simply will not go back in the bottle. There never was a technology that the human race ever abandoned wholesale, even the hydrogen bomb or other weapons of mass destruction with the power to wipe out all life on Earth. You might eventually be able to ban the production of H-bombs, but it would take a long time to kill everybody who knew how to make one or eliminate all blueprints and specifications for the design. While scientists discussed the possibility of a ban on recombinant DNA research at the Asilomar Conference, they knew it was not feasible. Even if overt public funding for such research was cut off, covert private funding would continue to flow from various interested parties, as has happened with even disproven technologies like cold fusion.

Thus, once invented, bioelectronic technologies cannot be wished away. Once given the opportunity to improve themselves in any form, human beings rarely surrender the opportunity, whether it's "pumping iron" or exercise to raise physical fitness, so-called "smart drugs" to raise intelligence, or vitamin therapies to stem the onslaught of the aging process. When human beings are offered the chance to utilize computers and electronic technologies within their bodies to achieve these same results, it is almost certain they will embrace them regardless of the risks. Based on this, it would be unrealistic to try and ban such technologies, however one might worry about their ethical and social consequences. A ban would only probably force them into a large, criminal black market, as illegal drugs and weapons already have been.

A new "cyborg bioethics" may be necessary. While it cannot be possible to foresee all the consequences resulting from bioelectronics, most scientists are already aware of what some of the major dangers are. Researchers in biocomputing may be required to adopt protocols on acceptable research with human subjects, much as genetic engineers did back in the 1970s. In drafting bioethical imperatives for bioelectronics research, it will probably be imperative to consider the concerns of groups such as the religious community, since to ignore their concerns simply out of the insistence that they are merely acting out of "anti-science" ignorance will leave an important group "out of the loop" of this research. This is uncharted territory for the human race, and it is the first time in which our own "built environment" may be directly incorporated into our own sense of self and human nature. Our own biocomputers (the human mind) evolved under a very specific set of evolutionary circumstances, after all, and they may not be equipped with the foresight and moral sense to keep up with the accelerating pace of technology.

Since this is the case, it is probably imperative for society to assert that the scientists and engineers charged with creating this new technology exert the proper amount of social responsibility. Safeguards will have to be insisted on to prevent the possible negative impacts discussed above, and many of these things will have to be built in at the instrumental level, since they probably cannot be achieved only through policy and regulation. Critical public awareness and vigilance, of the kind already shown by Jeremy Rifkin and the Foundation on Economic Trends with regard to biotechnology, will be essential. But ultimately, bioethicists will have to grapple with the fundamental issues involved, which touch on aspects of human existence and human nature which reach to the core of what most people think is involved in what it means to be human, and this will not be an easy dilemma to resolve.


1. Kevles and Hood, 1992, pp. 6
2. Information for Industry, Inc., 1963, pp. xiv
3. More, 1994, pp. 3
4. Paepke, 1993, pp. 9
5. Wade, 1977, pp. 58
6. Banathy, 1993, pp. 18
7. Haraway, 1991, pp. 224
8. Gray, ed., 1989, pp. 15
9. Crary and Kwinter, 1994, pp. 113
10. Lynch, 1982, pp. 28
11. Rifkin, 1984, pp. 181


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