Why on earth would anyone want a bionic implant?
Does the idea raise visions of Cyborgs and Androids? – Science fiction!
But wait – do heart valves count? What about implanted ocular lenses after cataract surgery? Artificial hips, cardiac pacemakers, dental implants?
If you think about it for a moment, we are already quite a biotechnological species. After all, a Cyborg is anyone whose body is aided by a mechanical or electronic device. Somehow it’s a linear evolution from tool use:
No teeth? Use a stone.
The digital wearable technology revolution is just beginning, but it will very quickly be replaced by the implant revolution. Most of what we currently think of as wearable technology can also be implanted. For example, Google Glass and its like can be replaced by contact lenses – and the contact lenses can be replaced by ocular implants.
We tend to think of bionics in terms of spectacular innovative devices, but the bionic revolution will probably begin with small, incremental changes related to health care that make life easier for people suffering from certain chronic conditions: devices become smaller, more portable, implantable, and thus less encumbering.
The recent development of implantable insulin pumps allows constant monitoring of sugar levels, to maintain a more even chemical balance for diabetic people. No need to test and inject several times a day and sugar levels are kept more constant. The process becomes much more automatic and unconscious, mirroring a normal body function.
The real challenge of bionics will not come from a radically redesigned RoboCop. It will come as a result of these small incremental changes, and will be largely ethical.
What are the Limits?
As soon as we start enhancing human capabilities, the question of access comes up:
- Are bionic implants a necessity?
- Who will have the privilege of such treatment?
- What will they have access to?
- For what purposes, and who will pay for it?
- Will any bionic alterations be obligatory?
- Will decisions be made by patients, parents, doctors or political authorities?
Some treatments that we develop for medical reasons might eventually be useful enhancements of human capacity, apart from their medical applications. They might respond to different needs: professional, security, health care… This is especially true when you think of combining bionic implants with the Internet of Things or Augmented Reality.
Think about adding enhanced heat sensors or night vision to our eyes, and think about these sensors being linked in a network. This can be very useful for soldiers and police, but what about making it available to hunters? Will such implants be delivered on demand?
When our cellular telephone is small enough to be inserted into your wrist, or embedded in your ear, will you be willing to have it permanently implanted?
Might some devices be implanted only for short periods of time to accomplish specific purposes? The tendency for personal electronic devices seems to be towards more deeply embedded solutions. How will we update implants to the latest version?
The following diagram shows an interesting evolution:
Personal electronic devices are becoming more and more integrated into our bodies – from a psychological point of view, we already think of them as appendages.
We have already begun to explore ways to connect our brains to external equipment, such as prosthetic robots.
Eventually, people who are missing a limb – let’s say an arm – will be able to control a prosthetic replacement by using brain impulses, almost as effortlessly as we do with our natural limbs. What if we could also provide such limbs with an “extra strength” or “extra delicate” mode? That would offer an enhanced manipulative capability that might give equipped people access to new or different professions.
Would other people want to accept such an enhancement for purely professional purposes?
What are the ethical implications?
As research progresses, it will become possible to control industrial machinery in dangerous environments. We will direct extra-planetary exploration vehicles or probes to the lower depths of the oceans by donning a helmet with electrodes that connect to our brains, or even without helmets. A day at the office might be spent driving a Mars Rover. A scientist could study the inner workings of a volcano while working from home. Could we network brains together to build a mining station on a distant planet?
When we wear contact lenses, and we forget to remove them when we go swimming, it’s a sign that our brains have integrated the lens as part of ourselves. Interacting with digital and more complex bionic devices might provide extrasensory stimuli that could change neuronal patterns or responses. Will they change our personalities or our self-image?
How can psychologists and neurologists be prepared for detecting and analysing these changes?
Controlling the Brain
The same technology that will allow us to use our brains to directly control complex machinery could also control our brains. This could be useful for epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease or other neurological disorders. At the same time, it calls up images of external mind control, dependency and surveillance. Questions of privacy and security might be daily issues, in a world where the Internet of Everything will include brain waves and bionic networks. When we add Augmented Reality to include complementary information projected onto the retina or inserted into the ear, we start to redefine what we mean by “human nature.”
Eventually, we will expand our natural capabilities beyond physical reality and into virtual realms that include other human beings and other species. Cyborgs, Androids or Humanoids, which represent a blending of mechanical and living tissues, might even change the meaning of “living human being.”
Different cultures will have differing readiness to accept human modification. Some religious beliefs could resist changes, and others might embrace them and even evolve into new ones that will consider that as an Ethos.
How are we going to deal with expanded notions of human diversity that include the different implanted enhancements that we might acquire?
From Implants to Grafts
One of the most advanced research areas is biocomputing, also known as “wet systems,” that combine silicon processing with living neurological networks. Personal electronic devices might one day become personal bio-computers, which are grafted rather than implanted in our bodies.
When we create prostheses out of living tissue, bacteria, or biosynthetic cultures, we can avoid problems of rejection and discomfort. In a medical context, people may be willing to accept this kind of device, but would they accept a grafted bio-electronic telephone? A grafted personal computer made out of living tissue might be less intrusive, even than a nano-device made of non-biological material. Are we evolving a new bio-connective system?
Our digital identities and our physical identities will become more and more interconnected, embedded in our DNA, with optional extras available:
- RFID chips, which have already been hacked, might be a thing of the past, replaced by enhanced neuronal transmitters. These might be necessary in the future just to enter a bank or to go to the office.
- Cash might disappear altogether, to be replaced by near-field bio-recognition circuits, connected to our bank accounts.
- Keys will be eliminated by the same identity technology we develop for defining our personal, unique, digital identity.