Cybernetics: An Uneasy Blending of People and Machines

 

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 2000 issue of Dignity, the Center’s quarterly publication. Subscriptions to Dignitas are available to CBHD Members. To learn more about the benefits of becoming a member click here.

 

As we enter the third millennium, much attention is focusing on the tremendous advances in the area of genetics. Less well-known, but equally staggering and with serious implications, are developments in neuroscience, molecular engineering or "nanotechnology," and cybernetic technologies. Cybernetic technology facilitates a "blending" of human beings with machines. Such a blending occurs not only when parts of the body are replaced by mechanical devices, but also via direct connections between the human brain and silicon-based devices, such as computers. To the extent that we depend on some mechanical or artificial device (filled teeth, glasses or contact lenses, hearing aids, pacemakers, etc.) for our bodies to properly function, we are "cyborgs" or "cybernetic organisms"-combinations of humanity and technology. The new developments in cybertechnology, however, could usher in vastly expanded potentials for accessing information, for connecting and participating in virtual worlds of our own design, for redefining how we experience our world, and perhaps even for thinking itself.

Recent advances highlight the magnitude and rapidity of developments in the field of cybernetics. During the last decade, investigators at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen, Germany have been successfully growing connections between the neurons of several different species of animals using transistors to allow two-way communication through the silicon-neuronal junction. In 1997, researchers at the University of Tokyo attached a microprocessor to the motor neurons of a cockroach-enabling the researchers to control the movements of the insect against its will. In 1999, scientists at MCP Hahnemann School of Medicine and Duke University collaborated to produce a rat with electrodes implanted in its brain which allowed the rat to open a door merely by thinking about it. Also in 1999, members of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California-Berkeley were able to measure the neuronal activity of 177 cells in a portion of a cat's brain and, by processing these signals, to recreate images of what the cat was seeing at the moment.

In January of 2000, the Dobelle Institute reported successfully using neural implants to help a blind man perceive images for the first time. Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia reported that two patients with "locked-in syndrome," a state in which the brain is conscious but cannot produce any movement of the body, had been enabled to communicate with the "outside world." In these patients, neurons were grown into brain implants (electrodes), thereby enabling the patients to use their minds to control a cursor on a computer screen.

It is speculated that brain chips or implants will soon be available for use by the non-disabled as well, providing direct access to the Internet and other electronic databases. Such devices are attractive in that they would provide easy access to an incredible volume of information, allowing anyone to be an "expert" in any number of areas. Financial monitoring and trading of commodities would become more instantaneous, and some have speculated that to stay competitive in the near future, businesspersons will have to "get connected."

Is such re-wiring of the brain in our best interests? Indeed, access to information might be made easier, but people will still require the skills for analyzing and sorting out vast amounts of data. It is important to recognize also that access to information does not necessarily impart wisdom in how to use that information. A myriad of questions arise: To what degree does such connectedness erode our privacy? How much of our thought processes might be read by others, especially those who would love access to our minds (e.g. merchants, the government)? Indeed, how will we be able to filter out images and instructions that we do not desire? What will be the effect of electronic viruses on our minds? How will the presence of these new connections alter our ways of thinking and thus, in essence, our very selves? Will not the temptation of living in virtual worlds be too strong for many to withstand, leading some to mental addictions (of which pornography is an obvious example)? Do we not risk the development of two classes of people: those cybernetically augmented and those who are not? Is this Faustian offer for knowledge and power too costly in terms of our humanness?

The potential to assist those with severe disabilities is remarkable and wonderful. However, as with genetic manipulation, we must ask the question: Is there an ethical difference between the repair and/or restoration of lost function and the augmentation of "normal" capabilities? Even if there is a difference, can solid arguments be put forth which justly limit such technologies for the purposes of treatment only? Further, can we even make clear distinctions between what constitutes treatment of a disease or disability and what is "simply" self-improvement? And if some improvement is appropriate, what distinguishes legitimate improvement from manipulative alterations of people for sinister or even benign purposes? These are critical questions to which we must prepare ourselves now to answer. The consequences are too far reaching for us to address this issue merely in a reactive fashion.