Bioethics of Cybernetics

Transhumanism: The Bioethics of Cybernetics

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Following a 110-foot fall, athlete Craig DeMartino was lucky to be alive at all, but for a rock climber, the loss of his leg in the process no doubt put a damper on that fact. This was until inventor Kai Lin created a prosthetic leg based on his observations of the locomotion of mountain goats. This prosthetic allowed DeMartino to not only reclaim much of his former abilities, but in some respects, also to surpass them. For instance, he found that he could rest all of his weight on his prosthetic leg, and it would never get tired. The shape and the mechanics of the limb were also, being based on that of a mountain goat, more conducive to climbing than that of a human limb. It was at this point that many started to wonder: at what point do we start to see the human body as, quite frankly, inferior, to the point where people might actually start replacing healthy body parts with technology?

Preludes To Cybernetics

This kind of technology, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad; it merely provides options. It is what is done in response to those options that helps or harms people or wider society as a whole. Take glasses or contact lenses, for example. If you had very serious myopia (short-sightedness), a thousand years ago, the chances are you might find yourself locked away in some monastery somewhere slowly going blind illuminating manuscripts by candlelight, that being all you would have been good for in medieval society. However, the price we pay for the proliferation of simple lens correction is that natural human vision has declined rapidly as we become more and more dependent on it to see and to function at all. Treatment for myopia and similar visual impairments is not limited to non-invasive techniques either, demonstratable by, for example, the rise in laser eye surgery.

Neural Cybernetics

Perhaps the most terrifying prospect, though, is the idea of merging human cognition with artificial intelligence (AI). Already, the two regularly need to work in conjunction for modern society to function at all, as our infrastructure becomes more and more dependent on computers for every possible function, from satellite navigation for global logistics to calculating staff salaries or corporation tax. On an individual level, internet access has become a necessity in order to go here or there or to interface at all with the tasks of day-to-day life. How much easier would it be to make access to all this information a permanent feature of the mind by way of some kind of implant into the human brain, one might wonder. Of course, like any computer system, surely then that would mean the mind itself could then be open to hacking, and if the prospect of someone else invading your mind without your consent alarms you, then you are having the correct reaction to this idea.

Then Again…

The essence of the transhumanist movement is to promote human potential via the expansion of its physical and neurological capabilities. As Stan Lee once wrote in Spiderman, ‘with great power comes great responsibility. Cybernetics is no different. Just because we can, does not mean we should, and if we do, how will we ensure we do it in a way that does less harm than good? These are by no means easy ethical questions to answer.