Recommendations concerning Cyborg Technology
Cyborg technology - the extension of human biology
Ethical aspects of cyborg technology
1. Can a line be drawn between repair and improvement?
2. Cyborg technology's consequences for our view of human nature, human identity and the status of the human species
3. Cyborg technology and equality between human beings
The Danish Council of Ethics' recommendations on cyborg technology
1: A relatively light regulatory framework for cyborg technology
2: A relatively strictly regulated framework for cyborg technology
Cyborg technology - the extension of human biology
A new area of technology is under development. The technologies in this area have all been made possible by the fact that we can connect the bioelectrical signals of the brain and central nervous system directly to computers and robot parts that are either outside the body or implanted into the body. The common denominator for what we call cyber-technology is therefore the ability to convert the brain's signals into digital signals and vice versa. The partial translatability between signals from the brain and computer signals opens the way to a large number of uses. Perhaps it is only our imaginations that set limits for how much we can expand the abilities of body and intellect and how many new characteristics we will be able to equip people with.
Current research deals to a very high degree with developing so-called neuromotor prostheses - i.e. prostheses for disabled people that can be moved purely through the power of thought and which - in the longer term - their recipients will be able to "feel" through. But there is also ongoing research directed towards other types of uses. For example, the American military has a whole research programme designed to develop technologies that can expand and strengthen human sensory apparatus and, in some ways, human intellect too.
The idea of neuromotor prostheses is primarily aimed at reinstating lost functions with replacements that differ as little as possible from the real thing - the lost arm, lost vision etc. In this context, prostheses can also be virtual or digital. It is obviously an extremely advanced feat of engineering to make an artificial hand with the movement and sensors required to create something approaching the capacity for movement and feeling of a normal functioning biological hand. But, as mentioned above, prostheses can be virtual: When one has succeeded in decoding the brain's movement signals, then these signals can be directly connected to external electronic equipment such as computers, mobile telephones, television sets etc. And when technology becomes wireless, it may be possible to control electronic apparatus with the power of thought alone and hence without the use of either articulated language or an external motor entity.
In 2004, a research group in California succeeded in getting a monkey to control a simple computer game with the power of thought alone. The monkey first practised playing the game with a joystick whilst the researchers used implanted electrodes to carry out measurements in those areas of the brain from which "commands" relating to hand movements were transmitted. When the researchers had decoded the brain's signals and "translated" them into digital computer language, they could completely remove the joystick and the monkey understood within a few minutes that it simply had to "think" about moving its hand when it wanted to operate the simple computer game - and it worked.
Similar experiments had been successfully carried out previously. It has long been known that the brain's signals can be translated into computer language and used as control mechanisms for external machines. But the experiment with the monkey in 2004 was very graphic, because the monkey could immediately control the game with the power of thought without any special learning process. Like Dolly the sheep, who made the term ‘cloning' into public property, it is experiments like the one described that give a very clear picture of the cyborg-technological research that maps and decodes the brain's signals for the purpose of improving or expanding human senses, intellect and motor abilities.
Technologies for connecting the brain's signals to computers are called BCI's - Brain Computer Interfaces. The experiment with the money applied an invasive form of technology - namely electrodes operated into the brain. With people, up until a few years ago, only experiments with non-invasive BCI's have been carried out - for example with the help of a "helmet" with electrodes that can detect the brain's signals on the surface of the cranium. Disabled people and paraplegics can use non-invasive technologies to achieve a certain mobility for example using technologies that follow the movements of the eye on a screen. But invasive technology in which electrodes are implanted in special areas of the brain, are superior in two ways: Firstly it is possible to achieve a greater degree of detail when translating specific signals from brain cells into corresponding motor activity. This means - secondly - that the user can achieve a more intuitive control without first having to learn to direct his or her thoughts in certain (non-intuitive) directions in order to move a connected cursor or piece of equipment.
Only one year after the experiment with the monkey, the first clinical experiments were begun using corresponding technology on people who were seriously disabled and wheelchair-bound (spinal trauma etc.). As in the monkey experiment, electrode sensors were used that are patented under the name "Braingate" i.e. an entrance to the brain. Braingate is a small rectangular plate with 100 minuscule "Points". The points are electrodes that each measure a relatively limited number of brain cells in a given area of the brain.
The clinical experiment in 2005 involved a man who was paralysed as a result of a traumatic spinal injury. Braingate - the electrode was placed on the surface of his brain and could detect signals from the place in the brain from which commands for hand movements are transmitted (same area as in the experiment with the monkey). The electrode had to first "take root" in the brain, after which a number of experiments were carried out. The man's accident had taken place two years previously and the first result of the clinical experiment was to establish that the movement centre's "commands" were still functioning two years after the accident, even though the man had been incapable of moving his hands and thereby ‘exercise' the brain with feedback. Nonetheless, the command signals were still intact and could therefore be used to control external apparatus via electrodes and decoding software.
The above clinical experiment is one among several other experiments that have shown that it is possible to control a computer and external apparatus via the power of thought - with relatively high precision and without much practice. In this experiment, the man was able to move a cursor around in a number of fields on a screen almost as easily as if this had been done with a mouse. Tests were also carried out that showed that the neuromotor prosthesis could be used to control an artificial hand in using a television set and several other objects.
It is remarkable that relatively accurate control can be achieved via the "power of thought", even though only the brain cell signals in a small, limited area of the brain's movement centre were measured. According to researchers, this can be done because the "signal profile" changes significantly enough in the selected group of brain cells. That is, even small command changes (e.g. "press index finger down") results in sufficiently unique and detailed signals in the group of cells in which measurements are carried out, that they can be decoded into a relatively precise command and translated into the relevant external movement (cursor on screen, button on television set etc.).
The description of these few results in research into interfaces between the brain and computer are enough to glimpse the perspectives presented by this area of research. Because it's clear that if one can restore lost motor-sensory functions with the help of such interfaces, one can also strengthen human senses or even the human intellect over and above what we consider to be normal. As well as this, it might even be possible to equip the human being with completely new senses (e.g. infra-red vision) or completely new forms of communication (e.g. the "transmission" of thoughts). The development of neuromotor prostheses could perhaps lead to the development of extra strength or a ‘third' arm. The development of artificial sight - which is well under way - could perhaps lead to the development of strengthened vision or completely new ways of seeing.
The same applies in the opposite direction - that is via input from external systems directly to the brain. Today we have already come part of the way by inducing "artificial" feelings to the brain from a hand prosthesis, just as we have taken several more steps towards realising artificial sight. Is it possible that this is the start of a development through which we could eventually impart very large quantities of information and knowledge to the brain electronically?
One of the obvious questions in this context is, how exact and natural the translation between brain and computer language can be - that is, to what degree can we decode and translate the brain's signals or impart information to the brain? It's one thing to decode the signal patterns that result in specific movements, but something entirely different to decode and recreate representations of what we call inner states - i.e. thoughts, memory pictures, dreams or sensory impressions.
But even in this area - at least seen through a layman's eyes - research has achieved surprising results. For example, Japanese researchers announced in December 2008 in the neuroscientific journal Neuron that they had succeeded with the help of advanced brain scans and a computer in reproducing an experimental subject's sensory impressions without having prior knowledge of what the person was looking at. With the help of measurements, the computer reproduces a pixellated image of the word ‘NEURON' in the graphic variation that the person was actually looking at.
According to the researchers behind this experiment, their medium term vision is of the kind that we would otherwise expect from science fiction - namely that they want to be able to represent what a person is dreaming about, for example. And even though it is technically easier to read information from the brain than to impart it to the brain (the above experiment was carried out with non-invasive brain scans) the translatability shows that in principle it is possible to go the other way - i.e. to import information, pictures, impressions directly to the brain outside the normal human channels (language, the senses and the body).
According to an internationally recognised researcher in this area, José Carmena, the possible areas of use for BCI's (Brain Computer Interfaces) are literally "endless", as he says in an interview with the Danish Council of Ethics on www.homoartefakt.dk. The usefulness of the research will depend very much on how precisely the signals to and from the brain can be controlled. Will it end with the clumsy movements of a prosthesis and individual sensory impressions through the same prosthesis? Or will this develop into wordless communication - i.e. thought-reading - super-powers and the importation of large quantities of information or intelligence capacity to the brain, which one would otherwise have to train up or study in order to achieve? The ethical questions arising from this perspective of possibilities are many. In the centre of the ethical debate is the question of whether it is a good thing to improve and expand human abilities (senses, powers, intelligence, emotional register etc.) in a radical way with the help of interfaces between biology and apparatus in the form of computer and robot technology.
Ethical aspects of cyborg-technology
The expansion of the human being's physical and cognitive abilities with the help of ITC, that connects and merges directly with the biological, raises important ethical considerations and concerns.
The assessment of new technology on the basis of ethical and sociological considerations is basically about making decisions on the advantages and disadvantages intrinsic in a given technology, both in the short and the long term.
Since the results of such considerations can often differ radically from person to person, this is because the understanding of advantages and disadvantages in ground-breaking technology depend to a very high degree on completely fundamental normative questions - questions that relate to views on the human being's role in the world and what forms the basis for a good human life and a good society. Different answers to these questions lead to different answers to what one considers to be the advantages and disadvantages of a specific technology.
Cyborg technology is one of our time's groundbreaking technologies, and in its wake there will be fundamental normative discussions that bring the question of the meaning of life into the debate.
As a clear example of this one could point to the totally opposite views put forward by two prominent participants in the debate in this area. Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, Kevin Warwick, for example, has put forward the idea that it's completely okay if others wish to be the losers of the future - he intends to be a cyborg - i.e. a technologically strengthened version of the human species. In complete contrast, one could point to the American politologist Michael Sandel, professor at Harvard University. He talks about the value of us as human beings ‘welcoming the unbidden'. It is positive, according to Sandel, that we as humans do not have complete control of the abilities and qualities that we possess.
Warwick does not consider that the advantages of cyborg-technology stop at the improvement of disabilities and injuries. The motivation for remedying a disability is to create a better quality of life for the person in question. But it is precisely the same motivation that drives the development of reinforced senses, thought-reading etc. According to Warwick, technology can be used to create better, longer-lasting and experientially richer lives for human beings. Goodness and the meaning of life are measured in increased opportunity and capacity for experience and action. The meaning of life is to experience good things - in a nutshell! It will also be necessary, according to Warwick, for human beings to integrate with the artificial intelligence of the future, if we wish to prevent machines usurping our powers.
Sandel, on the other hand, thinks there is an ethically relevant difference between remedying injuries and changing the human being through radically new or strengthened normal qualities. The life of the human being is bounded by basic biological and existential conditions which technology today can break, with consequences that are ethically undesirable. Vaccinations or prostheses are not examples of breaching such boundaries, but super-senses are: Because with the development of amplified or completely new senses, the human being will reach a point where he/she becomes his/her own project, in every way. There will no longer be a predetermined ‘resistance' or a biologically significant starting point for the course of a human life. Sandel measures goodness and the meaning of life by whether the human being unfolds as a human being - i.e. within a framework of possibilities that is not endlessly elastic. The meaning of life is to be a human being - in a nutshell!
These two opposing poles in the debate reflect on the most central aspects of the ethical debate on cyborg technology - namely the disagreement over enhancement. The enhancement of normal abilities is used as an umbrella term in the bio-ethical discussion about technologies that will eventually be capable of improving normal vision, hearing, intelligence, memory, mood etc. in the human being. In this text, we will use enhancement as an abbreviation for ‘enhancement of normal abilities'.
1. Can a line be drawn between repair and improvement?
The discussion on the enhancement of normal abilities deals, amongst other things, with how a more or less exact line can be drawn beyond which technological support and help for human development can no longer be considered unambiguously good. Is there a limit to how much the human being should change its life conditions with the help of technology, irrespective of whether some would consider it attractive?
A typical discussion in this context would be whether one can draw a sufficiently meaningful and ethically relevant line between measures that are remedial and healing on the one hand and those that are improving and enhancing on the other.
At first glance, it could seem obvious that restoring a disabled person's mobility is certainly quite different from equipping a so-called healthy person with super-senses, super-memory or the like. Even the most ardent advocates for enhancement technology would admit that the former has greater merit than the latter.
But is it really the case that the former (healing and repairing) is unambiguously good in the ethical sense, whilst the latter (improving normal abilities) is something that is in itself ethically worrying? Those that support the use of technology for improving normal abilities often point out that there is a sliding transition between improvement technologies that we currently see as obviously beneficial and those technologies that could be used to improve our intellect or sensory apparatus in a more radical way. Many supporters of enhancement would also consider that cyborg-technology is good to use in the improvement of normal abilities, simply because they believe that human biology is fundamentally flawed and that, all else being equal, the human urge to overstep biological limits with a view to creating longer life with greater experiential potential is a positive urge.
According to adherents of enhancement, there are several other examples of a sliding transition between healing and enhancement. If a marked change in human biological conditions is ethically questionable, are bio-medical preventive measures also ethically suspect? Adherents of enhancement will often ask this question. For if "conventional" enhancements of human living conditions (such as the prevention of disease) is not in itself ethically questionable, why then are advanced biotechnologies (such as cyborg technologies) that can make us wiser or stronger, ethically questionable in themselves? Adherents of enhancement would say that there is no ethically relevant difference between conventional improvements (vaccines, hearing aids, glasses, dietary supplements etc.) and improvements achieved using high-tech, ground-breaking means such as brain-computer interfaces, for example.
Most enhancement sceptics would probably admit that there is no perfectly definable border between improvement technologies that are accepted without question (e.g. hearing aids and glasses) and improvement technologies that seem to them to be ethically questionable. But despite the lack of a finely delineated border, some maintain that there is an ethically relevant difference that is actually linked to the enhancement aspect.
One of them, as mentioned above, is the American politologist Michael Sandel. He believes that enhancement is ethically problematical per se. This applies to both quantitative techno-enhancement of normal, existing abilities (e.g. increasing intelligence through chips) and technology that gives the human being more radical abilities foreign to the human species(e.g. other senses and eternal life).
Sandal believes that intrinsic to all technology is a will to control or govern human nature, which - when it is used for enhancement - increases to such a degree that it will have devastating consequences for empathy and tolerance between people. He believes that if all humans become fully responsible for their own abilities and qualities, then we will lose the perception of being partially exposed to nature, which according to Sandel is an important condition for tolerating people that do not have the same advantages and abilities as ourselves. That is, if you are to blame for your own condition, then why should I care about you? Empathy stands and falls with the fact that the human being is a vulnerable or exposed being.
2. Cyborg technology's consequences for our view of human nature, human identity and the status of the human species
Cyborg technologies could create a radical change in what it means to be human. Of course, this would not be the first time that technology has changed our living conditions and markedly changed the way in which we exist in the world and how we relate to our environment. Since the Enlightenment and particularly in the 20th Century, technological development has been extremely rapid. It has moved so fast that in many areas our lives have changed radically from generation to generation - and it is precisely this that is perhaps one of the starkest differences between the last century and all previous epochs.
There are many areas in which the world today is practically unrecognisable compared with how it was before the modern technological revolution. A simple, illustrative example is the fact that 100 years ago our mobility was far more limited than it is today. Human contact was far more connected to a local area. The human beings that we lived together with and with whom we felt connected were those that lived close by us. Today we have contact with people that live far away from our own localities.
Cyborg technologies such as the transfer of thoughts or dreams directly from person to person (to mention one of the most far-reaching examples) will continue to "tear us loose" from our dependence on time and place - and even though cyborg technology appears to be of a completely different calibre from, for example, the use of automobiles in relation to its changing the human being, we shouldn't forget how radically the human's relationship to geographical locality has already changed as a result of modern technology.
If we turn our attention to cyborg technology's possible future uses, how will it change human identity and the human way of existing in the world?
Body and soul
What is at stake is nothing less than the human being itself and the relationship between body and soul. On the extreme Utopian wing of the debate on cyborg technology we find the so-called transhumanists. Some of these believe that it will be possible to completely digitalise human beings, to the extent that we will be able to transfer a person - i.e. transfer that which a human being understands to be its ‘self' - to materials other than the biological body (e.g. to a robot). This could be described as man's total separation from his biological foundation.
The notion of such a digitalisation of the human self is of course based on assumptions that are, to a high degree, up for discussion and which for centuries have been part of the philosophical battle concerning the relationship between body and soul. The transhumanist notion of tearing the human being away from its biological foundation is based on one particular important condition: namely that the self, the senses or the individual human being's identity is, in the final analysis, constructed from data or information and rules on how this data is connected and experienced. In reality, the human organism is viewed as a complicated biological machine. Or more correctly expressed: both a living organism and a constructed machine are ultimately systems of information and rules.
The idea that biological organisms and complicated machines governed by rules are one and the same has two main consequences. If it stands up, the theory means that it must be possible to develop humanoid robots that exhibit the form of consciousness, inner life and intelligence that characterises the human being. For according to this theory, it is neither the biological foundation as such, nor a special mental or spiritual substance that is crucial to the fact that we humans experience ourselves as having an ‘inner life' with personal identity and a soul. No, that which we call the mental life is rather an expression of the complexity of the system of information and rules that is hard-wired into the biochemical foundation that the human had developed from through evolution. But according to the theory, a complicated mechanical system developed by humans will also have a soul in this sense, if its system of information and rules is simply advanced enough to be able to create rationally constructed behaviour and a self-image of being present in a world that can be interpreted and understood intelligently. Quite simply put, it is not the material that the human consists of that gives the human being its special inner life, consciousness and identity - it is a collection of systemic rules and information that can be reproduced in numerous physical materials other than that which we know as biological life.
This theory also means that it must be possible to translate and duplicate the phenomena in human consciousness in places other than the biological body. There is of course a huge difference in being able to move a cursor with the power of thought via surgically implanted electrodes and the transhumanist Utopia in which the whole self can be transplanted into another medium. Firstly, there is a difference in complexity; it's one thing to translate relatively simple signals from the brain into a digital code, it's another thing to control the billions of biochemical signals in the cells of the body and brain that are a correlate for human consciousness. But perhaps there is also a difference in principle: it's one thing to create reproductions of individual consciousness phenomena (such as the picture of the word ‘neuron' mentioned above), but something entirely different to recreate the I or the self that holds the whole thing together.
The transhumanist's thought-experiment involving moving consciousness, personality or the self to a medium other than the human biological organism is instructive in what this philosophical problem is about. For the sake of the thought-experiment, one can imagine that it was oneself that was digitalised and stored in a body of whatever material, from which one could continue to experience a world around oneself. For the sake of the experiment, let's assume that all identity-bearing elements - one's temperament, memory, intelligence, feelings etc. - could actually be copied into this other medium. Then assume that this is actually a copy, that is, that oneself and one's existing biological body is not destroyed by the process but that afterwards there are simply two versions of oneself - one of which is just in a new form in which one is ‘inside another type of body'. Even the fact that in the thought experiment, one has to imagine oneself either experiencing the world from one body or another, expresses an immediate intuitive notion that there actually is and ‘I' or a ‘self' over and above the total quantity of consciousness phenomena.
The above should be enough to indicate what a massive change in human existence we are dealing with, if we as ordinary mortals try to follow the transhumanist Utopia a small part of the way. But the changes in our physical presence in the world that surrounds us are also something to keep an eye on, even if we only follow the vision for a short way. In other words: the I and the body's relationship with time and place could change drastically - even if we only take into consideration the technological developments that lie just ahead of us. The thought-experiment above shows that the human being's experiential centre (consciousness, the self or the soul) as we know it is tied into being in one place at a time. Irrespective of whether cyborg technology will change this situation fundamentally or not, it is clear that it will challenge our comfortable notion that we as humans experience our surroundings from a body that is our own privileged, absolutely private starting point.
Communication between people will perhaps be possible without the use of the ‘conventional' physical channels (voice and senses). One can imagine the transfer of ‘thought speech' - i.e. an absolutely discreet communication from one person to one or more other persons; in other words, communication beyond ‘the external senses'. One could likewise imagine direct emotional input from one body to another. The abovementioned Kevin Warwick has already experimented with transferring feelings directly from his own central nervous system to another person - in the first instance however using a non-invasive system in the other person.
Humans will perhaps have the opportunity to experience the world with senses that are foreign to our species. In other words, senses that Homo sapiens is not equipped with through the hand of nature. We are all familiar of course with sonar, telescopes, microscopes, x-rays and much more. But what we have to imagine now is that these sense forms can be linked with human biology - as faculties in our physical beings. In other words, integrated faculties that are foreign to our species.
Cyborg-technology also challenges the limits of individuality, as mentioned above. So much so that the British cyborg researcher Kevin Warwick says that humans are becoming more of a ‘we' than an ‘I'. Even when looking at cyborg technology, it is hard to imagine a human experiential world that is not tied in one way or another to one defined place and takes place in one defined time interval. But even if this fundamental condition might be unchangeable, then cyborg technology will create radical possibilities for change in the sense that one can have the experiences of others transmitted directly into one's own ‘inner world'. That is, experiences which were previously seen as completely private to the individual person: sensory impressions, feelings and thoughts.
Today we are used to the idea that we have to share our own experiences with each other in mediated forms through language and through our more wordless physical relationships with each other. With cyborg technology it will perhaps be the case that we can become each others' screens, each others' media: My wife's experience of the Great Wall of China can be ‘mine' in a radical sense if it is transmitted directly to my brain, even if I am in Copenhagen whilst she is standing looking at the wall outside Beijing.
The nature of the human being
The question of the nature of the human being is another focus point in the debate on cyborg-technology and generally in the debate on enhancement technologies. In the 20th century, the notion that the human being has a certain specific nature or being has been strongly challenged. It is a modern idea that the human is a being that individually and collectively in a certain culture and a certain society develops the world around it and itself creates meaning in it. There is no predetermined framework of meaning for human life. Nature, according to this thinking, is a construct of human consciousness.
Other contemporary thinkers argue that the human being as a species has a defined nature that transcends all cultures and consciousness. Even though consciousness constantly interprets sensory impressions, in the act of sensing, we are just like the animals. The same applies to the human being as a species. We have a defined biological clock that cannot be eradicated if we are still to be considered human beings. The average lifespan has certainly changed in the last 2-3000 years, but there are still limits. If men and women can reach the age, for example, of 200 years, what will happen to our sex drive? And even if Homo sapiens' average height could reach 2 or even 2.3 metres, it couldn't reach 20 metres, could it? An important point here is that the mutual understanding between people is based to a high degree on the understanding that we are all ‘made of the same stuff' or that we are individuals of the same kind - and this is a mutual understanding that would be undermined if enhancement cyborg-technology is given free rein.
The debate on enhancement with the help of cyborg-technology is playing out to a high degree on the basic assumption that on the one hand human beings are dependent on biological, familial, cultural and traditional circumstances, whilst on the other hand they have a freedom to relate to these circumstances in different ways and can even recreate these circumstances or move away from them.
The bio-ethicist Eric Parens, one of the international debaters in this area, describes the debate's positions in this way; that we tend to regard certain technologies on the basis of two frameworks of understanding: either a ‘creativity frame' or a ‘gratitude frame'.
On the basis of the creativity frame, one would say that it is a human characteristic that we try in every possible way to reform our living conditions and the world we live in through technological genius - both with a view to expanding the framework of human experience and for the sake of curiosity.
On the basis of the gratitude frame, one could say that technology could terminate basic human conditions, which are about freely relating to the ultimate nature-bound conditions that we as human beings have no control over. With cyborg-technology, the definition of who we are as human beings is no longer simply an interpretation, but an outright technological intervention or creation. The critical point in this thinking is that we have made the human being into an object among other objects.
In the opinion of the Danish Council of Ethics, both frameworks have some validity, but they are not mutually exclusive.
3. Cyborg technology and equality between human beings
If it really becomes possible to improve the human organism through amplifying the senses or the brain's functional ability, some people will improve the organism more than others. This will give them an advantage in most situations, for example on the labour market. This does not seem reasonable, but in reality, is this so different from today where many people also benefit from their genetic advantages?
In the world of sport there is a clear difference between artificially created improvements and improvements that are the result of genetic advantages. As regards the use of substances such as hormones or EPO, most people think it is unfair if some athletes take the substances whilst others do not. But nobody finds it unfair that some athletes naturally produce more hormones than others and therefore have a clear advantage. It is part of the rules of the game that you win because of your physical advantages, whether they are the result of birth or training.
Outside the world of sport there is a less pronounced enthusiasm for the idea that genetic advantages create winners. Genetic advantages are not something that the individual has earned a right to. They are given to the individual by chance and not through human planning or intervention.
Based on an ideal of equality, one could react critically if some people obtain enhancements with the help of cyborg technology. One could say that it is unjust if these people become capable of obtaining higher incomes and greater opportunity on the labour market than most others because of these enhancements. One might consider it particularly unjust if these technological enhancements cost so much that not everyone would be able to pay for them.
One could even say that this was a double injustice. Not only would the poorest have to accept even starker differences in wealth, power and opportunity than previously: They would also have to accept that these differences were the result of a completely new form of class division in society. There would actually be an upper class that could choose their abilities for themselves and an underclass for whom these abilities would still be the result of destiny's blind hand.
The Danish Council of Ethics' recommendations on cyborg technology
The Danish Council of Ethics believes that technology that integrates human biology with cybernetic systems and robot parts will give rise to significant ethical dilemmas. But the members of the Council have differing opinions on which uses of cyborg technology would be acceptable or desirable from an ethical viewpoint. The Council is therefore also divided on the question of what Danish society should do politically in order to control scientific and technological developments in this area. As a result, two different models have been put forward here for society's access to the development and use of cyborg technology.
The Council hopes that the two models can assist politicians in their decision-making. The Council also hopes that the recommendations will contribute to increased awareness by both politicians and interested citizens in an area of technology which, in the Council's opinion, will give rise to much popular debate on social and ethical values, now and in the future.
But first, an introduction.
The ethical debate on cyborg technology is characterised to a high degree by a dual attitude to the possible uses of this technology.
On the one hand, the ability to decode the central nervous system's signals and to translate these signals into digital language can be used to improve the quality of life for disabled people. A prosthesis, through which one can feel and which can be moved through the power of thought, is a prosthesis that can become a replacement for a lost arm or leg - a replacement that could end up being just as good as the original biological version. The Council is agreed on the benefits of such an intervention.
On the other hand, there is much that suggests that the same technology could be used to create improved normal abilities or abilities in the human being that are completely foreign to our species: enhanced hearing, higher than normal intelligence, infra-red vision, increased muscular strength, thought-reading and much more. It is specifically these possible uses of cyborg technology on which there is ethical disagreement. Is this something we should strive for, or not? Are these uses on which legal restrictions should be placed, or should the development of such uses be handed over freely to scientists and consumer demand?
Discussion on these issues focused particularly on two different questions:
- Will the use of cyborg technology for enhancing normal abilities undermine the conditions for fairness and equality between people?
- Will the use of cyborg technology have a negative influence on our view of humanity?
Technologies that connect human biology with ICT are already regulated in cases where the technologies are introduced as a part of patient treatment in the Danish health service. The clinical use of a prosthesis, an advanced hearing aid or artificial sight would fulfil both purposive criteria and a number of safety requirements. Within the area of health legislation, a prosthesis that one moves through the power of thought and can feel through, for example, could only be used for remedying an illness/disability in accordance with the definitions and praxes that apply to that area. And there will be safety requirements in the form of documentation of the relatively few risks and side-effects seen in relation to the illness/disability's degree of seriousness.
But some advocates for a relatively unregulated development of cyborg technology believe that the possibility of improving people's normal abilities does not belong under the aegis of the health service, precisely because these types of intervention and supplements cannot be characterised as the treatment of illness. If one offers cyborg technologies (e.g. amplified, integrated, artificial sight) on the public consumer market, it would not be subject to the same form of regulation. When this relates to cyborg technology however, in many cases this will involve relatively extensive physical intervention and, as things stand today, such interventions would probably fall under the rules that apply to carrying out relatively major cosmetic surgery. This means that a qualified doctor would carry out the operation and there are also stricter information requirements and stricter requirements on the doctor's risk-assessment against the expected effect. But apart from these safety considerations and weighing up of risks, there is no real regulation. This means that the individual citizen can have every type of physical intervention and supplement carried out in return for payment.
Cyborg technologies could therefore be put into practice in two areas, if one imagines them being implemented in Denmark today:
One area is the public health service, in which all services must have a healing or remedial purpose. It is in this area that one can imagine cyborg technologies that could be used to remedy injuries that cause disabilities.
The other area is the private market where, just as with cosmetic surgery, one can imagine cyborg-technological supplements for the purpose of enhancement, unless society decides politically to place special restrictions on this area.
The members of the Danish Council of Ethics are agreed that cyborg technologies should in time be subject to democratic regulation. The Council also believes that cyborg technology treatment forms should be monitored in order to ensure that new forms of treatment are introduced under democratic control. One model could be the same as the relevant procedure for artificial insemination. Here new treatment methods are scrutinised by the Danish Council of Ethics and the Danish National Health Service respectively before the political system decides whether a treatment method can move from the experimental stage to a general form of treatment in the health service.
But members of the Danish Council of Ethics have different opinions on how stringent or light the regulation should be. The Council has therefore presented the two following models for regulating cyborg technology. These involve a relatively light and a relatively strict form of regulation. The two types of regulation are based on the two assessments of the degree to which individuals' free choice of cyborg technology for the purpose of enhancement will be harmless, beneficial or destructive to important social values or to the life of the individual.
The two regulation frameworks reflect the two differing fundamental attitudes to the use of technologies that integrate the body and central nervous system of the human being with ICT with a view to enhancement - that is, for the purpose of improving natural abilities such as sight, hearing, muscular strength or intellect, for example.
1: A relatively light regulatory framework for cyborg technology
The recommended framework
The attitude behind a light regulatory framework for cyborg technology is that under certain conditions it should be possible for individuals to choose freely whether to use cyborg technology to enhance normal abilities such as sight, hearing or intellect. This free choice should however be limited by two considerations. Firstly, such technologies should not be permitted if they infringe upon the free development and private lives of others. Secondly, such major changes in the human body should only be permitted on condition that there are no unreasonable risks or side effects in connection with the interventions. It is important that sufficient information is provided about the product and intervention and that the person choosing such an intervention is aware of the risks connected with it. It should therefore be a condition under any circumstances that the current rules for quality assurance for medical equipment and implants are observed and that all surgical interventions are undertaken with an expertise that is subject to authorisation.
Within this light regulatory framework, cyborg-technological enhancement of normal abilities can be understood as a part of the private market, but under the protection of professional medical standards - i.e. the same rules that apply to cosmetic surgery. This will provide a certain assurance that the technologies on offer are quality-assured through established requirements on medical equipment and implants and that there is ongoing professional medical assessment of the degree of seriousness of the interventions and the risks that they involve. It is therefore desirable that the physician weights the risks of such interventions more heavily in cases of enhancement than in more conventional medical interventions which are undertaken solely for the purpose of healing or remedying injuries for people. The conventional medial professional ethic can help put a damper on developments, since the more wildly experimental interventions and supplements can be refused.
Conversely, and within the light regulated framework, one could also hold the opinion that it would be unfortunate if implementation of cyborg technology that is clearly and unambiguously intended for enhancement could be mixed up with the professional ethic that applies to doctors - whether the interventions are undertaken in the public or private sphere. The frameworks for these enhancement interventions and supplements should therefore be clearly differentiated from those frameworks under which the medical profession's healing and remedial activities take place. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, a clear differentiation should contribute to enhancement interventions and supplements not be understood as something that is supported by the public sector, even though it is not forbidden. Secondly, it is not appropriate that a medical professional standard should decide the outcome of a risk assessment between the purpose of the intervention and whether it is danger to the individual. This medical professional standard will always be linked to comparisons with healing measures. Cyber-technological enhancement interventions and supplements are not medical interventions that simply have less worthy objectives than conventional healing interventions. Enhancement interventions do not have a purpose, in the traditional sense that is grounded in medical reasons and these interventions are therefore in a completely different category than conventional medical interventions. They can be understood more as goods or services that can be freely purchased on the market. These services are only medical in a purely technical and physical sense since the knowledge and skill required to supply them is reminiscent of medical knowledge and skill. It should therefore also be possible to enter a contract between the user and the supplier of cyborg-technological enhancement on which risks within a reasonable framework the individual wishes to expose himself or herself to. For this reason too, the intervention should not be carried out by persons with professional medical authorisation, but by persons who have sufficient corresponding knowledge and who are possibly authorised by the state to carry out unambiguous enhancement interventions.
Ethical argument for the relatively loosely regulated framework
It should be up to each individual personally to decide the ways in which he or she wishes to take advantage of the opportunities offered by technological development. This applies insofar as exploiting these opportunities does not damage the life development or private lives of others. It also applies on condition that society takes into consideration the person's safety and whether the person is an adult and can understand the consequences of the choice that he or she is making.
Cyborg-technological interventions and supplements can give individuals significant advantages. If, for example, it becomes possible to upgrade one's memory, this will be an advantage in a society that is based on knowledge-heavy business and where efficient knowledge-processing is therefore critically important for the individual's competitiveness on the labour market. Nonetheless, it is not certain that interventions and supplements will create an inequality which is unacceptable or significantly different from the inequality that already exists. The abilities which each person is given by nature mean that individuals have widely differing conditions for pursuing certain life goals and desires. A person with high intelligence, all else being equal, has better opportunities in our society than a person with low intelligence. And differences in purchasing power are not a new problem either, because it is already possible, and should continue to be the case, that it is possible to buy one's way to a good education.
A society should do much to make conditions as equal as possible for people as they start out in life, just as a society is also there to ensure, to some degree, that social inequalities between people do not have unbearably negative consequences for the individual. In the members' opinion, these are fundamental values in Danish society, values which are supported by legislation and in the whole way in which Danish society is structured. According to the lightly regulated framework, it does not conflict with these fundamental values to give the individual the opportunity to choose cyborg-technological enhancements that lie within the borders of what is acceptable from a health perspective. On the contrary, one could say that all experience shows that high-technological innovation exposed to human creativity and the free market ends up as democratic technology in the sense that the technology becomes cheaper over time and therefore available to more and more people. It is therefore hoped that like modern information technology such as mobile telephony and the internet, cyborg technology will help to expand the circle of people who have relatively good development opportunities in a high-technological society.
2: A relatively strictly regulated framework for cyborg technology
The recommended framework
Under the relatively strictly regulated framework, cyborg technology implanted in or integrated with people should be used exclusively where this is clearly and unambiguously for the purpose of healing disease or remedying a disability - i.e. where the technology can replace naturally existing functions (sight, hearing, limbs etc.) for persons that have either lost these or lacked them from birth.
But there are difficult grey areas. For example the form of treatment called "Deep Brain Stimulation" in which electrodes are introduced deep inside the brain which is then stimulated with electrical impulses. This technology has long been used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, but is currently being tested in clinical experiments to discover whether it is useful in relieving or curing depression. The use of this and other forms of cyborg technology for treating psychiatric illnesses could perhaps lead to a slide in the customary criteria for when certain behavioural characteristics or mood states require treatment or where it is simply desirable to change them. This means that a development could be started within the health service that could, in time, lead to pressure in the direction of offering treatments that can no longer be said to be clear and unambiguous treatment of illness or injury related to naturally occurring functions. Cyborg-technological treatment forms should therefore be subject to ongoing monitoring to ensure that new forms of treatment are introduced under democratic control. One model could be the same as relevant procedure for artificial insemination. Here new treatment methods are scrutinised by the Danish Council of Ethics and the Danish National Health Service before the political system decides whether a treatment method can move from the experimental stage to a general form of treatment in the health service.
Under the relatively strict regulatory framework, it should not be possible - even on the private market - to obtain cyborg-technological supplements that can be clearly and unambiguously classified as enhancements (i.e. that exclusively improve normal faculties such as naturally good vision, intelligence, hearing etc.). If private clinics are to be able to offer cyborg-technological interventions and supplements, the same restrictions and the same valid treatment purposes as in the public system should apply. In other words, the private sector should not be able to offer enhancement interventions that cannot be offered in the public system. The relatively strictly regulated framework for cyborg technology should ensure that no black market can arise for cyborg-technological enhancement interventions, i.e. interventions that are clearly and unambiguously intended to improve normal faculties or provide people with faculties that are foreign to the human species.
Ethical argument for the relatively strict regulatory framework
The attitude behind the relatively strict regulatory framework for cyborg technology is that it would have a critically damaging effect on basic norms in our society and that conditions for a fair relationship between people's life opportunities would be damaged if it becomes possible for adult persons to purchase cyborg-technological enhancements.
Up until now it has been a fundamental condition for human life that our natural faculties - our physical and mental equipment - is something given, something that cannot be negotiated. The great human family and social development is based on this being the case. It is an ideal in our culture that we welcome everyone into the world, irrespective of whether they arrive with a club foot or a dancer's legs, with the intelligence of a genius or with severe learning difficulties. No one can be held responsible for the gifts they are born with. But this could be turned upside down by an unregulated market for cyborg technologies. It could easily become the prevalent attitude that "it's your own fault" if you are affected by a bad heart or a weakened balance nerve - "you could have bought the relevant enhancement in time".
Enhancement through cyborg technology could lead to an objectification of the human being in the senses that humans will be increasingly regarded as beings that design their own faculties. This view could also lead to a demystification of human life. There is something mysterious in human life. There is something in the individual that we cannot be made responsible for. This is also very important for mutual tolerance between people.
Since the most advanced technology on the enhancement market will always be reserved for the richest among us, wealthy people in the developed world will increase the advantage they already have over those that are economically less well off. According to this point of view, there is a great danger that extensive use of enhancement technology among wealthy people will create even greater differences between people and that the technology will only benefit those that have it implanted.
It is also important to stress that cyborg-technological enhancement will undermine another important human value - a value that can be described with the term authenticity. There is something invaluably human in the desire to develop oneself, in enduring and resisting, in developing and educating oneself, Just as there is something invaluably human in creating one's identity through unplanned experiences and encounters. Cyborg-technological enhancement is perhaps not in direct conflict with this framework for human development and experience, but objectively rational design-thinking is so much at odds with the conditions of authenticity that one can harbour doubts about the technology for this reason too.
Finally, it is important to consider that cyborg-technological enhancement could change fundamental characteristics of the human being as a species. The human is a being that is born and dies and which is dependent on a biological body with which each individual has an absolutely privileged relationship. These fundamental characteristics of the human are important for the empathy that people feel for each other. If as a result of cyborg-technological intervention, people are developed that have such foreign characteristics (e.g. thought-reading, a first person ownership relationship with several bodies, senses that are foreign to our species etc.) that one can no longer recognise them as fully human, then this will have incalculable consequences for the moral fellowship and respect for human life that the human species has built up throughout history. Sensible technological development should therefore stop a good way before we begin to make such radical changes in fundamental human conditions.
Updated 21st October 2010